Bermuda Rooftops: Pretty, and Pretty Effective

Let’s hop off the innovation train for a moment, people! It’s so easy to get carried away with the “gee whiz” of new technology and approaches we often fail to look behind us to see the elegant and ingenious solutions already in place, right under our noses.

Andrew Leidner sent along this marvelous link to that depicts Bermuda’s four-century old solution for collecting fresh water while withstanding hurricane conditions.

Which reminded me of an episode I’d seen on This Old House last year, in which Norm and friends constructed one of these beautiful, rain-catching rooftops. Because there is no fresh water source on the island, effective rainwater collection is paramount. By law, every house in Bermuda must collect 80 percent of the water that falls on its roof.

Laying limestone slates for Bermuda rain catching rooftop

Laying the Slates: Norm Abram hands lead mason Dilton Cann a slate to mortar in place. Photo: Charles Anderson via


To build a traditional Bermudian roof, masons mortar rectangular slabs, or “slates,” of local limestone to each other over a hip-roof frame. Then they apply more mortar over the top and edges of the slates, filling the joints and giving the roof its traditional stepped shape. Along the lower edges of the roof, they sculpt a long concrete trough for a gutter, which directs rainwater to a pipe that filters it and funnels it into a cistern buried alongside the house. Then they give the whole roof structure a thin wash of cement. Finally, to keep rainwater as clean as possible on its way to the cistern, they paint the roofs with special nontoxic paint (a modern replacement for traditional lime wash), which must be reapplied every two to three years.

The result is a strong, nearly self-supporting structure that holds its own against the weather while sending clean water into the tank. It’s the best and cheapest way to supply fresh water — up to 30 gallons per person are needed per day — to the 60,000-plus residents of this tiny island nation. It’s also what accounts for Bermuda’s signature white rooftops, perfectly placed amid the palms and set off by the pastel houses for which the island is famous.

Now, I’m sure the construction methods used here in suburbia would not withstand limestone slabs on the rooftop…but why couldn’t someone devise a suburb-friendly fake-plastic-composite version with the same charm? (I’m trying to shake the vision of something that looks like vinyl siding on my rooftop.) And think of the side benefit…we’d be done with the nasty job of cleaning gutters!

6 replies
  1. Pat Norton
    Pat Norton says:

    I was just in Bermuda. I was there for the first time. It is just as beautful as people say it is. The roofs are as white as can be. But I did see one building that had a pink roof. I was wondering if any one knew why that was? Please email me at

  2. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I think we in California need this technology since we do live in a desert. Our government officials have dropped the ball long ago. We have been a desert from the get go and now one year of water is what we have.
    We need to stop spending water we do not have and stop importing it. We nee to implement Bermuda style roof tops , cisterns etc. plus Australian water management not 11th Hour Jerry Brown technology!

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