Although it’s still the most cost-effective exterior cladding, vinyl no longer stands for thrift alone. Today’s vinyl siding comes in a wide spectrum of low-sheen, fade-resistant colors and a variety of configurations, including accessories that are reproductions of historical millwork, making it an attractive as well as economical choice for any style of home.
Unfortunately, many designers still eschew vinyl siding because of its low-budget image, and many builders still use it without a cultivated sense of aesthetics. However, with a little creativity, you can combine various styles, colors and trim pieces to develop a stunning exterior that’s durable, low-maintenance, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.
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Three basic vinyl siding profiles
Vinyl siding comes in three dominant profiles: clapboard, Dutch lap and beaded. These three profiles, along with shingles and shakes, are suitable for most traditional house styles from Cape Cod to Queen Anne.
1. Clapboard was originally used by Native Americans and in some British and northern-European architecture. Vinyl manufacturers offer panels with single, double and triple courses, depending on lap width, which ranges from 3 to 7 in. I like to use a wider lap, such as a “single-seven,” on the lower portion of a house to add visual weight and then switch to a narrower plank, such as a “triple-three,” and sometimes even a lighter shade, on the second story.
Extra-wide planks (up to 12 in.) have become available with insulated siding. The laminated foam backing adds structure, allowing manufacturers greater leeway in developing new profiles, so keep your eye out for a variety of new styles.
2. Dutch lap can be traced back to northern Europe. The full chamfer at the top of the plank provides a strong shadow line that works especially well with dark colors. The chamfer reflects light, in effect creating a reflecting line that stands out when using dark reds, greens and browns. Like clapboard, Dutch lap comes in a variety of multiple courses with typical reveals of 3 to 5 in.
3. Beaded siding was developed to provide even more dramatic shadow lines; it features a rounded bead at the bottom of a single clapboard course. Popular in the South, this siding has an elegant, understated appearance. Reveals are typically 6- to 7-in. single courses. I like this profile because it’s less common and therefore produces a distinctive look.
Specialty shapes, shingles and shakes
Vinyl and polymeric (a thicker plastic used primarily for shakes) siding are the only exterior materials that comprehensively recreate the specialty profiles associated with Cape Cod, Queen Anne and Folk Victorian, Craftsman, Shingle and other derivatives of traditional architecture. These specialty profiles come in three categories: vertical siding, shingles/shapes and shakes.
• Vertical siding has been used on many different architectural styles dating back to medieval times. Modern styles using vertical siding include Stick, Folk Victorian, Tudor and Craftsman. Because of its contoured structure, vinyl accurately replicates the depth and dimension of board-and-batten siding, which consists of alternating wide and narrow panels, or beaded profiles such as those traditionally used on porch ceilings.
• Vertical siding is often used as an accent, but it can also be used in whole-house applications, especially with contemporary styles. You specify vertical vinyl siding by profile and reveal, and panels come in lengths of 16 ft., which can help to eliminate seams. Because this style’s depth, stiffness and absence of seams works best up close and personal, I like to use vertical siding at the entryway of a home.
• Shingle siding gained popularity in the late 19th century, mainly in the northeastern United States. Now widely used in popular architectural styles such as Cape Cod, Queen Anne and Craftsman, shingle shapes come in a wide assortment of styles, from square to half-cove. I would avoid using the most common styles — scallops and fish scale — so that your house does not look common. Instead, consider hexagons, mitered corners and half-coves for a distinctive look.
• Shakes are similar to shingles but mimic the look of hand-split cedar. They’re typically manufactured as a single or double course with reveals of 6 to 10 in. in straight-edge or staggered courses. In addition to vinyl, injection-molded polypropylene shakes are available; this material offers deeper groves that closely mimic wood without the maintenance.
Vinyl siding colors and texture
In the past, vinyl siding was limited to light colors that would not deform or fade when exposed to the sun’s heat and UV rays. Today’s cap-stock manufacturing, a method in which a very thin layer of acrylic color is applied over the base siding, has eliminated these problems, and manufacturers have gone wild with new colors, including deep hues popular in Craftsman and Victorian styles.
To make sure your color selections have undergone rigorous testing and comply with the highest industry standards, verify that any dark-color siding you choose has been certified to meet or exceed the color retention requirements of ASTM D6864 or D7251.
Vinyl siding products are available in textured or smooth finishes. In the early days of vinyl, high spots would reflect light and look like plastic from afar (a problem known as flashing). Wood-grain-textured siding mitigated this problem and became the most popular choice. Today, improved manufacturing has eliminated the flashing problem with smooth siding; I find the smooth look preferable to the faux texture.
Vinyl siding accessories and trim
When you think of vinyl, you probably imagine J-channel, the thin molding that surrounded windows and doors in houses clad with old-style vinyl siding. But new accessories and trim have virtually eliminated the need for the old J-channel. These products include J-channel-integrated lineals, mantels, wide inside corners, band boards and basically any of the traditional millwork used with real wood siding — minus the maintenance.
One simple way to elevate the look of your cladding is to use vinyl lineals and sills around all windows and doors. The lineal is designed to receive vinyl siding, allowing room for vinyl’s natural expansion, but lineals come in widths up to 6 in. that replicate traditional window casing. Likewise, sills for windows and doors are made to replicate traditional wood models. Though often overlooked, these subtle elements greatly refine a home’s appearance.
