Water Towers Rise Again — See Their New Shapes and Uses

Emptied of water, these structures are now being filled with furnishings to add living space and take advantage of the views

Houzz Editorial Staff; writer, reader, serial remodeler.
At the end of the 19th century, home water towers were all about function. Back then they were used to collect and store water, and personal water towers dotted the backyards of small towns in arid climates and made miniature peaks in city skylines. As times and utility systems changed, most of the small structures fell into disuse and were torn down. But today homeowners are looking at them in a different way. Not only are old water towers being remodeled as living spaces, but architects are designing new buildings with water tower–like structures. They are drawn to the simple, utilitarian lines of the towers — and the fact that they often provide great views is a bonus.
This home was built with a water tower (just visible behind the gambrel roof) at the far end of its backyard.
Recently the owners remodeled the historic home, and the architect moved the tower closer to the main living quarters and connected it with a farmhouse-like addition.
The tower now contains a winding staircase.
Follow the stairs to the lower level, and you’ll find a family room inspired by Tintin, the Belgian cartoon hero.
At first glance you might think this water tower is a remodeled relic, but you would be wrong. This is new construction.
The architect’s parents commissioned this house. Their single requirement was that it have a water tower. The father drove around the area and took photos of existing towers for inspiration.
The tower holds the sleeping quarters. The tall form makes for 14-foot-high ceilings in the bedroom.
The top of the tower also affords stunning views of the surrounding farm fields.
See more of this modern farmhouse
Simple farm buildings have long been an inspiration in modernist architecture. This new water tower structure shows why.
The clean-lined style of a traditional water tower done in metal makes a happy marriage with a sleek, modern house.
To keep water pipes from bursting, 19th-century New York City building codes required water towers to be on structures higher than 6 feet. When a modern NYC family remodeled this penthouse, they kept the water tower.
You can see it in the background. It’s hard to imagine the New York City skyline without the iconic towers — and maybe that’s why they are required on all buildings in the Tribeca neighborhood, functional or not.
Not all water towers are remodeled. This weathered red example is probably not used for more than storage. But the charm it adds to this farmhouse is incalculable.
When this house was built, a stand-alone water tower was designed along with it.
Located a short distance from the back door, it serves as the guest quarters.
Standing tall on the flat lands around it, it makes a strong architectural statement.
Not all newly constructed water towers have a modernist bent. This example shares the classic style of the main house.
modern exterior Modern Exterior
This water tower–like structure is unabashedly modern, but you can see the shadow of a traditional water tower.

6 Tower Houses Rise to the Tastes of Today

No medieval turrets here, just materials like sleek metal and glass — and, of course, spectacular views

Houzz Contributor and architect in Ireland More 
Although most of us are fortunate not to need to live in fortified houses today, there is something about tower houses that continue to capture our imagination. We often think of towers as dark, foreboding places where water continually seeps through the cold stone walls, chilling us to the bones. Or places where our eyes are permanently dilated because of the dim light permeating tiny windows. But many architects today are successfully reinterpreting tower houses for contemporary life.
The materials used in construction are now no longer confined to stone (as in these old towers) and its structural limitations. The use of steel frame, timber frame and concrete has created myriad structural solutions. The choices allow for more flexibility in spatial planning, with virtually unlimited options for window openings, decks, roof terraces and staircases. They also allow for more possibilities with external finishes, which can include wood siding, plywood sheeting, sheet metal, composite panel systems, plaster or exposed aggregate concrete.

The Tower House in Portland, Oregon, is an unadorned, modernist, metal-clad tower set on a steep hillside and connected back to the land by a steel bridge. Its finish “gives the appearance of something ribbed, like a sweater,” says architect Benjamin Waechter. “It feels like a garment almost.”

“The Tower House has a strong concept in a sense that it really can be thought of as three rooms and a building skin,” Waechter says. “The reason for doing that is to make a hierarchy between the main rooms and these support spaces.”

A living space is on top, the dining room and kitchen are in the middle, and the main bedroom is below.

The nature of a tower raises practical issues to be addressed at the design stage. Tower homes invariably require rigorous spatial planning and difficult choices.

For example, tower dwellers may have to forgo some ancillary spaces or manage with smaller spaces. The practicality of vertical circulation between floors is another issue and usually confines most towers to three stories. How many people wish to spend their days running up and down tight staircases? Accessing the building at a middle level may alleviate this potential issue.

Balance Associates built the Glenn Lake Tower, shown here, on a wooded hilltop above a lake in Michigan. Two metal clad walls support a three-story plywood box suspended above the ground.

