Five Reasons Not to Hate Vinyl Siding

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Vinyl siding: Love it or hate it?

Well, apparently pigs fly. Here’s a post I never thought I’d write. When I was in grad school for historic preservation, I would have balked at the idea of reading a post singing the praises of vinyl siding, let alone authoring one. Vinyl siding is the butt of many a preservation joke. It’s just so EASY. Covering your house in plastic? Seriously?

But I’ll admit, since starting the Wooden House Project I’ve developed a soft spot for the stuff, and with this post I offer my argument as to why it’s not as bad as everyone likes to think. I’m aware that this is a highly divisive topic, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we all go out and clad our houses in vinyl siding (or aluminum or asphalt, which I’m lumping in here as well). Why? Watch this. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be so quick to hate on it.

 

1) Because today we have wooden houses to restore

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Wooden houses all over Brooklyn are getting facelifts

A few months ago, my favorite historian and tour guide Francis Morrone sent me an email. “Let’s meet for lunch. I’d love to tell you why we should be more forgiving of vinyl siding.” To which I replied, “Francis, I’ll buy you lunch if you can convince me to like vinyl siding.” Francis bought me lunch that day, but it was not because he had failed to convince me; it was because he’s such a nice person. In fact, within five minutes he had flipped all of my preservation grad school notions right on their stuck-up little heads.

“Imagine this,” said Francis, who went on to paint a colorful picture of less economically prosperous Brooklyn. Imagine that you live in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s. Everyone else has left, or is on their way out. But you won’t/can’t/don’t want to leave. Brooklyn is home. You are determined to stick it out, to ride through the hard times. Financing to fix up your house just isn’t available — times are tough. What do you do? You clad your house in vinyl siding and hope for better days.

I had to admit he had a point. A very good point. The nice thing about all these layers of siding is that in most cases they were placed over the original clapboard; they did not actually replace it. Underneath, the wood survives. Could it be that today’s abundance of wooden house fixer-uppers are here today in part because of vinyl siding? Makes me almost love the stuff.

 

2) Because of Keramos Hall

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Keramos Hall  (photo courtesy Kamen Tall Architects)

Greenpoint’s newest crown jewel is a case in point. What Francis described is exactly what happened to Bill Weidman, owner of Keramos Hall and recipient of the Landmarks Conservancy’s prestigious Lucy G. Moses Award last year for the restoration of his building. Bill purchased Keramos Hall in 1962 when Greenpoint was a much different place, and shortly thereafter found a photo of the building dating from 1910. “I just knew that if the building was brought back to its former Victorian splendor it would just be an outstanding structure… I just wanted something nice, I wanted to bring it back to life,” he recalls.

The building’s clapboard was exposed but in very poor condition when Bill purchased the building (it hadn’t been painted in decades). Because he didn’t have the funds to restore it right away, he covered the facade in asphalt shingles and set aside reserves for the next several decades in order to pay for the work. “I always said that as long I owned it, that I would bring it back,” he says. “Just after the millenium I started to think about doing it. I felt the time was right for it.”

In 2008, when Kamen Tall Architects finally began the award-winning restoration work, they removed the shingles and salvaged the original clapboard underneath, which had survived under the asphalt for 50 years. Most of the wood you see on Keramos Hall today is original to the building.

 

3) Because a fixer-upper beats a teardown anyday

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Wooden houses on 11th Street about to be demolished for a new condo development

Restoring a clapboard facade is expensive. That said, it looks amazing. If you’re in the camp that can afford it, I beg you: Do it! But for the rest of us, sometimes a facade restoration is just too much to handle for the time being, and while it’s certainly a dream, fixing that leaky roof might take precedent for now. Many homeowners wait many years before tackling the facade, making the interior of their house livable before all else. The low maintenance of vinyl siding allows them the time and space to do this, while saving up to take the big plunge.

Nothing pains me more than seeing a building torn down because it’s just too expensive to restore, or because it’s been neglected. How many developers have made that claim? What we get in that case is another out-of-scale condo by a developer who lives nowhere near the neighborhood and cares little for its well-being. I’d take a row of vinyl-clad homes anyday. Bring on the fixer-uppers.

 

4) Because of 295 13th Street

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Lydia Robertson’s house at 295 13th Street

I wanted to kiss homeowner Lydia Robertson the day I met her. To me, she embodies everything that is wonderful about the Wooden House Project. Why? Because she loves her house. She loves talking about her house. She loves inviting people into her house (those who took our Gingerbread Houses of the South Slope tour back in June got to peek inside). She hasn’t done a perfect, historically accurate restoration. But she’s done her perfect restoration. And we love it. So does the Park Slope Civic Council, who featured Lydia’s house on their annual house tour a few years ago.

