The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding: Part Three

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. Part One. Part Two


By Philip B. Keyes


Approach #3 (of 4): Stop telling people it’s historically inappropriate.

In general, the folks who are shopping in the plastic aisle or already live in Tupperware (again, sorry) frankly don’t care much about the historical value of their homes, at least not yet. And a great time to educate them about the value of our collective historic built environment is not when we’re telling them what they should or should not do. That association, historic preservation and restrictions, is precisely how we preservationists earned our reputation for bossiness. Counterproductive.

Instead, consider their interests in the product, which fall into four general categories: Hint, one of them is not obscuring historic fabric so why argue that point. They are: (a) tired of painting; (b) want a clean and tidy appearance and some curb appeal; (c) want protection from the elements; (d) plastic siding is maintenance free. Now here I invite preservationists to do a little research on these interests because plastic siding is a demonstrated and resounding negative in all four categories, whether it’s already on, or planned. Let’s take them one at a time.

(A) No more painting: Really? A proper paint job will last 10+ years in a building without moisture problems. If the paint is peeling it’s because the building is telling you there’s a problem that needs to be addressed, i.e. free advice. Covering building problems with plastic means they will only get worse, and new problems will remain undetected. With time, rot will permeate the wall structures and worrying about painting will be the property owner’s nostalgic lament. Additionally, there are no money savings from plastic, even if you hire the painting out. The cost of a 20-year plastic siding installation will pay for two professional paint jobs.


(B) How about that clean and tidy appearance? Well maybe until the clear-coat that’s lived inside all its life plays outside for a while. Colored plastic fades in the sun, period, and a few years after you install it, plastic siding looks faded, cheap, and dirty – no different from the plastic chairs that need freshening (throwing out) every few years. As for clean and tidy, take a look at plastic siding repairs where newly purchased shiny strips mingle with the older stuff, if the manufacturer still makes that color. Ouch.

Siding in need of replacement, as it cannot be repaired.

Siding in need of replacement, as it cannot be repaired.

(C) And is plastic good protection from the elements? You bet, but if you’re going to suggest that water can’t find its way behind the siding, I have a 100-year-old shiny house to sell you. Water will find its way behind the siding if you have any wind at all, and it will condense with all the moisture laden air that used to escape harmlessly through your walls, congregating in that newly created cavity where you can’t see it. Plastic is good at keeping moisture in, too! Take a drive through some neighborhoods where the siding salesman visited 15 years prior; you can literally see some of the buildings sagging from deliberately obscured, or undetected structural problems made worse by the plastic covering.

Vinyl siding about to blow off, it appears.

Vinyl siding about to blow off, it appears.

(D) Finally, the appeal of “Maintenance Free”. So no replacing the deteriorated caulking at the joints? No replacing cracked, dented, or blown-off siding (actually, Wolverine siding now comes with a “won’t blow off” warrantee – awesome). What about addressing that depressing, faded appearance owners will come to know and not love? It’s true that plastic siding is maintenance free, because you can’t maintain it. Bottom line, addressing the real interests of those with or considering plastic siding is where the interaction should be, and where the fight will be won.


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.


By Philip B. Keyes


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).


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

Spring Home Maintenance: 10 Tasks

Maintenance is Preservation. Preservation is Maintenance. 

Often the old & historic building stock falls into disrepair because of neglect over the years. Minor problems become major expenses, which homeowners cannot afford. It is an unfortunate situation, because many of these problems could have been prevented with routine maintenance. Yearly maintenance is preventative maintenance and will prolong the health of your building and save you money in the long run. The tasks listed below may be obvious to you, but a reminder is sometimes helpful to all.

(1) Clear brush and leaves away from the foundation.

(2) Make the sure the grading of the ground abutting the building feeds water away from the foundation.

(3) Clean out the gutters.

(4) General cleaning or washing of a building is a good idea to, from windows to siding to porches (just don’t power wash anything!)

(5) Check the window casing/frames for cracks, deterioration — e.g. cracked or peeling paint, water stains. Stick a pocket knife or similar object into the wood to test for quality. If it goes in easily, more than you would expect, the wood will need to be repaired or replaced soon. A fresh coat of paint can protect your window sills and window frames.

(6) Open your windows to get good air flow throughout the building. Fresh air can do wonders for a building.

(7) Check the roof flashing, shingles (be safe or hire someone qualified!). Make sure it is there are no leaks or dirt accumulation.

(8) Have your chimney inspected if you haven’t already. For example, our chimney was unlined when bought our house, so we had to have a liner installed (otherwise it can be a fire hazard).

(9) Check for water damage inside and outside. Be sure to check in the attic and basement spaces. The best time to look for leaks is when it’s raining.

(10) Check your smoke alarms and all of your building systems. Check your attic insulation. Get in all of those places that you avoid in colder weather. Investigate your walls for cracks – and the foundation. Crawl under the porch. Basically, get to know your building.

This list is what I would do for my house, so there are likely other tasks to add for your own building. What else do you recommend?  Good weather is coming this weekend (finally!), so it is a good time to take care of some home maintenance tasks. Have fun! Remember, maintenance = preservation = building love.

Monday Thankfulness

It’s the week of Thanksgiving, and here at Preservation in Pink, each day of the week will be dedicated to a different subject of preservation thankfulness.


I am thankful for everyone who recognizes the value of historic buildings (or even regular old buildings). To those who love their old buildings and the hardwood floors, wood clapboard, slate roofs, wood windows, leaded glass, original hardware and their long, intertwined histories. To those who trust and believe in the strength and potential of these old buildings: you are the reason that our communities live on with connections to the past.

