Walk down a street in almost any new subdivision and you will see traditionally styled houses built with traditional materials. Or maybe not.
That stone may look real, but most likely it, along with nearly everything else on the facade, is a fake, or, as they say in the home-building business, "faux." And it seems most homeowners are quite happy with this.
In interviews with architects and home builders around the country, I learned that homeowners care a great deal about appearances but not necessarily about authenticity. For the most part, this lack of purist fervor is driven by maintenance concerns, not price. The faux materials can cost the same or more than the traditional materials they replace, but they require little or no attention. Some can be left unattended for at least the 20 or 30 years that the owners might live there.
By contrast, natural materials weather as they are exposed to the elements.
Depending on the climate and the material, most natural materials require some to a lot of care. People are so time-crunched, though, that they are unwilling to spend even a single weekend a year working on their houses. They want the exterior to take care of itself. If that means faux materials, so be it.
All the architects and builders I spoke with said they use synthetic materials with mixed feelings. Up close, most lack the subtleties and nuances of the real thing, but prudence dictates bowing to homeowner realities.
As one Washington area builder said, "What's the point of using real materials like wood when I know the buyers won't do the maintenance and the houses will look like my neighbor's, with mushrooms growing out of the dining-room window sill?"
The material that suffers the most from weathering is wood -- certainly a builder's and a homeowner's biggest maintenance headache. In most climates, it needs primer and a protective layer of paint or stain to keep it from absorbing moisture, as well as a generous amount of caulk at the joints to keep moisture from getting behind it. Homeowners should check the caulk annually, and the paint or stain must be periodically reapplied. In many places, this must be done every three to five years. Otherwise, the wood will check, split and crack, the paint will peel off, and eventually the wood will rot.
Not surprisingly, wood is the natural material that is most often replaced.
The first faux material to be widely used was aluminum siding that mimicked overlapping cedar boards. A similar-looking product made of vinyl is more common now; the vinyl can be shaped to mimic shingles as well as boards.
Many architects and some builders objected to both because they look fake, their color palette is limited, they can be dented by hail, errant baseballs, and pebbles thrown up by lawnmowers and weed whackers, and the vinyl can melt and burn.
But many of these same reluctant architects and builders are now happily using another faux wood siding product: fiber cement. It's a mixture of portland cement, wood fibers, clay and sand that can be shaped into boards that look about the same size as real cedar boards or shingles. Installed and painted, it looks similar to the genuine article, and it can be painted any color the owner chooses. It's about 1/4-inch thick, about five times thicker than aluminum or vinyl siding and far less susceptible to damage from flying debris. It's fireproof, bug proof, and because it does not absorb moisture, it holds paint well. Owners can go as long as 15 years between paint jobs. It is also more durable than vinyl or aluminum -- some manufacturers, including James Hardie, warrant fiber cement siding for 50 years. (Some people use that company's trademark name, Hardiplank, as a generic name for this type of siding.)
Siding is not the only wood element on the exterior to cause maintenance migraines. Less noticeable, but equally important, is the trim at the corners and around windows, doors and the roof edge. This is an issue even when the siding is a non-wood material, such as brick. Fiber cement can also be used for the trim pieces, and builders and architects like it for the same reasons they favor it for siding. Another wood trim substitute that is increasingly popular is cellular polyvinyl chloride. It has the density and resistance of pine without the downside: It doesn't rot or absorb moisture, and it holds paint extremely well.
Maintenance-averse homeowners who want a trim material made with recycled content can use MoistureShield, a composite of recycled wood fibers, plastic grocery bags and plastic milk jugs. It is similar to composite decking boards, and its manufacturer, Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc., also makes ChoiceDek.
MoistureShield boards have been used for siding, but the manufacturer has not tested them for this purpose and does not recommend it. As with the other non-wood trim boards, Moisture Shield holds paint extremely well.
Not every natural material is a maintenance headache, however. Some, such as stone, are just pricey and have never been widely used. The stone you see in new-home communities all over the country is almost always a faux look-alike, or manufactured stone veneer. It's about half the cost of real stone and meets the builders' need to offer something more upscale for higher-end homes. The faux stone is made with portland cement, sand and the same iron oxides that color real stone. The mix is cast in molds made from real stones, but the finished veneer is only about two inches thick and weighs 75 percent less than stone. In the past, the faux stone looked fake, but today's product can look remarkably realistic, so much so that "you have to tap it to tell," Newport Beach, Calif., architect Jeff Lake said. The faux has a thud; real stone has more of a ping.
In some new-home communities, the stone may be genuine. But it's a thin, one-inch veneer, not the full thickness of natural material, which can be as thick as eight inches. The veneered stone, which costs a bit more than the faux product, was introduced about four years ago and is not yet in wide use.
Some materials on new houses are the traditional ones they appear to be because home builders found that the synthetic look-alikes had their own set of problems. Stucco is an example. Weathering was never an issue, but the synthetic product known as EIFS -- for "exterior insulation and finish system" -- promised to be faster and easier to install, and it offered designers the opportunity to add more interest and complexity to the exterior surface without great expense. Unfortunately, installing EIFS correctly requires a degree of precision that is not always achieved in residential construction. When such siding is incorrectly installed, rainwater can get into the wall and cause mold problems. Another unexpected EIFS problem is woodpeckers. In some areas, it has proved irresistible to woodpeckers, and they drill holes in it.
All this has led home builders back to the old way, and this is the stucco that you see on new houses now. The stucco industry has refined the specifics over the years, but the basic idea is the same as it has been for at least four or five centuries: a mixture of sand, lime and cement applied in two or three coats.
Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.
(c) 2005, Katherine Salant
Distributed by Inman News Features