You can also upgrade openings with mantels, pilasters, crowns and keystones. Window and door mantels — wider planks that clearly demark headers — are appropriate for classical styles derived from Greek Revival. Similarly, door pilasters and crown moldings create strong accents. The moldings come as a set or can be combined as mix-and-match parts that snap together.
Wide friezes and dentil moldings provide accent lines along gable ends and eaves in styles derived from Greek Revival, such as the Georgian style popular in the East and Midwest. A frieze or dentil molding along the roofline can transform a plain façade into an exciting one.
A variety of PVC brackets reproduce the delicate decorative styles of Victorian filigree and the rugged post-and-beam corbels used in Craftsman homes. Manufactured by many third-party suppliers as well as the mainline vinyl brands, brackets come in a surprising variety of styles. Columns also come from an assortment of suppliers and range from classical Greek rounds with elegant capitals and bases to the blocky square and tapered columns popular in Craftsman-style homes.
Other options include extra-wide, three-piece and fluted corners, horizontal band-boards and wide inside corners. Virtually any type of trim or accessory traditionally produced in wood is now available in vinyl and other low-maintenance materials such as cellular PVC. These accessories’ integrated hues allow you to create elaborate color schemes without the extra expense of delicate brushwork or the maintenance headaches of swelling, cracking, warping or insect damage.
Insulated Vinyl Siding
One of the newest product innovations on the market is insulated (foam-backed) siding. On average, it increases the exterior wall’s insulation by a respectable R-3. To make sure you have an accurate insulation rating, check that the siding bears the stamp of ASTM International. To earn ASTM certification, every insulated profile has to undergo individual R-value testing. In addition to its energy shield, insulated siding offers a more realistic profile without the telltale concave look of traditional siding, along with greatly improved impact resistance and noise attenuation.
All of the nationally recognized green-building certification programs, from LEED to NAHB Green, offer more points for vinyl siding (based on durability, recycled content and the EnergyStar advantage of insulated backing) than for any other popular siding alternatives. In a life-cycle environmental impact analysis commissioned by the industry, vinyl was second only to aluminum siding as having the lowest environmental impact — scoring much better than products such as fiber cement, brick and stucco.
In terms of durability, it’s obvious that vinyl performs without rotting, and now without fading, but it also provides another advantage: Because it hangs on the house, vinyl siding offers a natural drainage plane to help buildings stay dry, which helps to prevent moisture problems inside.
Overall, if you choose good-quality vinyl, install it following industry guidelines and select colors and trim using good taste, this affordable cladding does a great job of balancing aesthetic and environmental performance with smart economics.
Vinyl Siding Contractors
Vinyl siding is relatively easy to install, requiring only a handful of tools and no heavy lifting. But that doesn’t mean you can install it without care and skill. Most of vinyl’s common maladies (such as buckling, waviness and blowing off of the building) result from installation errors. The Vinyl Siding Institute, a trade organization, has developed a training and certification program to ensure that installers know the craft before they start hanging panels on your house.
Keys to Installing Vinyl Siding:
1. Room to move — Vinyl siding expands and contracts with changes in temperature. Panel ends and trim must have a 1/8-in. gap at both ends (1/4 in. overall) to allow for expansion. Panels must overlap rather than abut.
2. Proper fastening — Siding must hang from nails driven firmly, but not too tightly, through the center of the siding’s nail-flange slots. A 1/32-in. clearance (the thickness of a dime) between the nail head and the siding allows the siding to move the length of the nail slot and prevents the panels from buckling and twisting.
3. Good drainage — Water flows downhill, and vinyl siding and accessories are designed to accommodate this drainage pattern. It’s best to use accessories (such as window trim) that are designed to work with vinyl siding rather than mixing materials. Combining vinyl siding with wood-wrapped windows or wood belly bands can cause water to dam, resulting in infiltration and rot. When installed with respect to the drainage plane, vinyl siding provides a breathable cladding over a weather-resistant barrier such as house wrap.
Vinyl Siding Certifications
Labels can mean the difference between good and bad vinyl siding. Look for these certifications:
Certified Vinyl Siding, with the check-mark logo, means the product meets ASTM standard D3679. This siding will withstand the impacts of recommended installation procedures, stay on the house in heavy winds of at least 110 mph, lay straight on a flat wall without buckling under normal conditions and withstand the effects of normal seasonal temperature fluctuations.
Certified Vinyl Siding with Color Retention, with the check-mark logo on a color wheel, means the siding meets the standards of ASTM D3679 plus the color-retention requirements of ASTM D6864 or D7251. This certification requires an outdoor weathering study conducted for each color being considered. The color must demonstrate the ability to resist major changes over time in a variety of climates.
Insulated siding does not have a certification process, but the vinyl siding component of the insulated siding can be certified. To make sure the R-value claimed by the manufacturer is accurate, ask the supplier or check the manufacturer’s Web site to see whether the material was evaluated under ASTM C1363, the industry-recognized method to test insulated siding. Many manufacturers will provide this information on the box.
Nearly 1,000 products are certified for quality through the Vinyl Siding Institute’s certification program. More than 325 colors are certified for color retention, and approximately 97 percent of all vinyl siding manufactured in the U.S. is certified through the program.
Handyman Club life member Fernando Pages Ruiz is a homebuilder and remodeler with 30 years’ experience and the author of Affordable Remodel: How to Get Custom Results on Any Budget (The Taunton Press, 2007).