Fiber cement has cost and durability on its side

May 3, 2013

Building their weekend house outside Little Washington, Va., led Bob Berry and Alejandro Cedeno to experiment with a cladding material unfamiliar to them — fiber cement.

“I was concerned at the beginning of the project that it wouldn’t work well and would fade,” Cedeno says.

But their architect, Mark McInturff, convinced the homeowners, who both work in international development, to choose fiber cement based on its longevity. “Bugs don’t eat it, paint stays on it, and it doesn’t rot,” says the Bethesda-based McInturff.

Painted in shades of gray and outlined in aluminum strips, the fiber-cement panels cover the main wing and “tower” of guest suites. “It’s a very geometric house, and they made it look more vibrant and modern,” Cedeno says.

Completed in 2009, the home shows “no fading or noticeable aging of the exterior,” Berry says. “The panels are very low-
maintenance.”

Fiber cement, a century-old material, has become popular in recent decades as a cheaper, more durable alternative to wood siding. It used to be reinforced with asbestos until the 1980s, when that hazardous substance was eliminated from its manufacture. Now the material is typically made with cement, sand, wood fibers and additives.

In recent years, designs made from the mixture have expanded from wood-grained boards to paneling resembling brick, stone and stucco, and contemporary furnishings.

“We use it on about 90 to 95 percent of our remodeling and addition projects,” says Bill Millholland, executive vice president of Case Design and Remodeling of Bethesda. “I can’t think of much we are doing that is not fiber cement. It looks like real wood siding, but it doesn’t decay, and it’s fire-resistant.”

James Hardie Industries is the largest producer of the material in the country, and its HardiePlank siding “has become the Kleenex of fiber cement,” Millholland says.

The company offers fiber-cement siding in 28 colors, six profiles and finishes ranging from rough-sawn to smooth. Among its recent offerings are Artisan lap siding resembling wood clapboard with deep shadow lines; and HardieZone products, which are treated to resist wet, freezing and hot, humid conditions.

“Unlike wood, fiber-cement boards are very straight and dimensionally consistent,” says builder Ethan Landis of Landis Construction in the District. “Because they don’t expand and contract as much as wood, they need to be painted less often than wood.”

Another advantage is cost. Fiber-cement siding runs about $3 to $3.50 per square foot, about twice the price of vinyl siding, but less than the $4 to $6 per square foot for cedar siding, says Hardie product manager Dale Knox.

The material is harder, heavier and more brittle than wood. It can be sawed and nailed, but DIYers should wear a mask or a respirator while cutting the siding to prevent inhaling silica dust, which can cause lung disease.

In addition to requiring labor-intensive installation, fiber cement can crack or split after being constantly exposed to moisture. Millholland found that fiber-cement planks on a dormer delaminated after absorbing rainwater running down the roof.

Design options in fiber-cement siding range from sleek, modern-style panels to traditional board and batten. One of Hardie’s competitors, Georgia-based Nichiha USA, makes fiber-cement cladding resembling stacked stone, brick patterns and cedar shakes, among other designs.

Architect Paul Gaiser of Landis Construction used Nichiha’s Frontier shakes to clad a house in Rehoboth Beach, Del., that he recently designed for lawyer Charlie Garlow and his wife, Joan Flaherty, who live in Silver Spring.

“We liked their wood-stained look, as opposed to the Hardie Shake, which has more of a solid color,” Gaiser says.

The appeal of fiber cement’s molded shapes has led some home furnishing companies to offer designs in the material for outdoor and indoor settings. Los Angeles-based Greenform imports planters and furniture from the Swiss company Eternit, a fiber-cement pioneer.

Its more unusual designs include reproductions of the 1954 “Loop” chair ($956) and table ($596), and the modular “Dune” seating ($1,271 per piece).

Crate & Barrel and its sister company CB2 sell several fiber-cement tables, including the Acara and Element collections ($199 to $999). “Fiber cement is porous, so we recommend wiping up spills immediately,” says CB2 merchandise manager Ryan Turf. “But part of the beauty of these tables is the imperfections and natural look of the finish and material.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

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