The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding: Part Four

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. Part Three.

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By Philip B. Keyes

PART FOUR

Approach #4 (of 4): Call your Realtor.

That is to say, those with influence in preservation should connect with those with influence in real estate to discuss effects not only on real estate values, but on the structural integrity of the buildings. Just about everyone who owns property talks with a realtor at some point, so is there a better ally? In each case the buyer of an old house covered in plastic should rightfully ask “what is this guy hiding?” Take a look at some of the maintenance malfunctions that are being covered over with plastic, or imagine what is going on behind that shiny veneer to a wooden structure that was never intended to be shrink-wrapped with a chlorine/ethylene tango. Realtors can make this point better than anybody, and in their clients’ best interests, they should.

What could this vinyl siding be hiding?

What could this plastic siding be hiding? (And it’s for sale. Realtors, what do you think?)

The real estate community should also consider (with our help) plastic’s macro effects, i.e. the drabification of America. How many rich, vibrant colors do you see in neighborhoods where the historic building stock has been covered in plastic? Very few, because the more pigment in the siding the faster if fades in the weather, and thus is more challenging to warranty or retain its appeal over time. Richer colors also mean more heat is retained in the plastic, increasing expansion/contraction that leads to all sorts of problems. This explains how rainbows of rich and interesting neighborhood colors became a sea of pale grays, pale blues, pale greens, pale yellows, and pushed house values down. You don’t need to take my word for it, the evidence is there.

These houses have lost their colors to plastic siding.

These houses have lost their colors to plastic siding.

If I may, I would like to close with this which I hope will make you smile: I ran into a contractor the other day who said the longer term issue of faded vinyl has been resolved; they’ve developed a new line of coatings so we can now paint it.

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Thanks to Philip Keyes for sharing this series with PiP readers. Keep the discussions coming, everyone. What do you think? Does this bring us to another era of vinyl (or, ahem, plastic) siding discussion?

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

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By Philip B. Keyes

PART THREE

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.

vinyl3

(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 Two

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 a new approach to the old discussion on vinyl siding in a four part series. Part One.

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By Philip B. Keyes

PART TWO

Approach #2 (of 4): Stop telling people not to install it.

For one thing, people hate being told what to do, and the arguments rarely work in any case. And remember, the vinyl lobby never sleeps, evidenced by a yearly production of vinyl resin in this country in excess of 20 billion pounds. The Vinyl Institute, the national lobbying organization representing PVC manufacturers and suppliers is conveniently located in Washington DC and their suits schmooze and cruise the halls of power to defeat any legislation that may limit PVC’s popularity, or legality. Somehow (and we can guess how) the institute even managed to contract Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, to be their pitch person. He has since retired from Greenpeace. Once an intrepid pioneer in environmental science, Dr. Moore’s painfully scripted, plastic YouTube videos are nothing short of nauseating.

A tool to remove the vinyl siding. Click for original source.

A tool to remove the vinyl siding. Click for original source.

When I suggest that we stop telling people to avoid plastic siding, I am not saying we give up that fight. I am suggesting we move past it, to recommending that people remove plastic siding. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but this strategy has advantages. Moving the discussion to the benefits of removal attacks the bigger problem, if you believe as I do that the majority of historic buildings that will end up with plastic siding have already been plasticized. Our efforts are better concentrated there. Also, consider the motives of those thinking plastic siding is the answer: believe it or not many are thinking modern, shiny and avant-garde, bringing their properties out into the tech future, or at least mainstream. How will dreams of their shiny plastic siding feel when they discover the world has moved on, to the issue of how quickly it can be removed? Just maybe they look at their painted clapboarded buildings and say “hah, I haven’t spent a dime and I’m cutting edge!”

Vinyl siding over clapboard siding. How about removing it?

Vinyl siding over clapboard siding. How about removing it?

Consider also the extent to which the vinyl institute will mobilize their forces for the battle of deplasticizsing. There is no direct effect to their bottom line when we’re making our pitch to remove a product they’ve already profited from, meaning they’re less likely to send their suits to that table to argue. As a result, preservationists get a stronger voice and more control of the issue. Look out.

vinyleave.jpg

Beneath the vinyl eave is a clapboard eave.

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.}