The Village of Jamaica, VT has a beautiful historic district along Main Street.

I am thankful for moments that I spend with friends and family and can catch them speaking preservation, if you will. They do not necessarily recognize it as preservation, but it certainly is. My sister Sarah was visiting and we walked around town commenting on the beautiful houses, talking about the ages and what we liked best about each building. A friend visited this weekend and he talked about how much he liked Montpelier for its openness and welcome feeling, as well as the fact that you could shop in the entire city for things you need without patronizing chain stores (give or take a few small ones).

A covered bridge on its side, in the process of being rehabilitated.

I am thankful for people across the state who are taking care of their homes and buildings and bridges in the aftermath of the August flooding. (And thankful that they are able to rebuild their lives in their homes.) These people show the strength of the communities and the attachment people feel to the buildings that shelter them and play important roles in their lives.

Windows on a church in Fairfax, VT.

People are the reason preservation works. Thank you.

Caring for and Recording Historic Buildings

Preservation in Pink January 2010

Want to read about bears, historic houses, and responsibilities? Of course. Read Melissa Celii’s article, “Teaching the Care of Historic Homes In Order to Maintain Value & Integrity” for her thoughtful discussion and possible solutions for those who are unable to afford the care of their historic houses. The article is filled with her usual wit and humor, and a lovely anecdote about bears. See pages 6-7.

What about houses in Scotland? Are you thinking of castles? In his article, “Architectural Audit of Aberdeen,” Jonathan Scott explains the conservation areas of place beyond castles, the towns and villages of Scotland and the project, the architectural audit, that is recording them. It’s similar but different to the United States preservation practices. Jonathan gives readers a good, short lesson in international preservation. See pages 8-9.

Historic Windows

It’s that time of year; the temperature drops at night, your house feels drafty, and around mid-October the heat turns on (unless you’re way down south). You wonder why your house is so cold and how you can make it warmer. Everywhere you read about new energy efficient windows and you consider replacing your windows.

Before you replace those historic wood windows, STOP! Your house is not losing its heat through windows; but rather, mainly through the roof and uninsulated walls. Keep those historic beauties in their frames! And if you have windows with real muntins and individual window panes, then you definitely have something worthwhile. The cost of replacing your historic window could take 100 years to make up for its cost.

Don’t believe me? Check out the Historic Windows Resource Page from Preservation North Carolina, and pay special attention to the NCPTT Testing the Energy Performance of Wood Windows in Cold Climates report and the replacement cost calculator from Historic Omaha. Note that it will take 41 years for the windows to pay for themselves!

Okay and aside from cost, we have to recognize the aesthetic value of historic windows and the historic value of these windows. Once removed, it is a part of the building that is gone forever. Windows are a very important part of architectural style. Take a look at this brief slideshow from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota titled, “Historic Wood Windows: Why They Matter and How to Save Them.” Lastly, for a thorough review of why to retain and maintain historic windows, answers to your questions, window vocabulary, and resources, see the National Trust’s Window Tip Sheet. For repair information see Preservation Brief 9: The Repair of Historic Wood Windows from the NPS.

Do your research before believing the gimmicks of “energy efficient” window manufacturers and sellers. After all, they WANT you to replace your windows.

Community Restoration and Revitalization Act

The Community Restoration and Revitalization Act has been all over the preservation blogs and news lately, but it’s such an important issue that it can stand to be discussed in as many places as possible. Many people have at least heard of tax credits (20%) for restoring a historic building. The fine print is that the building is a “certified” (i.e. significant) historic and it must be an incoming producing building and in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. In other words, no one can restore their own home and receive tax credits.

However, this Community Revitalization and Restoration Act consists of eight proposed amendments to the Federal Tax rehabilitation Tax Credit could change all of that. These proposed amendments would encourage greater use and rehabilitation of historic buildings by qualifying owner occupied residences (rather than just downtown rentals), allow for tax credits for energy efficiency, allow for an increased credit for smaller rehabilitation projects (re: size and cost), specify that tax credits are not federal income, among other aspects. The abbreviated list, from the National Trust, is this:

1. Increase the federal historic tax credit from 20% to 30% for “small projects” with $5 million or less in qualified rehabilitation expenditures.

2. Permit the 10% non-historic credit for older buildings to be used for rehabilitating residential rental property.

3. Use the common definition of an older building as one that is at least 50 years old in determining eligibility for the 10% non-historic rehabilitation credit.

4. Allow for certain leasing arrangements with non-profits and other tax-exempt entities that are now precluded.

5. Encourage building owners who are rehabilitating historic buildings to achieve substantial energy savings and allow graduated increases in the credit based on the scale of energy efficiencies achieved.

6. Allow for the transfer of historic tax credits to another taxpayer for projects under $5 million in qualified rehabilitation costs.

7. Allow for moderate rehabilitation by reducing by half the substantial rehabilitation requirements.

8. Specify that state historic tax credits should not be considered federal income for tax purposes.

source: PreservationNation

For the entire list explained, check out he National Trust blog post.  Or read this document from the National Trust in which the eight amendments are explained a bit more in depth (it’s only three pages, don’t panic).

And once you’ve read all about it, encourage your local representatives to support this amendment. The National Trust also has a page where you can look up who is supporting it so far and the Trust has a letter example that you can personalize and email to your representatives. Also, you can send a thank you letter.

Those of us who dream of restoring our own home someday, this will be incredibly beneficial to us. Really anyone who works with historic buildings serves to gain something from these proposals.