lost in a masquerade

23 March 2011

There are a few building materials that I just don’t like. It’s my blog, so let’s be frank, I can say I hate them. It is true; one can really hate a building material. You can’t wait to find out what they are right? Before I unveil my quirks about product likes and dislikes, let me explain my reasoning. Architects have opinions, strong opinions in my case, but we typically have well thought out reasoning for our opinions even if we are a minority with that opinion.

I typically choose primary building materials that are what they are (“am what I am” if you’re Popeye). In other words, they are not attempting to mimic another material while made of something completely different. Concrete looks like concrete, brick looks like brick, wood, copper, stainless steel, stone, and so on. However, over the years, the construction material industry has developed products in an alleged effort to save the homeowner money and time by reducing or eliminating maintenance and ongoing care to their house. I get it. Moreover, I suppose there will always be an exception to my rule since other synthetic materials are commonly used in small amounts as alternates to wood such as along the roof eaves, fascia, soffit and other areas that receive trim. Wood, the primary material being imitated is rarely used these days on exteriors in order to reduce or eliminate maintenance so we have substitutes that may be considered fake. Brick is a material that is starting to find clever copycats due to the thickness and weight concerns of real brick. There are others, but this post focuses on these two items as primary cladding materials being impersonated.

OK, here are my top choices:

EIFS Brick Veneer – I am not a big fan of EIFS (pronounced “eee fis”) which is an acronym for Exterior Insulation and Finish System. However, at least it is a modernized version of cement plaster stucco, a real historic material. It can reasonably resemble the real material if detailed carefully in the right context (big box stores are not that context). But what makes this so criminal is this synthetic material can be made to look like brick. So we have a fake material trying to look like something real with the intention to trick or fool the observer into thinking it is real. This is not far from spreading icing on a cake in a manner to look like a pie. It’s just not right. The EIFS industry has undergone a lot of change in the past 15 years or so after many buildings in the south were found to have trapped water inside and developing mold. These problems largely have been addressed with water drainage systems and more development into the use of water resistant barriers and flashings into the systems. It still doesn’t make me a big fan, but I simply cannot tolerate it when it is spread over a building and someone draws bricks into it. Please, don’t ever ask me for this.

Thin Brick Veneer – OK, these are actually bricks…just 1/2” thick mind you. You want a brick building, you got it. Nevertheless, we’ll just glue them on to the building rather than stack up bricks. Some manufacturers are even promoting this method as not only more cost effective, but more “green” than traditional brick construction. Brick cladding today is made of a “veneer” of bricks that is approximately 4” thick anchored back to a structural wall of either stud framing or masonry block construction. An air gap is left between the back of the brick and the wall behind it for venting and moisture drainage. This method of brick cladding started in the early 1900’s but did not gain much acceptance until the 1930’s. Prior to this the brick was stacked in multiple thicknesses (wythes) to create a structural wall. Three layers or wythes was common and plaster was applied directly to the inside face for the finished wall. This is where people get the impression that a brick house is “better” than a wood framed house. Walls used to be built of solid masonry and it certainly worked for the third pig. I suppose accepting a common 4” veneer is somewhat disingenuous, but to go as far as to “glue” them to the structure when they are only 1/2” thick has gone too far. Now they are not even carrying their own weight. Pre-made corners are produced to carry the illusion further to make it appear that a full brick is turning the corner. Since the pieces are made from the same material as real brick, the look is very convincing. However, I am not buying it. I hope I don’t have to use this anytime soon.

Vinyl siding – this is my top choice for building materials that I hate. Yes, a “healthy loathing” is a phrase I have used in the past. I just don’t like it. It is masquerading as wood siding but doesn’t look at all like wood siding nor is it even installed in a manner similar to wood siding. The corners, the ‘J’ channel trim, the fake wood grain, and the problems of color fading, weathering, cracking, impact damage, and buckling from heating are a few reasons I hope to never use this material. I find it very sloppy looking.

Newer versions are addressing many of the past problems, but all in all it looks the same to me…awful. According to the USGBC Green Home guide it is far less “green” than fiber cement siding when all characteristics are considered (manufacturing emissions, worker health, embodied energy, recycling). Maybe if the vinyl siding manufacturers could create a vinyl siding that looked like vinyl, I could get on board, but don’t count on it. Face it, people choose it because it is cheap. It is probably the cheapest of building materials and more than a 1/3 of the cladding on new and existing homes is vinyl.

One of the things that I liken to the sound of “nails on a chalkboard” is when builders or home owners choose to clad the front of their house in brick and the other three sides in vinyl. When you look at the front of the house from an angle, you can see the thin veneer of brick against the vinyl. Why do people do this? Pick one or the other and move along! I am all for mixing materials, but not that way. So if you want to hire me, please do not ask me to design your house or business with vinyl siding.

