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.

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(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.}

Preservation ABCs: N is for National Historic Preservation Act

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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N is for National Historic Preservation Act (of 1966)

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Historic preservation, as a movement, existed long before it was an academic field of study or an established profession. The movement in the United States can be traced to saving Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and Ann Pamela Cunningham. (Here’s a lesson on the history of historic preservation: Preservation Basics No. 6.) Prior to the National Historic Preservation Act, some laws and programs were passed and established such as the Historic Sites Act and the Historic American Building Survey.

However, the National Historic Preservation Act drives the federal policy of historic preservation in the United States. The NHPA (1966) established federal, state and local responsibilities. The short version of the story is that the NHPA is a response to governments demolishing historic structures, buildings and entire neighborhoods, particularly following World War II. This law would require the federal government to identify historic properties and to take into account its effects on those resources.

The National Historic Preservation Act established federal preservation policy and procedures through these components:

  • Outlined federal/state/tribal/local partnerships to implement these programs (including establishing State Historic Preservation Officers and offices)
  • Establishing the National Register of Historic Places
  • Establishing the Section 106 review process
  • Establishing the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation
  • Establishing Section 110 (which requires federal agencies to be stewards of their historic properties)
  • Authorized matching grants and the Historic Preservation Fund

Read more about these components from the National Trust or the National Park Service. You can read the full text of the NHPA via the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.

Where would we be without the NHPA? Not even close to where we are now in historic preservation, and we should thank our lucky stars for the NHPA and all of its components. What do you think?

Preservation ABCs: J is for Joist

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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J is for Joist

JisforJoistjpg

Historic preservation includes many fields and subjects, but at the core of the preservation field itself is buildings. Understanding the construction of a building and its elements will go a long way in conversation and in finding solutions. When looking at the “bones” of a building, joist is a good component to recognize. In the above picture the three members shown lengthwise are called joists.  A joist is a parallel horizontal beam that supports the floor and ceiling boards.

What you are looking at in this image are three joists with the floorboards of the second floor shown above the joists. In this particular instance, the ceiling plaster and lath has been removed, exposing the space between the ceiling and the second floor. The white marks on the joists are marks left behind from the plaster keys. You can also see knob and tube wiring (white ceramic cylinders and black wires) as well as new electrical wiring (yellow wire).  Joists can be made from wood (timber), steel, or reinforced concrete.

Joists are important, obviously, as they hold up ceilings and support floors. The best way to illustrate the function of joists? In college my professor told us that if we were unsure of the structural stability of a floor to be sure to walk on the joists. You’re more likely to go through a floor than a joist (not that you should put yourself in such a precarious position in the first place, of course).

The moral of this story? Learn your structural elements. And walk on the joists.

Preservation ABCs: B is for Bridge

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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B is for Bridge

A historic plate girder bridge on an active rail line in Richford, VT. Historic bridges come in all shapes, sizes and structures.

A bridge carries a road, rail line or other traveled way over a watercourse, landform or even other thoroughfares. Most will think of our great bridges such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Verazzano Bridge, the Lake Champlain Bridge, Scotland’s Fourth Rail Bridge, the London Bridge and other engineering marvels. But like that photograph above, a simple plate girder bridge on the rail line, small bridges play an important role in our history and landscape as well.

Bridges are constructed of wood, iron, steel, concrete or stone. The technology of bridge engineering is endless but a list of common types includes covered, wood truss, metal truss, concrete arch, masonry arch, girder, suspension, cable stay — you have probably heard many of these terms.

Although we could discuss bridge engineering and delve into types of trusses and structural systems, the better lesson of these Preservation ABCs is to understand why bridges are important on the landscape. If you’re not an engineer or a preservationist working in the transportation world, why do bridges matter to you? There are a few simple reasons to share.

First, bridges are part of our collective settlement patterns and how we move throughout the landscape, where we go, how we cross uneven landforms or waterbodies. Many bridges we can see on the landscape as we travel up hills, down hills or approach from the distance. Bridges signal a change in the ground beneath our feet and our vehicles. They allow us to read our environment.

Second, bridges are integral parts of our communities. While more than indications of a change in landscape, bridges serve as the gateways to communities, large or small. Bridges are visual structures just as buildings, which hold stories, memories, history and contribute to historic districts and settings. Even without understanding the engineering, it is feasible to read a bridge by its materials, design and railing ornamentation. This will place the bridge in a certain time period. For example, many truss bridges in Vermont were constructed following the 1927 flood, which destroyed hundreds of bridges. These are standing reminders of that period in history.

