What is a Scupper in Architecture?

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

How do you get rainwater off a flat roof? Have you ever heard of something called scupper? In this lesson, learn about scuppers and their use in architecture.

What is a Scupper?

Are you familiar with a building in your community that has a flat roof? After a heavy rain, how does all the water drain off that roof? It might flow away through the use of a scupper.

A scupper is a simple architectural device that allows water to escape from a roof. Many commercial and governmental buildings tend to have flat roofs, and rainwater can pool on them after a heavy storm. A scupper guides the water away from a building.

The origin of the word isn't completely certain, but it might come from the old French word escopir, which means literally 'to spit.' And that's what scuppers do. They spit rainwater away from a building. By the way, scuppers are also found on ships, but in this lesson we're concentrating on their use in architecture.

Example of a simple wooden scupper on a bridge
wood scupper on a bridge

How is a Scupper Used?

Basically, a scupper is used along with downspouts and gutters to force water to flow away from the side of a building. Sometimes a scupper is a hole cut into a wall.

Interior view of two scuppers cut into the wall of a stairwell to allow water to escape
Interior view of scuppers in a wall

A scupper can also be a fixture that projects out from a sidewall and directs water away from a building surface. One simple shape for a scupper is called a lamb's tongue. In this type of scupper, a simple jutting form sticks out from the hole in the wall at a slight tapering and downward angle. The water runs along it and falls away from the building.

By the way, a scupper is different from a drain because a drain forces excess water into an enclosed location like a pipe or sewer system. A scupper simply spits it away from the building. The water hits the ground and runs off or soaks into the earth.

Traditionally, scuppers were used where parapet walls met the edge of the flat roof. A parapet was a type of low protective guard wall on an area with a sudden steep drop like a roof or balcony. Scuppers were placed at intervals to prevent the parapet from filling up with water.

Design and Materials

Example of a fancier scupper in the shape of a gargoyle. Notice how this scupper sits where that railing meets the floor.
clay gargoyle scupper

Scuppers can be very plain or decorative. If you think about it, many of the spectacular gargoyles on Gothic churches are actually ornate scuppers, designed to spit rainwater away from the church to protect the structure.

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