I suppose one could argue that fiber cement siding, simulated stone, aluminum siding, fiberglass shingles, aluminum clad wood windows, fiberglass doors, just to name a few are guilty of the same sleight of hand as our dear friend vinyl siding. However, they either do a better job of fooling us, or are not so overt in their attempt to replicate something so closely, yet be so far in its execution as vinyl siding. I am sorry, I just don’t get it. Why do we envelop our most prized worldly possessions in such cheap plastic material? It’s time to think differently. Don’t get lost in this masquerade.

(if this doesn’t beat all…faux brick panels that installs like vinyl siding…sheesh.)

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16 Responses to “lost in a masquerade”

  1. Preston Says:

    I threw up in my mouth a little bit when I saw that “faux-brick-vinyl-siding” thing at the end. Gross!

  2. KC Ramsay Says:

    “There is nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and he who considers price only is that man’s lawful prey.” John Ruskin

  3. Jeremiah Says:

    seriously, lee. you crack me up! awesome post! :-) you should go read some of Bob Borson’s posts about material choice and “what not to do”. Brilliant.

  4. Steve Workman Says:

    I once saw a chair advertised as being made of ‘genuine’ naugahyde. Now, I wasn’t born yesterday and I knew that wasn’t true. The last nauga was killed years ago. Naugas are completely extinct.

    • leecalisti Says:

      Some species are best left extinct.

      • Steve Workman Says:

        On a more serious note, just where do you draw the line? I live in a small village where the venacular is black metal roofs, wood siding and stone foundations.
        It’s not practical to build foundations out of stone anymore. Is a stone veneer over concrete too fake? How about cement fiber siding with wood grain in the formwork. Would you go with smooth texture to be more architecturally honest? How about engineered hardwood floors or plastic laminate? Are either okay if they look man-made?
        With the growing list of composite and hybrid building products out there that really offer solutions that are greener and more practical, it’s getting more tempting to compremise.

      • leecalisti Says:

        Steve, you make an excellent point and I was well aware of that during my rant. However, at least some materials, albeit “veneers” or “skins” are still trying to look like themselves not another material like vinyl. I suppose there are very few pure materials anymore.

  5. PCL Says:

    My opinion on fake brick depends mostly on the material out of which it is made and the material to which it’s attached. Clay and concrete are both plausible materials for real brick, so I’m not bothered by clay thin bricks attached to stucco, cement board, or concrete. In my opinion, these systems are no more fake than traditional brick veneer, which, while made from real bricks, is barely attached to the structure that is supposed to be “made of” it. If there’s a layer of foam somewhere under the cement board for insulation, fine. But when the same thin bricks are stuck to grooved plasic/foam panels, the result might look a little fake (with the spacing of the bricks dictated by the grooves, causing a “wall paper effect”) but the feel is even faker. Not good. EIFS, fiberglass, steel, or tar paper (remember “Insulbrick”) made to look like brick is, of course, faker yet. Still, while in an ideal world these masquerades would spark outrage, I can only find them mildly amusing. The reason for this is that in all of their silliness, they save me from having to look at more vinyl siding, which is repulsive far beyond its obvious fakeness. The sight of such a thin material, hanging an inch away from the building to which it is tentatively attached, so loose it can wriggle and twist freely and be kneaded, squashed, or even ripped off by anyone who walks by is so disgusting that even the fakest of fake brick is an improvement. The J-channel that usually surrounds vinyl (and aluminum) siding, squirming and twisting right along with it only makes things worse. Of course, the owners of buildings on which this stuff is slathered just have to splurge on improperly sized nailed up plastic shutters surrounding frameless cartoon-like windows with tape-like “muntins”; yuk! Other cladding materials vary from nearly as hideous (aluminum siding) to bearable but ugly (heavy gauge corrugated steel).

    • leecalisti Says:

      I realize there are common materials such as brick veneer that are also somewhat fake, but at least it has thickness. We do share the same opinion of vinyl siding. At least corrugated metal isn’t impersonating something else. To me it can be done well, or it can look poor as well. Thanks for reading.

  6. Joel Bolin Says:

    you have not seen Genesis Brick

    • leecalisti Says:

      No, but I’m not sure what you mean.

      • Joel Bolin Says:

        Genesis wall system is a presure laminated thin brick wall panel. The production facility is being built now. It is a vast improvment over any other system on the market today. I am a little biased because I am the inventor of it. I hope to be in full production within six months. I came up with this product because of what was lacking in the market, and felt the consumers needed something better.


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