While many of us certainly would agree that age (or shall we say maturity?) comes with a certain charm of its own – especially when it comes to houses. We’d also admit that as the years pass, creaking joints, a certain amount of sagging, and the occasional leaking roof all come with the territory. Old houses make fantastic homes but not only do they ooze charm they can also ooze dampness, mould and (as with so many areas in life) the care costs in the long term can be prohibitive. One particular bête noire of many an owner (or would-be owner) of the more mature property is the flat roof. These flat featureless expanses can be found in very old properties as well as having recently seen something of a resurgence in popularity thanks to modern technologies and sleek, twentieth and twenty-first century architectural styles. They do however have a poor reputation for being intrinsically problematic; this applies, as in so many areas of life, to the baby-boomer generation of homes in the UK.
The Housing Baby Boom Generation
Massive building programmes after the Second World War were undertaken and while it may seem unfair to say that the builders of these properties used the ‘build ’em cheap, stack ’em high’ approach, there’s not really any other way to say it. Cheap was the key principle for both private developers and local authorities building new, shiny, modern estates in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Flat roofing is cheaper, simply by virtue of the fact that the structure is simpler and quicker to put in place than a traditional pitched roof. While homes that were built in this era have often matured gracefully, being generous in both the interior and exterior space department, poorer building practices has largely led to flat roofs in this older, more experienced type of housing, failing rather too quickly. So what are the solutions?
The Final Solution?
The obvious solution to those of us who have grown up with the mantra of ‘flat roofs are bad’ is euthanasia. That is, to replace them completely with a pitched roof on the basis of the mantra that ‘pitched roofs are good’. In reality there is nothing better or worse about a flat roof and in some respects they have something to recommend them compared to the pitched variety. Thanks to poorly constructed flat roofs, poor care and maintenance over the years can lead to leaks, which left unresolved can lead to the failure of the roof in the longer term. In the case of a poorly cared for roof the long term can be as little as ten years. The key point to note here is ‘poor care and maintenance’. Older flat roofs may still be covered in less robust waterproofing materials (which in the UK usually means the pitch/felt covering that is commonly seen on older mid-twentieth century buildings). The original covering has almost certainly already gone west at least once, in the case of the older generation of post war housing, and is likely to have been replaced by a similar covering. Only in recent years have new, far more durable options become widely available, including fibre glass and EPDM rubber roofing.
Growing Old Gracefully and Staying Waterproof
The two biggest advantages of a flat roof are that they are a) relatively cheap to install and b) easy to access for inspection and repair. For those with flat roofing that is currently in good condition the inspection part is important. While many of us may not be comfortable with merrily leaping around on pitched roof, accessing a flat roof is relatively simple and once up there it’s pretty safe. Inspection should be made for areas of pooling (standing water) or evidence of recent pooling (dried algae, moss or watermarks are good clues). If a damp patch is apparent in any rooms below check for tears at joints in the material, around edges and near flashing, gutters and drainage. For traditional pitch/felt roofing, DIY kits can be sourced for repair, although professional firms, such as Marcus Roofing, may be preferable as a level of expertise is required to effectively repair larger areas of damage. In many older flat roofs a new waterproof membrane is likely to be advisable. Modern EPDM has been in use (and lasted) for forty years in the US and is now increasingly common in the UK. Less susceptible to heat and cold (or extremes of either) this type of covering also can be supplied in a single sheet, cut to the size required, which removes the need for joints (potentially vulnerable to leaks).
Ultimately older houses can be beautiful homes, but like the best of us, a little TLC and some appropriate waterproofing become even more important as time passes in order to help them age gracefully.