No. 295 13th Street is as gingerbready as they come — bright blue, yellow and pink accents are all over the facade. The intention when Lydia purchased the house was to continue her family’s tradition of inviting temporary foster children inside. “I did the facade first, because I wanted it to be inviting. I wanted these children to feel happy and comfortable the moment they stepped through the door,” Lydia says.

The facade of Lydia’s house was clad in aluminum when she purchased it. It still is. With a creative paint job, Lydia was able to make a pretty magical renovation happen within a limited budget. And THAT is what the Wooden House Project is all about.

 

5) Because frankly, it’s a lot more interesting this way

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Houses in Brooklyn are a clad in a variety of different materials

I am so lucky to live in a frame-heavy neighborhood in Brooklyn, where everyday a new original facade is revealed. It’s all about the discovery. What fun would this be if everything was already out in the open? And yet, some of the Wooden House Project’s most loyal supporters are proud owners of vinyl-clad homes. They’ll probably always be that way. And you know what? We think that’s just fine.

  • Lisa Buckley

    I was right there with you back in the day on the horror of synthetic siding, and as an Architectural Review Board member in my village, I strongly discourage applicants from using vinyl. However, now that I’m the proud owner of a woodframe home (albeit not in Brooklyn), in an ideal world, I would love to remove the aluminum siding and restore it to its former wood-clad glory. The reality of the situation is that I cannot afford to do that and keeping water out of the basement takes priority when it comes to house projects. What I have discovered as one of the benefits of aluminum siding is that it can be painted! Now if I could only decide on a color…..

    • Wooden House Project

      Lisa – I love it! If we could only see ourselves now, what would we have said to those idealistic young students at Pratt? Haha. Good luck choosing a color. Lydia (mentioned in the post) painted her aluminum-sided house and it looks amazing. You can’t even tell!

    • Kingston

      Don’t touch that aluminum unless you have loads of money for a really top-notch paint job! I greatly regret removing the aluminum siding from my Victorian foursquare. The paint on the clapboard was in poor shape (though the clapboard itself is fine), and the paint job I had done about 5 years ago is a peeling, chipping mess of toxic lead and latex today (despite the painters’ lengthy prep). We can’t afford to remediate it properly and so now have not much choice but to encase it in vinyl. Maybe one day it will be possible to do a proper restoration, but for now, oh, how I wish I had just painted the aluminum. I’m hoping we can make the vinyl less onerous by 1) using a dark color (maybe slate gray) rather than a typical pastel shade; 2) not cladding the wood window trim but painting the wood a vivid color so it will pop from the vinyl; 3) leaving as much real wood as possible (frieze board and soffits).

  • http://www.ccgreenwoodhts.com CCGH

    Welcome to the dark side!

    Part of the reason we moved to Greenwood Hts./South Slope was the diversity in the community and the housing stock. And we bought a fixer-upper frame too boot. While we did a complete gut reno on the interior. The vinyl on the front, and asphalt faux-brick shingles in the back, were in good enough shape to leave for a future project.

    Fast forward 5 years and the shingles, which turned out to be fairly waterlogged, were pulled down. Our predecessors had remove the clapboard, cut off the tongue and reinstalled it as sheathing. So what did we update it with? Vinyl. DIY and it looks great.

    Does it mean we won’t redo our vinyl one day, if we do, probably with standing seam (see the frame house on 7th Ave between 22nd St and 23rd St., though we would go red), but the vinyl works for us.

    Vinyl and proud, I always have said!

    • Wooden House Project

      Aaron – I remember when I first talked to you, you said you were “vinyl and proud.” And that stuck with me! I’ve learned a lot about what that means in the years since. Someone could write a whole dissertation on this topic!

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  • Shannon Haltiwanger

    I just don’t know what to say, five years go by and we all of a sudden understand/respect vinyl now. Still not fan, and will never be a fan of a new house being built out of vinyl. But I now respoect it for the way that it can protect our historic fabric until funds are available to properly restore. I wonder what the differences is on the orginal materials underneath the vinyl depending on the climate. I would think in extreme humidiy that it might not protect the wood, or maybe it seals it so much that weather is not a factor. Yep this could be a theis topic.

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