The primary living spaces stand above the dense surrounding woods to gain light, air and views.
Managing tighter spaces in a tower is more than compensated by the breathtaking views some tower dwellers enjoy. This small, unpainted concrete tower in Austria, by Marte Marte Architects, sits delightfully on a steep, sloping hillside. Accessed via a pathway and a short flight of steps, it is truly an object in the landscape, unencumbered with outbuildings or car parking.
“Semantically speaking, this gesture of the tower creates archetypes of fortified structures and abstract computer figures in your mind’s eye, making the tower seem familiar and strange at once,” the architect says.
At the entry level, an open terrace within the building footprint provides a panoramic view.
Oak-lined windows create framed landscape paintings inside.
Tower houses are not all confined to isolated rural landscapes. Here’s a unique tower house — XS House, by uni architecture — that’s composed of three stacked and rotated plywood boxes. The house is in a crowded suburban plot and therefore was designed to address the need for privacy and for light.
Despite the lack of large windows, the interior here is brightly lit by the single door and the corner roof light.
Four corner skylights draw natural light into the house, provide skyward views and maintain privacy.
This is not quite a tower house per se, but rather a house composed of four towers. Rather than being planned according to a domestic functional program, the building was designed foremost as an instrument for intensifying a number of onsite phenomena.
It was designed by Edward Ogosta Architecture in Coachella, California, as a weekend house. The four sleeping towers are oriented toward four “spatio-temporal viewing experiences”: the morning sunrise to the east, a mountain range to the south, evening city lights to the west and nighttime stars overhead.
This is the Vertical House, by Axis Mundi. The entry is via a long and dramatic bridge to a viewing platform, from which one ascends a staircase into the house. The kitchen and dining areas are on the first level, the living area is on the second, and the main bedroom is above.
The architect says that the “Vertical House offers urban living on a rural site. The concept of a townhouse transposed to the country offers a unique solution to a difficult topology, and affords spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.”

Live a Fairy Tale in a Getaway Castle Tower

Let down your hair or just savor the idyllic views. In these 5 remodeled European towers, how the story goes is up to you

Houzz Contributor and architect in Ireland More 
Childhood abounds with tales about stone towers where damsels in distress await rescue by a knight in shining armor. Historically, medieval tower houses were often located in inhospitable and inaccessible terrain, with commanding views of the surrounding landscape. They were built as defensive structures in a square or circular plan with massive walls, small window openings and narrow stone staircases.
Helen's Tower
For centuries these castle towers and lighthouses have dotted the United Kingdom. Across Ireland many such towers stand in ruin, but many architects and private owners have taken over the structures and turned them into rustic and comfortable bed-and-breakfasts and holiday stays, adding modern-day amenities but keeping them rooted in their fairy tale surroundings.

Here are a few worth the climb.

Helen’s Tower, Ireland

William Burn designed this castle in the Scottish style and completed it in October 1861. Lord Dufferin built it as an idyllic retreat in memory of his mother. It’s now a holiday getaway with commanding views across Ulster to the Scottish shores.

Living room in Helen's Tower
A spiral stone staircase connects the double bedroom, kitchen, living room (shown here), reading room and rooftop terrace.

Stay here: Sleeps two; about $200 per weekend. | More info

Wicklow Head Lighthouse
Wicklow Head Lighthouse, Ireland

Built in 1781, this lighthouse stopped operating in the early 1800s. Its lantern was replaced with a dome in 1866 as a conservation effort. In the 1990s it was converted into holiday accommodations by Shaffrey Architects on behalf of The Irish Landmark Trust. Six octagonal rooms were constructed within the tower void, linked by new cast iron stairs.

Wicklow Head Lighthouse
Here’s one of the two bedrooms in the tower. Arched windows set deep into the 3-foot-thick walls offer beautiful views out to the Irish Sea and the surrounding countryside.

Because of the tight floor plan, the architects decorated the tower with muted colors that increase the feeling of lightness and space.

Wicklow Head Lighthouse
One of the challenges in the restoration of the tower was creating safe access to it when it had no stairs. The solution? Helicopter. Much of the furniture was brought in piece by piece and assembled inside.

Stay here: Sleeps four; about $675 per weekend. | More Info

House in the Clouds
The House in the Clouds, England

This house sits atop a water tower in Thorpeness, Suffolk. It was built in 1923 and designed to improve the looks of the water tower, disguising its tank with a building more in keeping with the local mock-Tudor and Jacobean styles. It contains 68 steps from top to bottom and is around 70 feet high.

Stay here: The building has five bedrooms and three bathrooms; about $800 to $1,300 per night. |More info

Doonagore Castle
Ballinalacken Castle, Ireland

This tower house dates back to the 15th or 16th century. It sits majestically on a limestone outcrop overlooking west County Clare. On the left side, the privy (a latrine) can be seen protruding from the side wall, a simple long-drop solution for the disposal of unwanted waste. Also a way to deter an approaching enemy.

Stay here: The castle is pretty much a ruin, but the nearby historic Ballinalacken Castle Country House Hotel has rooms for $88 to $135. | More info

Doonagore Castle
Doonagore Castle, Ireland

This 16th-century tower house in Doolin, County Clare, was inhabited by the powerful O’Briens clan. Back in 1688 it was a less-than-welcoming place to 170 unfortunate survivors of a shipwrecked Spanish Armada vessel who were captured and hanged here.

It’s one of more than 3,000 tower houses in Ireland, and was bought and restored as a holiday home in the 1970s by John Gorman, an Irish American.

Doonagore Castle
The tower is located close to the Cliffs of Moher on a hill with commanding views of the Atlantic Ocean towards the Aran Islands. While most of the windows in the tower are small, there is one large window on the upper level that takes advantage of the views.

While you can’t stay inside the castle, the Sea View House offers rooms with views of the tower



One comment

  1. William C. · · Reply

    Some very cool towers!

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