Treat your gutter with respect

Autumn is the time to check up on drainpipes, writes Josie Barnard
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Burglars love them, but most householders ignore them until they get blocked by falling leaves. Autumn is the time to consider your drainpipes. According to Dyno-Rod research, 50 per cent of the population don't bother, while just 12 per cent do an annual clear-out.

Treve Rossoman, architectural curator at English Heritage, says drainpipes should be treated with respect. "Any broken guttering will quickly cause tremendous problems in your brickwork. And if you've got a house where the main gutter runs through the roof to the back, you probably won't know about a blockage until your roof collapses."

A Dyno-Rod survey last May found that property surveyors would like to see more potential house-buyers checking their drainpipes prior to purchase.

Meanwhile, Treve Rossoman is appalled at the way builders have played fast and loose with plastic drainpipes since the war. "Frontages have been ruined by houses being converted into flats. If bathrooms are at the front, they smash a hole through that wall ... it's cheaper than taking the waste round to the side. It's an abomination."

By contrast, Modernist architects have gone to some lengths to hide drainpipes, thereby contravening their honesty-is-the-best-policy rule.

Michael Johnson, an architect, is bemused. "Since the Beaubourg Centre in Paris, much architecture has been about expressing a building's functions. Yet the Beaubourg codes all its external services pipework in bright primary colours, except the drainpipes."

In their first historical incarnation, drainpipes were dominating features. The medieval equivalents were lead-lined wood gutters plus magnificently carved gargoyles that spurted rainwater through stone monster mouths, safely away from church walls.

It was the Georgians who started the drainpipe hokey cokey, in and out of sight, ordering them, with the 1724 Building Act, round the back of houses lest they ruin the clean look of facades. But even the Victorians, for all their table-leg-covering modesty, did not try to hide drainpipes completely.

Now we have become coy. "Look at Stansted Airport," says Michael Johnson. "There is no visible evidence of how the rainwater gets from the roof to the ground."

For some people, though, drainpipes are a point of pride. The Charles Brooking Collection at the University of Greenwich has more than 100 rainwater heads dating from between 1800 and 1960, including examples used by builders to date their work.

For a huge variety of modern drainpipes, head for the Building Centre at London's Covent Garden. "As far as I know," says the information manager, Darren Jarvis, "this is the only place in Britain where you can come and look at an extensive collection of contemporary drainpipes. Even high- class builders' merchants tend to stock only two or three plastic makes."

As well as handing out catalogues for copper, flower-blue and ruby-red drainpipes, the Building Centre offers advice. They can tell you about Guardian Security Pipes, "flush to wall and immovable" to flummox burglars, or, if you are more concerned with aesthetics, put you in touch with suppliers such as J & JW Longbottom of Yorkshire, who stock cast-iron drainpipes.

But cast iron doesn't come cheap. A job lot of four downpipes, 20 metres of half round guttering and four rainwater heads will cost around pounds 150 in plastic. Double that figure for basic cast-iron equivalents, and treble it if you want plenty of fancy bits such as turret-style hopper heads and fleur-de-lis earbands. Treve Rossoman decided his bank balance couldn't stand such an outlay.

"My house is 1904, but someone put square plastic drainpipes on. I painted them dark green, which is, along with dark red and blue, a traditional colour for 19th-century guttering and downpipes."

Of course, the best way to appreciate the variety of drainpipes is simply to look around. My personal favourites are those at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, where gargoyles overlook pedestrians. But as part of a Neo-Gothic building, the gargoyles are toothless, literally. Their mouths are closed; rainwater gushes down black drainpipe tails.

Charles Brooking Collection, University of Greenwich Dartford Campus (0181-316 9897). Call for appointment, a week ahead to see specific examples). The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT.

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