Third, the construction and engineering of bridges represents advances and lessons in our technology and the reach of our resources. Many early bridges, such as wood truss bridges in Vermont, were constructed by hand with local materials, based on the know-how of locals. Why? Because that is what was available. Iron could not be forged and shipped across colonial America. As technology changed, the industrial plants developed, the population and knowledge base grew, roads improved, ideas shared more easily, etc. every community had greater access to materials, experts, plans and technology.

There you have it: reading the environment, being an integral part of history and current communities, and telling the story of technology and innovation. The list could go on. Maybe you just like the aesthetics of bridges. That’s a good place to start, too.

These ideas and reasons for the importance of bridges are intertwined, but hopefully aid in appreciation as to why our historic bridges matter.

Preservation ABCs: A is for Alley

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! 

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A is for ALLEY

Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia, PA. Photo source: Library of Congress. “GENERAL VIEW OF NORTH (LEFT) AND SOUTH SIDES OF THE ALLEY, LOOKING EAST” Click to go to original digital source.

What is an alley? An alley is a small, narrow street between or behind buildings, mostly in urban settings. Some alleys are for pedestrians only, some are for automobiles to access garages. What does an alley have to do with historic preservation? Alleyways are part of our planning and development history, giving us clues to how people traversed cities and used space. Also, think of it this way: as a culture, we are more likely to spruce front yards, building facades and the most publicly visible spaces that we inhabit. Alleys have the potential to show what the building looked like prior to improvements or stylized additions. 

Alleys are also working corridors. Often these narrow spaces between and behind buildings exist for services (trash collection, deliveries, vehicle parking) and are less traveled than the sidewalks on the streetscape. Because they are less traveled, alleys hold mystery.

Want to visit an alley? Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia, PA is a National Historic Landmark.

Preservation ABCs

A new school year has begun, and we’ve talked about preservation inspiration. Whether in school or not, we are constant preservation scholars learning how to read buildings, interpret regulations, apply tax credits, convey the preservation mission and many other tasks on a daily basis. Look at yourself one year ago – what new bits of information do you know? What connections to other fields do you see now that you haven’t seen before? What was your greatest work accomplishment in these past 12 months? Give yourself some credit and a pat on the back. Be proud and use that knowledge to continue doing your best. And now think about what you want to learn this year. What book do you want to read?

A couple of other preservation based blogs have good preservation education series if you want to learn a snippet at a time. Preservation in Mississippi (It Ain’t All Moonlight and Magnolias) has an “Architectural Word of the Week” series. Historic Indianapolis features a “Building Language” series. Check out their posts to improve your architectural vocabulary and understanding. For a good overview of terms, read the Historic Preservation Abbreviations You Should Know on HistPres.

Taking a cue from these great ideas, Preservation in Pink will begin featuring the ABCs of Historic Preservation, from A to Z, addressing the wide reach of historic preservation. We’ll start with A and work our way through the alphabet. If you have any ideas, send them along. Look for “A” later today. And follow the Preservation ABCs category for this series.

The Pierce School in Lunenburg, Vermont.

Drive-by Survey Quiz

Located on Route 22A in Bridport, VT.

Nice house, right?

I love to drive, even if I’m driving alone, but the downside is that the level of sight-seeing is less than if I were passenger (generally speaking; I suppose it could just be a different perspective). So, as I’ve passed this house from time to time, I’ve thought a variety of things (please don’t judge me based on my split second drive-by thoughts):

Ooh, cute house.

Nice house.

Central chimney. Pedimented windows. Wood shingle roof.

Something looks different about it.

It’s too perfect.

Is that new construction? It’s a good imitation of historic. It’s going for connected architecture, I guess.

Clearly a new garage.

One of these days I’ve got to take a picture.

It must have a nice view.

Finally, earlier this week, I stopped on the side of the road to take a picture (and my car was greeted by a large German shepherd…oh the perils of roadside photography). Since I wasn’t just driving by, I could actually look at the house, in all of its confusing manner.

New or historic? Where are the front steps?

New.

Aside from the too-perfectness, what gives it away?

Click on the picture and zoom in. Check out the foundation. It’s poured concrete; a concrete slab. A historic house with a massive central chimney would not have a poured foundation — among other things.

Bridport, VT.

What do you think?

Do you agree? What would you say about this house?

Is it an example of new construction to blend in with surrounding historic homes? Or is it too confusing? Maybe you can spot the obvious new characteristics right away, but I have to admit that this house perplexes me more than others.