SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Of Flat Roofs and Pointed Heads
By Dave Kiffer


February 27, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - Earlier this year, I was mesmerized by the reflection of water as my flight home sailed over the First City.

No, not from the shimmering waves of Tongass Narrows. I was awe-struck by all the rooftop swimming pools in Ketchikan.
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I know you're thinking that I've really gone wacky this time. Ketchikan is not some big city, filled with high rise hotels with rooftop health clubs and pools. The only time Ketchikan has multiple outdoor pools on display is when we've got a half-dozen cruise ships in port in the summer.

But I kid you not, the 2005 Great Fall Rain Festival had left a huge number of rooftop pools here in Our Fair Salmon City.

Okay, you can't swim in them. They are only a couple of inches deep (if you're lucky). And since they usually overlay a wee bit of the black roofing tar, they probably wouldn't offer the most "healthy" dip anyway.

But, that said, rooftop swimming pools do say a lot about a community.

Like why in the world would some place that gets so much rain have so many flat roofs, especially on our great public buildings?

We do it because - just like the young woman who expects to reform the habitual ladies man - each time we think it will be different. We look at designs and hire experts and we are convinced that we can come up with a flat roof that won't allow the water to pool up and leak.

And then, despite our best efforts and "world class engineering" the water pools up on the roof and eventually starts leaking as the water seeks to return to the sea.

We make light of it. We laugh about the "atrium fountain." Then we get out the buckets.

If we lived a little farther north in the true land of ice and snow, flat roofs wouldn't even be an option.

Flat roofs collect snow, the load becomes too much and they collapse. Every winter we read about flat roofs collapsing hither and yon. If you live in snow country, you just don't go there, no matter how much "engineering" you pay for on a project.

But we don't usually get that much snow here so it's not much of a consideration. I say "usually" because a few winters back we did and the roof of the Saxman Community Hall caved in.

Normally, we only have rain to deal with in large quantities, so we assume we can engineer a solution to drain the flat roofs with causing pooling (and leakage) or creating pedestrian-killing down spouts. Even though we have lived in the Big Drippy for more than a century we still persist in believing we can somehow "manage" the deluge. We are almost always wrong.

Of course, we have plenty of pitched roofs that also leak. We live in a rain forest. Get used to it.

It's just that there is less likelihood of a leak if the water isn't pooling on the roof, looking for the inevitable crack and the siren call of gravity and the sea.

I understand that we want to build big box buildings because they are more efficient space-wise. Besides, who wants to be heating up all those vaulted ceilings with heating oil at $3 a gallon?

But if you're going to increase your "vertical leak likelihood percentage" by 5,550 percent then maybe all that more efficiently used space is not going to be such a bargain after all. "Square" space does allow for a better bucket placement though, but that is little comfort.

Perhaps part of the "let's build a box" allure is simply laziness on our part. I'm pretty sure that a flat roof is easier to build than a pitched one. I know for a fact that it is a lot easier to re-tar a flat roof than it is to re-shingle a pitched one.

And you never can discount the need for some Ketchikanites to take the path of least resistance - like the water pooling patiently on the roof until the right crack develops.

My favorite "path of least resistance" leak story involves an acquaintance who bought a dowager home on Water Street a few years back. It was a stately white edifice that once was one of Ketchikan's finest houses before it suffered the inevitable decline as its owners aged beyond their ability to maintain their house.

There was a persistent leak in the kitchen area and the new owner tried several roof plugs to no avail (this house was not flat-roofed, it was significantly gabled like something out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story).

Finally, the new owner gave up and tore into the kitchen ceiling to attack the leak. Sure enough, there was a leak from the roof, probably through some poorly placed flashing on one of the many, many, many "roof jobs" over the years.

The previous owner had apparently given up. Under the leak - inside the sealed ceiling - was a very large, very full bucket.


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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