So our house is completely covered in vinyl siding. To me vinyl siding is sad to see on older homes – I think it is sort of like demanding that your 80 year old grandmother wear a tube top -it just isn’t an appropriate solution. I understand the reasons people install vinyl siding, no upkeep, ease of installation, affordable, and because it vaguely resembles historic wooden siding. I have even installed vinyl siding myself on a habitat for humanity project- and I think it is a total viable option on new construction and that it can even look quite elegant – as in Twilight Fields; but on an old structure? I am not sold; and here are my reasons.
1) When your eye sees a facade you read it much like a face – the windows as the eyes – the door as the mouth etc – there are rules of symmetry and proportion that makes us regard a facade as either a George Clooney or well er… not. One of my favorite studios in school was when we had to design a building and render it by hand with shaded drawings; we had to consider how light and shadows would bring out details like line and texture. No other studio had actually challenged us as architecture students to consider shadows or depth on the facade before – we were taught very much under Adolf Loos creed ‘ornament is crime’. But ANYWAYS… When vinyl siding is added to an old building they use horrible stock plastic moldings to skim around the window trim and because of that you lose all that interesting (and unique!) details like texture, shadows and proportions. The result just looks like a bad face lift – yes it is tighter – and cleaner looking but it is also weird and false. In the picture above you can see how the classic Greek revival column corner trim is no longer there in our facade – it totally ruins the proportions of the front (I really hope they are intact underneath!!!)
2) Respect your elders – because you just can’t ever recreate an old house. What I love about old houses is that their elements tell a combined and layered history about local techniques, materials, and inform us about our history both as people and architecturally. It is the original details that I love about our house; wherever possible I plan to save those elements. If I wanted or was inspired by a new house I would buy or build one – but the reason I fell in love with this house is all the details (and the natural materials) that could never affordably be made now. p.s- we also have the luxury/ sadness of already having a lot of the original details removed so we are not hampered too much by having to work around period details.
3) Vinyl is not a natural material – every well to do farmhouse at one point had Asbestos tiles because they were the ‘new and improved’ modern alternative to clapboard siding. I’m just saying… time will tell us how healthy vinyl is and already there are a lot of signs that the gases produced by degrading vinyl is not so good for you or the planet. Just because a corporation says its better doesn’t mean it always is.
4) Vinyl siding can mask, fester and incubate real problems that a wood siding would show you. George Nash’s Book ‘Renovating Old Houses Bringing new life to Vintage homes’ talks about this and how this synthetic material can often times even cause, (due to faulty installation) water to leak into your house behind the siding which as we all know is not good. btw – This book is one of my favorites because George Nash not only takes my side on vinyl siding but also has a really practical and informed tone that he brings to the subject of old houses – I have learned a lot from this book and I really recommend it to anyone who has or is thinking of buying an old house.
5) I also dislike that the most common design mimics wood siding; a new material calls for a new aesthetic treatment . I do realize many a decorative art tradition has been spawned by trying to trompe l’oeil an old and expensive technique. The problem is that the faintly etched wood grain versions of vinyl siding is so rarely used artfully on old structures, it usually just dumbs them down.
6) I think whenever you use a stock material on an old house you should also pause to think as well. Stock items are made to be affordable and accessible (which is great) to many people – but it is also designed as a common denominator of many architectural styles – and usually if you are replacing an old unique item – you just end up losing a lot or character and history. I know there are reasons to ‘upgrade’ but it is good to be cautious; what is in style today may not be in 10 years and it is good be aware of what you are giving up – and to remember that once removed you can never get that original history back. When I renovated a house in buffalo I changed the original craftsman 3 panel beveled glass wood front door – to an affordable fiberglass stock version. Was it safer? yes. Did it close nicer, yes. Did it afford us a lot of privacy, yes. Do I regret that I removed an original period detail? Every time I think about it I do. There could have been so many other ways to make that door feel safer and private. I just didn’t try hard enough.
Ok that’s my ode to vinyl siding. I hope it doesn’t sound to judgmental- because I really believe that a house that is taken care of and loved (even if i don’t agree with the renovation choices) is always better than a collapsed and abandoned one!
Here is another post on vinyl siding written much better than mine by The Devil Queen – Blue Vinyl
Also The Devil Queen recommends George Nash’s book too!