Deciding on Siding

When designing a new home or remodeling an existing home, the decisions that often have the most visible impact are the ones made regarding exterior finishes. As custom residential architects, we begin these discussions early on in the design process because the decisions tie heavily into what style of home a client is designing and at what budget – whether it is Nantucket shingle style, a sprawling modern, or a classic Georgian. The selection of exterior materials can also impart a significant emotional reaction. Imagine how different a warm cedar shake exterior feels in comparison to sleek, white nickel gap siding.

Each style of home offers numerous choices of exterior finishes at varying price points. For example, a modern home could have synthetic paneling, wood lap siding and a stone veneer. A country retreat could encompass board and batten, lap siding, and painted brick. While wood is an incredibly beautiful living finish, it also requires regular maintenance, and increasingly, clients are requesting exterior finishes with minimal to no upkeep. After all, not many homeowners are interested in re-staining their house every five to seven years.

To help you understand the variety of exterior siding options available and what makes each unique, we will begin with a general overview of some of the more commonly used siding styles and then summarize the different types of siding materials as well as their characteristics.

Style

Lap or Clapboard Siding: Lap siding is horizontal siding with thin plank boards that overlap each other, creating a natural “rain barrier”. Clapboard typically refers to the same lap, but often more specifically has a bead or bevel at the bottom (although these two terms are often interchangeable). This style is possibly the most universally used and is typically found in Georgian, modern, traditional and even cottage-style homes.

Shiplap: If you have ever watched HGTV’s Fixer Upper, you know exactly what shiplap is! While very similar in appearance to lap siding, shiplap is comprised of horizontal boards that are butted together in the same flush plane. Historically, these are boards would have been found as a substrate for walls behind plaster or wallpaper or even on the exterior of a barn. They are butted flat ends and tend to have gaps between, as well as a channel that allows for overlapping to provide a “rain screen”. While you would traditionally see shiplap used in coastal, cottage or farmhouses, you can also find it in modern and transitional homes.

Cedar Shakes or Shingle: Cedar shakes and shingles are similar types of wood siding. The primary difference is that wood shingles are more precisely milled and uniform and shakes have a more irregular and hand split texture that some homeowners love. Shakes and shingles can be installed in a variety of ways, each of which offer a distinctive quality to the style of the home:

  • Keyway: Vertical spacing between shingles lends visual interest and traditional appeal.
  • Contemporary: Set tight and touching to add a smooth, uniform finish to modern designs.
  • Even Butt: Creates a consistent, symmetrical line in keeping with newer styles.
  • Staggered Butt: Adds character and dimensionality to a home’s finished appearance.
Photo by Purple Cherry Architects

Nickel Gap Siding: Nickel gap siding is very similar to shiplap and lap siding. These thin plank boards run horizontally or vertically and have a small gap between the boards about the thickness of a nickel, hence the name. These thin plank boards are made with an interlocking “tongue and groove” profile on all four sides, so they don’t overlap at all. This also helps set the spacing and provide a uniform gap – a simple, beautiful detail that feels very modern.

Board and Batten Siding: Board and batten is similar to vertical nickel gap in that it is a series of thin plank boards installed vertically in the same plane with an intentional gap, but with the introduction of a batten that overlays on top of the boards covering the gap. Board and batten is commonly used on farmhouse or cottage style homes and is often incorporated into accent walls, backsplashes and fireplaces in modern and transitional homes.

Material

Commonly used siding materials include fiber cement, PVC, poly-ash, and wood.

Fiber Cement: Fiber cement is composite material made of cement reinforced with cellulose fibers. It is mold/mildew resistant and resists bugs and insect damage. Fiber cement typically comes in lap siding, board and batten, shingle (lap form) and exterior trim. It has minimal expansion and contraction. While durable, it can be very fragile during installation and does have some clearance requirements to ground water. It is a very cost effective and low maintenance siding option.

PVC: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a widely produced synthetic plastic polymer. The product is similar to fiber cement in that it is mold/mildew resistant, resists bugs and insect damage. PVC typically comes in lap siding, board & batten, shingle and exterior trim. It comes in full thickness products similar to wood as well as in vinyl siding and trim, which are typically found on production homes.

Poly-Ash: Poly-ash products are made with fly-ash, a by-product recovered from coal combustion. When fly-ash is combined with polymers, it becomes a durable material that is ideally suited for exterior siding and trim. Once installed, the material is resistant to moisture and bugs. Poly-ash is a great alternative to PVC and fiber cement – although it is slightly more expensive, it has significantly less expansion and contraction.

Wood: Wood is obviously a beautiful natural siding and trim material that has been used for centuries. Cedar is commonly used in shake or shingle applications; cypress and accoya are commonly used as siding. Some wood species such as cedar and cypress have a natural resistance to insects and are better protected from rot though all are prone to decay, mold and mildew. All wood types need protection by paint or stain and will require continual maintenance.

In the end, the siding of a house is akin to the clothing we wear. Our choice of clothes depends as much on location (a sweater and boots wouldn’t be comfortable in southern Florida) as well as the fashion statement we want to make. And of course, there’s the budget factor. But unlike our clothes, we can’t change our siding material easily. Even though we can change colors and accessories depending on the material chosen, most of us take a “one and done” approach to the exterior of our homes.

Much like a classic leather jacket, we want siding that looks good on day one and for many years to come.

Written by Doug Kuchta, RA, NCARB, Project Manager
With an architect father, and a childhood home often under construction, Doug Kuchta has long been intrigued by the technical aspects of how structures are built. A graduate from Morgan State University School of Architecture, Doug’s experience includes both commercial and residential projects. Always ready to roll up his sleeves, Doug explains, “When you can use architecture to overcome a challenging design situation and create something beautiful, purposeful, and balanced, it is amazing.”

Architecture & Interiors