A New Spin on Classic Designs

Not so long ago, traditionalists never would have dreamt of using anything other than real wood or metal for decorative architectural elements on their homes even though a new product market was emerging. Manufacturers began to experiment with plastics and composites made from synthetic or recycled materials for everything from ornamental finials and cupolas to shutters and front doors. But the visual appeal of plastics and composites was still questionable. Now that’s changing and use of plastics and composite elements as alternatives to natural wood or metal in residential remodeling is definitely on the rise.

Face Value

In just the past few years, the quality and aesthetics of plastics and composite materials has made enormous strides. Technological advances allow manufacturers to digitize real wood and simulate wood grains. Colors can be added into a product mix so plastics and composites don’t need to be painted, and the plastics and composites that do require paint don’t need primer and accept the paint better than real wood. Like wood, however, many products can be mitered, routed and turned on a lathe. Combinations of plastic and composite substrates with natural material coverings offer homeowners lighter-weight alternatives. These improvements and the flexibility plastics and composites offer have heightened their value at a time when homeowner preferences are shifting.

Steve Mickley, executive director of the American Institute of Building Design, Washington, D.C., says his 900 members report their use of plastics and composites is growing as the desire for decorative home details increases. Mickley points to a surge in homeowners who want to revive their residences to their authentic architectural styles. “There were many unfortunate remodels of older homes between the 1950s and 1970s, and some of the best projects we see today are owners returning their homes to their original splendor,” Mickley says. “In many cases, original products that match the home’s style no longer exist, but plastic and composite materials can be heat-form manufactured to re-create unique ornamental elements.”

Jerry Blais, vice president of marketing for the Siding Group of Cary, N.C.-based Ply Gem, also notes that people with smaller-footprint homes still want curb appeal. “Composites offer homeowners a way out of the cookie-cutter syndrome as subtle details can turn an ordinary house into an extraordinary one,” Blais explains. “By accenting the house, you can distinguish the home with a mix of colors, profiles and textures that deliver historically accurate architectural styles whether that’s Victorian, French Country, Craftsman or Georgian.”

Price and Practicality

The cost of plastics and composites compared to the real thing varies with the natural material being replaced. For many ornamental treatments that were traditionally wood, plastics and composites are cost-competitive. Depending on the type of wood, plastics and composites actually may cost more. Mickley says that although 95 percent of AIBD’s members specify composite products, the availability of less expensive wood products is one reason composites may not get used in the in the field. The other reason is resistance to change. When certain products are glued together correctly the appearance can be seamless, but acquiring the knowledge to do it right can be perceived as inefficient in the field. “There is a tendency to get things done as quickly and inexpensively as possible on the job,” Mickley notes. “Once tradespeople are convinced that composites can be installed as easily—or even more easily—than wood, they will become more widely used.”

Metal is one area where the price of plastics and composites can shine. Teri Ward, president of Sand Springs, Okla.-based Copper Bella, says the trend to replace metals with plastics has been around for years. “In the automotive and aeronautics industry, there was a huge drive to find plastic alternatives to metal to reduce weight,” Ward says. “Similar applications began to make sense in the building industry when the cost of copper kept increasing and many homeowners who wanted to add or replace copper details became priced out of the market.”

Now, electroplated thermoplastic bases make copper finials, cupolas and dormer vents much more affordable. From a practical standpoint, the decorative elements can be mass-produced with no rivets, solder or sheet-metal warps. They have nearly invisible seams and patina just like solid copper.

Lasting Impression

A major benefit of plastics and composites is that they wear very well. Richard Bubnowski, owner of Richard Bubnowski Design, Point Pleasant, N.J., has designed residences and remodels along the New Jersey coastline for the past seven years. Here, homes are battered by wind and horizontal rains, misted with salt and baked in the sun. “We’re finding that architects, remodelers and homeowners who were once purists about using real wood are turning to polymer plastic products for trim, cornices, cove mouldings, shutters.” says Bubnowski. “The composites are water-resistant, impervious to insects and won’t warp—features that are really important in these harsh conditions.” Moreover, many of the houses are vacation homes and the plastic and composite elements have the added benefit of requiring less maintenance.

Retiring Baby Boomers and young professionals who put in many hours at work also are looking for low-maintenance exterior architectural elements. Composites typically won’t split, crack, splinter or warp, and they are easy to clean, which means they don’t need to be touched up, resanded or restained every few years. “Manufacturers can also incorporate dark colors, and protective resins also provide ultraviolet protection to protect finishes to prevent fading,” Ward adds.

Because plastics and composites are resistant to insects, weather, chemical rotting and corrosion, they come with long warranties, and Mickley says life-cycle costing of any product should be a factor. “It’s like buying an automobile,” he explains. “You’d take the gas mileage, maintenance costs and how long the vehicle is intended to last into consideration. If a plastic or composite costs more, you need to look at what you are really getting for your money over the long term.”

Putting It All Together

Although plastics and composites are definitely gaining market share, Bubnowski says they will never replace certain natural products entirely because there are many natural qualities that plastics and composites cannot duplicate. “When you use synthetics, know what you’re really after and use the materials for what they’re meant to do,” he advises. “For example, if your clients want wood siding, use wood siding. But if they want slightly less maintenance, the combination of composites with wood siding or using composites as a siding finish itself can be very successful.”

Mickley warns that some manufacturers have unwittingly produced elements not true to their stylistic origins, like adding wood grain to traditional style decorative elements where the grain was originally smooth. For those with clients seeking architectural authenticity, intricate knowledge of the proper details becomes important.

Blais says the challenge in remodeling is having the tools to understand what the homeowner really wants. “If a homeowner is interested in an architecturally accurate style, the remodeler and homeowner need to get educated about which details, accents and elements comprise that style overall before selecting any decorative elements.”