The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding: Part One

Vinyl siding and historic preservation typically do not play well together. It’s an ongoing debate, sometimes cringe-worthy sight as buildings across the country are clad in vinyl. Preservationists know vinyl isn’t the maintenance free answer that people think it is. Yet, we seldom make headway. Perhaps until now. 

Introducing a guest series by a new contributor: Philip B. Keyes, a fellow preservationist, with four new approaches to the old discussion on vinyl siding in a four part series. Today begins with an introduction by Philip and part one of the series. Look for parts two, three and four the rest of this week.

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By Philip B. Keyes

PART ONE

I would no more buy an old house wrapped in vinyl than a vinyl-wrapped antique car or piece of furniture. And why would anyone? More to the point, why still, in 2013 is anyone covering an old house with vinyl siding given what is known about all the negative consequences?

It’s likely of little value to repeat the standard refrain of why vinyl siding is a bad idea on this site, assuming that most of the readers are already in the choir. Instead, I’ll make my pitch for how our community of preservation pros, hobbyists, and dabblers can finally win the war on plastic. To do that, we’ll need to change our approach in four key ways, and I invite you to read on, with the preservationist’s skeptical eye of course.

Approach #1 (of 4): Stop Calling it Vinyl Siding

That’s way too cool a word for this stuff. The term “vinyl” is short for Polyvinylchloride, a polymer, a.k.a. plastic made from chlorine and ethylene. It originates from the word “vin”, french for “wine”. Here’s the connection: “Vinyl” was coined in 1863 in the chemistry world to describe a univalent radical derived from ethylene, which comes from ethylene alcohol, which is the ordinary alcohol in wine. Turns out the wine alcohol was important in making plastic back in the day.

A bottle of 1863 Chateau Vinyl, for you?

A bottle of 1863 Chateau Vinyl, for you? Image courtesy of author, Philip Keyes.

Now I understand vinyl’s etymological pedigree will come as a crushing blow to many a preservationist, as I have known most to enjoy the occasional glass of wine. And the word dating to 1863, well there’s no joy in that either. Perhaps that year is more historically significant for the Battle of Gettysburg, or Congress deciding that RR tracks should be exactly 56 inches apart – but not vinyl!

The term “Vinyl” also conjures qualities of durability and versatility for its popular uses other than house wrap. It can be made rigid, flexible, thick or thin, colored or transparent. Most might think of car seats and dashboards. Think also purses, pens, toys, and wallpaper – even the bags for intravenous fluids in hospitals. It’s not my goal to lay waste to the vinyl industry; there are valuable uses for the product and due to intense pressure the industry is making modest gains in cleaning up its act. It is my objective, however, to help the preservation community help constituents make good decisions about using this product on historic buildings.

So what to call it? Simple, call it what it is, plastic siding. Not vinyl, not synthetic, but plastic. “Plastic siding” conjures more appropriate and accurate qualities of this product as relates to its use on old buildings, to wit: it’s temporary, it fades, it gets brittle, it warps, it melts, it shrinks, it cracks, it splits, a stiff wind can blow it away, you can’t paint it or maintain it, it’s tough to clean, and it will end up in a landfill with all the other plastic that’s been living outside.

Satisfied with “plastic” as a pejorative term yet? No? Well how about the fact that plastic had in its subculture-slang meanings including fake, superficial, and insincere. And if that’s not enough – perhaps you’re looking for something a little more derogatory – feel free to call old houses wrapped in plastic siding “Tupperware”, (no disrespect to that fine, historic food container company).

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{Look for the rest of the series this week. And feel free to join in the conversation by leaving a comment below.}