Monday, March 11, 2019


Is using gobs and gobs of fossil-fueled
PVC the way to avoid maintenance?
Well, maybe for a little while. . .
I recently read about a new home that boasted of nearly zero maintenance. The architect says he accomplished this by using materials such as synthetic stone set in plasticized mortar, vinyl-clad aluminum trim, and a PVC-plastic fence. I gather that all this fossil fuel-based stuff is considered low maintenance because it’ll all fall to pieces before you have to paint it.

The mantra of relying on high-tech materials to cut maintenance is one that was dear to Modernist architects for half a century. They were convinced that futuristic products such as stainless steel, neoprene roofing, and Plexiglas could make their buildings look brand new forever. One need only look at an aging Bauhaus design to see that, sadly, it just ain’t so.

Stucco is virtually maintenance free, and
can even be colored integrally.
But the Romans already knew that.
We Americans are obsessed with keeping everything “looking like new”. But designing a low-maintenance home doesn’t require cutting-edge technology or—heaven help us— PVC plastic trim. Just the opposite: it demands durable, low-tech materials that can take the ravages of time with predictable results. Here are a few proven winners:

•  Exterior walls. Stucco—a proven material that dates back to Roman times—is still the hands-down champion for ease of maintenance. It’s basically sand and cement, so it’s much tougher than any wood-based product. Moreover,  if you have the stucco's final or “skim” coat integrally colored, you’ll never need to paint it again.  Stucco’s durability trounces trounces organic finishes such as solid wood, plywood, hardboard and shingle. To top it off, it’s also quite economical. Stucco’s main drawback: its undeserved crackerbox-tract reputation which, fortunately, can easily be overcome by good designer.

If you love wood windows, hate maintenance,
and have money to burn, consider clad wood
windows—they're protected by fiberglass
or aluminum on the outside, but still
look like wood on the inside.
•  Windows. Although wood windows are still considered the ultimate in quality, they’re also the ultimate in maintenance—they’ll quickly deteriorate if not kept in top condition. For better or worse, aluminum windows remain the most trouble-free window choice, as well as one of the most economical. Aluminum windows don’t warp or shrink like wood, nor do they rust like the steel windows of the 1940s. However, unprotected aluminum will oxidize in damp climates, so it’s not invulnerable either.

Vinyl windows are now the default standard for the lower price ranges, and their manufacturers love to wave lab tests “proving” their durability in front of anyone who’ll listen. For my money, however, vinyl windows haven’t yet passed the acid test:  a generation or so of exposure in actual installations.  We’ll see how they fare in another ten years or so.

Another ancient material whose durability is hard to beat—
clay barrel tile. The less you maintain them, the happier
they are—so stay the heck off of the roof.
For those of you who can’t give up on wood windows—and who have money to burn—check out the aluminum-clad or fiberglass-clad wood windows, which are more resistant to extremes of weather.

•  Roofing.  In this case, ease of maintenance translates into the number of years between new roofs, and it’s directly related to first cost. Materials with a relatively low first cost, such as tar and gravel, composition shingle, wood shingle, and wood shake will usually need to be replaced several times during the life of the house. The only roof materials that can be expected to last as long as your home are concrete tile (including artificial shingle, shake and slate), clay tile, slate, and metal roofs such as copper. 

Alas, most people are unwilling or unable to pay the up-front premium for this kind of durability. 
So where are those plastic-coated aluminum shingles when you need them?

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