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The Great Pretenders: Exterior Finishes Made of Engineered Materials Provide Quality Benefits

Manufactured finishes look like traditional products but offer benefits that only an engineered material can.

A gigantic home with two rocking chairs in the front corridor standing on a brick foundation.

Engineered materials are made to look like another material, often though, with better performance than the original. For example, fiber cement siding, like these Nichiha shakes, costs about the same as cedar but will last for years without maintenance. Photo Courtesy of Nichiha.

These days, lots of things aren’t what they seem to be.

That’s good news when it comes to today’s exterior finishes, which combine the look of wood, brick or stone with the 
benefits of engineered materials: less cost, less weight and fewer maintenance headaches.

There are so many of these products on the market that they are changing the definition of “the manufactured home.” Here are just a few examples:

Fiber Cement

A blend of wood fiber and Portland cement, fiber cement siding and trim is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to wood or vinyl. It’s easy to see why: fiber cement looks like wood, holds paint and won’t rot. Termites don’t eat it and it doesn’t burn. Horizontal lap siding is the biggest seller, but shake profiles are also available. It costs more than vinyl, but it looks a lot more like real painted cedar.

As recently as two years ago, fiber cement could add $1,000 to a typical siding job versus cedar, but now it costs about the same, notes Redden Grammer, a builder in Moorhead City, N.C. “I usually present three or four siding choices,” he says. “A lot of people will choose fiber cement because it will last longer.” He says that while the lap siding is a bit thinner than cedar, this difference is not noticeable.

Cellular PVC Exterior Trim

One story building constructed with wood. It has a balcony on the top floor and a lawn.Although cellular polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, trim is made from the same basic material as plumbing pipes, it’s expanded with a blowing agent during manufacture, making it more flexible, less dense and lighter than standard PVC.

It also holds paint better — a good acrylic latex will last three to five times longer on cellular PVC than on wood because most paint failure is moisture-related and PVC doesn’t absorb moisture.

Standard trim boards are available, along with a variety of specialty products. For instance Azek, Kleer and Versatex (see an example of Versatex cellular PVC trim at right) all make PVC column wraps that will dress up a plain four-by-four post. The material can also be shaped into moldings and easily bends around curved structures.

PVC is a hit with quality builders in northern climates, where severe winters take a toll on wood. “The wood we’re seeing today is not the same my father used,” says John Siefert, a third-generation builder in Long Island, N.Y. “Today’s pine doesn’t bond well to exterior glue and it starts rotting in just a few years.” He has switched to Versatex trim for all his homes. 

Faux Stone

Today’s stone veneer may not be stone at all, but rather stamped concrete. One such product is Versetta Stone, which looks like real ledgestone, but doesn’t require mortar for installation. Visually, it’s very realistic — most people can’t tell that it’s not actually stone.

The product weighs one-third that of stone, eliminating the need for structural reinforcement. It is supported on metal strips attached to the wall with screws or nails. That means the contractor doesn’t have to hire specialized labor to install it.

Synthetic Roofing

Do you want a 
slate roof but can’t afford its cost and don’t have the structure to support its heavy weight? No problem! Polymer-based pretenders offer the look of real slate but at one-third to one-quarter of the weight. And while real slate requires a specialty contractor, any roofer can install polymer tiles.

For homes in storm-prone areas, the tiles also feature a Class 4 impact resistance, which means they won’t be cracked by hail or flying debris.

The skyline of a story building constructed with wood surrounded by trees with green vegetation.Manufacturers offer an increasing array of colors and profiles. For instance, Inspire Roofing’s Aledora line (see an example at right) comes in a variety of widths to mimic the diverse sizes of genuine slate and can be installed in natural, non-repeating straight or staggered patterns. Another company, DaVinci Roofscapes, has found a way to make its polymer tiles thicker than in the past without adding weight.

“These authentic-looking tiles are available in some beautiful colors and blends,” says Wheaton, Ill., architect Christopher Derrick of the DaVinci product. “They look especially good when used on a steep roof slope.”

Vinyl, Composite and PVC Fencing

It’s tempting to dismiss vinyl fencing, but top-of-the-line vinyl differs from the cheap stuff sold in home centers. Quality vinyl is thicker with more robust connections, better fade resistance and warranties as long as 30 years.

“The quality of the material is excellent,” says Ernie Yocum, owner of Austintown Fence Company in Austintown, Ohio. Quality vinyl products like Certainteed’s Bufftech now make up half his business. 

Other alternatives to wood fencing include wood-plastic composite and PVC.

Vertical logs of wood of equal height used to cordon off a lawn decorated with flowers.Composite fence is made from the same material as composite decking. In fact, the two biggest suppliers, Fiberon, their L Panel Fence in Barnwood is shown at right, and MoistureShield, are primarily decking manufacturers. MoistureShield makes pickets that fasten to natural wood posts and rails, while Fiberon makes wood posts and rails covered with composite sleeves. The material is heavy, with a six-foot-long section weighing about as much as an eight-foot section of pressure-treated wood fence.

A lighter alternative recently became available. Enduris offers fence components made from the cellular PVC, but with an acrylic cap that allows for better long-term color retention. The company reinforces long rail sections with metal to make them stiffer.

The above are just a taste of what’s available today. The point is that today’s engineered materials give homeowners more options than were ever possible. Think of it as better living through materials science.

Charlie Wardell has twenty years of experience writing and editing about home building for Architectural Record, BUILDER Magazine, Coastal Living, Fine Homebuilding and The Journal of Light Construction. A licensed builder, Wardell has also built new homes.

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