Preservation Photos #203

Bradford, VT.

Bradford, VT.

This house is actually covered in vinyl, but it’s still striking. Don’t get excited: vinyl siding does not belong on a historic house. Consider this the exception to the rule.

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.}

Guest Post Series: The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding

newseries.jpg

Can you tell the difference between vinyl siding and clapboard siding?  How often does the difference cross your mind?  Why do we still have to make arguments against vinyl siding?

Preservation in Pink is proud to feature a new guest series entitled “The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding” written by Philip B. Keyes. The four-part series begins on Monday March 4 and will continue throughout the week. No matter what your position on vinyl siding, this series is sure to enlighten preservationists and others. Check back tomorrow for a good read, and hopefully good discussion between many readers. {Update: links to all parts below.}

Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four.

If Someone Offered Free Vinyl Siding

Note: This is going to get a bit lengthy, but if you are interested in my ongoing battle with insulation decisions, read on.

Last week, we had a free post flood assessment offered courtesy of Efficiency Vermont. The organization has really stepped up to help those affected by the flood throughout Vermont. Though I signed up beforehand, I heard more about the post flood assessment at the Button Up Vermont Workshop, and was under the impression that the assessment would address all sorts of flood related problems: moisture, mold, air sealing, insulation, etc. Although insulation wasn’t on my list of post-flood worries, I was eager to talk to someone about mold and cleaning my house and to hear about other energy efficiency measures for future reference.

I need to note that the contractor who visited my house was a subcontractor of – not an employee of – Efficiency Vermont.

Upon the contractor’s arrival, I summarized the flood damage and events for him, but what he really wanted to see was the basement. After I explained the water levels and what we did to clean the basement, etc., he looked around and asked if I would be opposed to spray foam.

SPRAY FOAM?  As if I wanted to talk about spray foam. However, I gave the contractor the benefit of the doubt and said that I am opposed to spray foam, but if he could convince me of the merits of spray foam, then I’d consider. This was a matter of understanding the product, not questioning his professional abilities. He didn’t have a great answer for me, but we talked about air flow and the space in between the first floor joists. (For reference, there is absolutely no insulation in my basement.) He said my basement was perfect for foam because it could be hidden and there wasn’t really an aesthetic to ruin; it’s not like I had a dry laid stone foundation. Aesthetics is only one part of my concerns.

The contractor mentioned that normally putting spray foam in a basement like mine – just between the joists, above the concrete foundation – would be about $1500. Hmm, that sounded like a good chunk of savings. I considered it a bit more, with caution. I said I had to talk to my husband about it. When I couldn’t reach him, I called my father-in-law, who seemed to be in favor of it. However, I was still not convinced (because I’m difficult like that).

In the meantime, the contractor said he would do a blower-door test. That was neat! If you’re wondering, our house is completely average for air leakage. While this was going on, I was frantically reading about spray foam online and harassing a few preservation colleagues for their opinions (thanks, Jen). Nothing I read about spray foam was beneficial to historic buildings. Nothing. Yikes! For starters, here is a paper from Historic New England.

Why so frantic? Well, it seemed like a decision that I had to make that day. Admittedly, I did not ask outright, but that seemed to be the case. Back to discussions with the contractor. He had said that either you insulate everything or nothing at all; you can’t insulate half your house if the other half is not insulated. I brought that up, figuring that my walls did not have insulation. Why should I insulate the basement, I asked? No good answer. He also told me that spray foam isn’t reversible. And he never mentioned anything about a vapor barrier.

Finally, Vinny and I had a chance to talk. I told him that something about spray foam just made me nervous (well, lots of things) even if it’s just in a few spots. I didn’t want to regret doing something later. The only thing that sounded good about this offer was that it would be absolutely free to us. Vinny, agreeing with my hesitation, said to me,  “If someone came around and offered free vinyl siding and installation, would you take it?”  Without skipping a beat I scoffed and said, “No.”  He replied, “There’s your answer.”

Good point. Doing something to my house just because it’s free, when it’s something that neither one of us feels comfortable with or has researched enough, would be a ridiculous decision. My main conclusion was that the 83-year-old house does not have any problems, but I change the air flow, it’s quite possibly asking for problems. Right? Why ruin a good thing and fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed? Before we decided on the amount of heat loss and cost and understand how this house works through winter, we shouldn’t mess with the system.

However, this particular contractor was focused purely on air sealing. To his credit, he did talk buildings with me and gave me much to think about. He looked in the attic and checked out the insulation there (currently 6″ of cellulose that possibly doesn’t extend to the eaves – yes, I am aware that it needs to be addressed). He was patient with me and didn’t give me a hard time when I sort of said okay for spray foam and then nevermind. Perhaps it was my own mistake, but I was not under the impression that this assessment would only be about air sealing. After all, you can’t air seal your basement and not consider the effects on or what is needed for the rest of the house.

If someone such as myself who is so vehemently opposed to spray foam (in my own house anyway) could waver a bit by the temptation of free work and materials, then surely I was not ready to make such an important decision without any warning ahead of time. I hate to think that others made rash decisions for their own buildings.

This is not meant to sound like a rant, but more to explain why I was probably the worst candidate for this type of flood “assessment.” I am grateful for Efficiency Vermont’s assistance to flood victims across the state and think overall they’re doing a great job. However, their sub-contractors on this job should be better informed.

The most beneficial part of the “assessment” was realizing just how much I need to study before making decisions about insulation. It was a good reality check for me as a new homeowner to think carefully through every major project.  But for now, I’m holding true to my anti-spray foam and air sealing, especially because the drafts of my historic house are no worse than a normal house less than half its age.

We can discuss other types of insulation after I read some more material. This graduate thesis by Sarah Elizabeth Welniak, Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings, seems like a good place to start. What else do you recommend?

Miscellaneous Entertainment

I thought I’d compile a list of entertaining one-liners that I’ve heard relating to preservation. It’s raining here in Vermont and I think everyone could use a smile. Okay, maybe some are more than one-liners.

* Vinyl is final.

* Vinyl? It’s plastic. You covered your house in plastic.

* There is no such thing as maintenance-free; it means you can’t maintain it.

* A friend described the process of getting a bath fitter in his bathroom and ended it with “wham bam thank you ma’am.” Another friend and I looked at each other and decided this: Any action to a building that can be described as “wham bam thank you ma’am” is most likely a bad idea.

The aforementioned bath fitter is one of my biggest pet peeves about home remodeling, whether it is a historic, old, or new house, but especially for historic homes. What are your pet peeves? At the top of my list are:

1. vinyl replacement windows

2. vinyl siding

3. drop ceilings

4. baseboard heaters

5. bath fitters

What would you add to either list?