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Sometimes, it is like we are on an endless march to omit wood from wood. From laminate flooring to wood veneer, it feels as if we spend more time imitating authentic materials than celebrating their honest strengths. Ghastly as it is, is the practice going to stop? Truthfully, no. Nor is fiber cement a material so valiant that it has escaped the lamentable trend. But it might just be OK.
While no other building materials hold the beauty or emotional conviction of wood, imitative alternatives have arisen because cladding an entire building in timber is expensive, prone to warping and extremely tiresome to maintain. And so, fiber cement cladding offers a direct solution to a widespread problem: It is a mediator, trying to lend a helping hand when conflict arises. With that friendly image in mind, let’s refrain from judgment, willingly ask this (perhaps taboo) question and try to give fiber cement a fair chance against wood: a long-standing king of cladding materials.
Left: 3SHOEBOX HOUSE by OFIS architects clad in dark wood panels; right: residential building clad in Vintage Wood fiber cement panels by Nichiha; a comparative look at the exterior results of wood and fiber cement cladding.
Now a century old, fiber cement continues to promise the best of many worlds. Made with cement, sand, cellulose and other additives, it is fire-resistant, provides durability and longevity and maintains a sought-after look with very few noticeable signs of aging. As candidly expressed by Bethesda-based architect Mark McInturff, “Bugs don’t eat it, paint stays on it and it doesn’t rot.” Pretty neat, right?
According to James Hardie’s product manager, Dale Knox, fiber cement will cost just a bit more than half of what cedar siding would cost. On average, fiber cement costs $3 to $3.50 per square foot (still twice as much as vinyl siding), while cedar siding costs $4 to $6 per square foot.
So let’s consider the options. Beyond offering endless finishes, leading companies like James Hardie, Nichiha, CertainTeed, Allura and Woodtone are manufacturing wood-grain products available as horizontal panels, vertical panels, shiplap and shakes — customized shapes that resemble wood siding. James Hardie — the Kleenex of fiber cement — offers products in 28 colors, six profiles and finishes ranging from rough-sawn to completely smooth.
The famous HardieShingle siding, most often associated with Cape Cod–style homes, offers the distinct look of cascading cedar shingles and provides the option of completely concealing all aspects of the installation hardware, as pictured above.
A breakdown of Nichiha’s popular wood-effect fiber cement panels
Architects have also celebrated Georgia-based competitor Nichiha for their unmatched ability to reproduce an authentically textured wood-stain appearance. Using a proprietary stamping procedure rather than the more commonly used rollers of other manufacturers, Nichiha is able to use increased pressure to create deeper grooves, increased shadows and a more dramatic visual effect. Additionally, with a five-layer protection system including two coats of primer and an anti-efflorescence coating that prevents chalky residue from appearing, Nichiha’s Sierra Premium products are warranted against 30 years of use.
While fiber cement is not wood, and it never will be, it is a widespread cladding material for very good reason. With no signs of slowing down in its usages, fiber cement exhibits a strong hold over all sorts of private residential, multi-unit and commercial construction. And so, in determining whether or not you may choose to use it in place of natural wood, it is essential to identify what exactly you are trying to achieve.
Spanning all sorts of typologies, climates and terrains, your decision-making will remain centered on overall performance including longevity, durability and affordability — all strong reasons to turn toward fiber cement siding.
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