On the Siding

Siding has been used to clad all kinds of structures for centuries. Early American settlers installed siding on their homes, for example. Throughout the years, technological developments and modern materials have exponentially increased the performance and durability of siding systems. Still, with myriad siding options available today, very often building professionals try to echo the look of the siding used by those first settlers.

“The gold standard in appearance is cedar siding. Whether you start with vinyl, cement or aspen wood, we’re all basically trying to replicate the look of authentic cedar,” says Ben Skoog, business marketing manager at Nashville, Tenn.-based LP Building Products, a manufacturer of treated engineered wood siding. “Many homeowners want that wood-grain aesthetic.”

Although homeowners may want their exterior walls to mimic the appearance of those homes from generations gone by, they also want them to perform like the modern 21st century structures they are. The technology built into today’s siding solutions allows for that balance between the classic and the modern. Synthetic and engineered natural materials offer a wide array of looks, along with the kind of durability and low maintenance desired by contractors and consumers.

Got the Look

Aesthetics have always been major drivers for homeowners, builders and remodelers when choosing siding or cladding systems, and nothing indicates that trend will change anytime soon. Siding provides the first visual impression of a home and, in a tough market where sellers have to compete harder than ever to catch the eyes of a limited pool of buyers, selecting the right siding can mean the difference between a home selling or languishing on the market.

“[Siding] is what the homeowner looks at first, whether for resale or initial sale,” says Jery Y. Huntley, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Vinyl Siding Institute. “If it doesn’t look good, buyers are not even going to go into the house these days. We know vinyl siding can provide the necessary curb appeal.”

As with anything, whether it’s clothing, hairstyles or home designs, fashions evolve and change. With siding, there are several aesthetic trends that seem to be prevalent at the moment. “We’re seeing the increased trend of mixing and matching materials to create a unique exterior, as well as a demand for dark colors,” says Jerry Blais, vice president of marketing for Ply Gem Siding Group, Kansas City, Mo. “It’s difficult to predict what the industry will be like in the future, but we anticipate a continued interest in vinyl and polymer siding products due to versatility and low maintenance, plus a continued interest in mixing and matching materials like siding and stone veneer.”

Charlie Graves, owner of Graves Brothers Home Improvement Co., Rochester, N.Y., also sees this trend toward darker colors among his customers. “I’ve been seeing an increased demand for injection-molded products … as well as dark-colored siding. Over the years, I’ve seen trending colors go from pastels to Earth tones and now even deeper.”

A variety of materials and systems provides looks to fit just about any aesthetic taste. Vinyl siding has been a dominant market force for several years, but other types of siding, such as pretreated engineered wood siding, fiber cement siding, stucco and others have taken their share of the pie. Regional and personal tastes can vary wildly and with so many options, siding offers something to please everyone’s tastes.

“We see a trend toward combining different types of siding,” Huntley says. “For example, a home might have vinyl siding and then shakes around the gable for an accent. Or there might be vinyl siding with brick on a house or with stucco, stone or another material.”

There is a growing demand for siding products that have the look of natural materials, but have the kinds of durability and energy-efficiency qualities of synthetic or engineered materials. Making siding that looks like something else is something the industry struggled with early on, but new material advancements have opened many possibilities.

“The history of the industry is littered with not-so-authentic looking things that have tried to look like cedar or stucco but kind of lost it around third base. They don’t make it all the way home,” Skoog explains. “Today, engineered products are quickly replacing traditional products due to significant advancements in building materials technology.”

Built to Last

Although looks may be one of the top considerations for homeowners, remodelers and builders, it is not the only thing to factor into the decision-making process. Durability, maintenance and cost are other important drivers. “We know value is especially important in this market,” Huntley says. With budgets tight at all levels, initial installed cost can often be a major part of the decision but long-term impacts are on the minds of siding decision makers, as well.

“A survey we conducted of remodelers and homeowners found that low-maintenance is extremely important these days,” Huntley continues. “In a world of single-parent or single-person households, no one wants to spend the time we used to spend taking care of our homes, so low-maintenance features of vinyl siding have been really important.”

Although first costs are still a major factor for most choosing a siding system, the life-cycle impacts of siding definitely figure into the decision. “We always want to start by getting a feel for the customer’s current situation,” explains Tom Dustman, president of Vekton Corp., a remodeler in Rochester. “Are they looking to remodel in order to sell? Will they be moving in a couple of years? Is this a home they plan to stay in for a long time? These considerations help us work with customers to find a solution that fits their specific needs.”

Demand for insulated siding has been increasing, even if the focus on sustainability has waned somewhat in today’s tough economy. Although initial upfront costs dominate the conversation, long-term energy efficiency and life-cycle performance are still part of the equation. “Organizations like the Vinyl Siding Institute are making strides to educate the industry and consumers about insulated siding as a way to improve a home’s energy performance,” Blais says.

Following a tidal wave of greenwashing in years past, the marketplace has become much more sophisticated about sustainability, and green claims generally need to be backed up with more than words. Groups like VSI are working on life-cycle assessments to provide that kind of backup. “There needs to be more of a focus on data behind any claims,” Huntley asserts. “That’s why we’ve been upfront about our work and our presentations being data-driven.”

The More You Know

In all segments of the siding industry, educating installers and consumers has been a major point of emphasis. “Education is the cornerstone. We’re teaching [remodelers] not only about the product and the science in it, but also the business model, how to generate leads and how to partner with manufacturers,” Skoog says.

“Our goal has been to educate based on data,” Huntley says. “It’s a very old-fashioned philosophy that if you put the data out there, the customer will make the appropriate choice. That’s very important to us.”

Online technology and applications have provided new and dynamic tools to help consumers and remodelers make siding decisions. More manufacturers are using online visualizer tools that allow users to select different siding options and apply them to home styles to get a realistic vision of how different systems will look and operate. Some programs even allow users to upload a photo of their own home to visualize new siding. “These have been designed as business-building tools for remodelers to help jump-start conversations with homeowners while delivering a better solution to meet their needs and personality,” Blais explains.

As the construction industry continues to find its footing in a slow economic recovery, the siding industry is confident information and education will continue to drive its business upward. “I think our challenge is to educate product specifiers in a data-driven manner and make it interesting,” Huntley says. “It’s not just making claims, but talking about what’s behind those claims.”

Allen Barry writes about remodeling and construction from Chicago.