Modern Materials, Traditional Designs

Innovation in manufacturing is allowing builders to recreate authentic architectural details at an affordable price point

By Fernando Pagés Ruiz

I once bought a city block in an older part of town to build a pocket neighborhood. The neighbors opposed my project, so I sought the advice of the area planner, who was an architectural historian. I told him I wanted to develop homes that fit in with the neighborhood; I asked him to help me design them by showing me the best examples of period affordable housing.

We toured the city, and he pointed out the bungalow home styles and authentic façade details that made the best postwar neighborhoods quaint, yet still economical. I snapped pictures and then huddled with my architect to reproduce those details as closely as possible by using inexpensive cladding materials, including vinyl siding. The city planners approved my development, the neighborhood (eventually) supported it, and within 12 months of breaking ground, I built, sold, and won the NAHB Workforce Housing award for 24 traditionally designed homes (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: This streetscape, modeled on the traditional homes in the surrounding neighborhood, accommodated 24 immigrant families in Lincoln, Nebraska. It became the milestone of a large neighborhood redevelopment, inspiring others to do similar infill projects appropriate to the traditional architectural environment.
Fernando Pagés Ruiz

Since then, I have remained a traditional neighborhood developer, using the same technique: study and reproduce the best area architecture. The secret lies in knowing what to observe and how to replicate the essential elements without overspending — and I am ready to share what I have learned.

Study the block face first

Driving around the best traditional neighborhoods in a city, notice that the homes along each block present a harmonious and consistent appearance that gives those streets local character (Figure 2). As builders, we tend to focus on the individual house. Online, home builders will often share renderings of their model homes set on a verdant lawn under a glorious sky, as if the house were in the wilderness with no neighborhood context. While some may be truly stand-alone houses, it is often not the case; the homes become victim to overdesign (think myriad elevation changes and materials) when placed in their true context (Figure 3). 

A block face — defined as the homes along the street — with many volumes and variations looks too busy, and busy buildings fight their context. They scream, “Hey, look at me!” There is certainly a place for fanciful homes with outlandish architecture; however, it is often not in a traditional or historical neighborhood setting (Figure 4a and 4b).

One of the basic principles of traditional neighborhood development is to design the whole block face before detailing the individual houses. This approach often yields simpler façades that consider the neighborhood context and avoid the temptation of overdesigning any one of the homes (Figure 5 and 6).

Figure 7: This plat shows a variety of home types, from single family to small multi-family. You will note how the massing of homes remains compatible, creating a community of residences and neighborhood identity.
Drawing from The Architecture of Traditional Neighborhoods, Onaran et al 2019, courtesy authors.

The way homes in a traditional neighborhood obtain individuality is through subtle variation in their forms and ornamentation. Notice in old communities that the building styles and shapes — what architects call massing — remain consistent (Figure 7), but the details differ. You will see porch railings of all different patterns; variations in the eaves and rake ornaments; unique window and door lintels, muntons, and mullions; changes in color. These are all examples of how to add defining elements to a façade while still fitting in with the overall neighborhood character (Figure 8).

Figure 8: The drawing illustrates homes opening onto a pedestrian walkway, but also the variety achieved with changes in railings, colors, and compatible building materials. You will note that the variety comes between homes, and not on a single house featuring multiple elevation changes and materials. You will also note that the homes all accentuate the vertical axis, or “verticality”. They are tall and slender, which is one reason the block face harmonizes.
Drawing from The Architecture of Traditional Neighborhoods, Onaran et al 2019, courtesy authors.

Match the massing

The goal of traditional neighborhood architecture is harmony without monotony. Harmony is perhaps most easily defined in terms of an orchestra. All the instruments play in the same key, but not the same note; otherwise, it would likely be a very boring concert.

Harmony in housing is much the same; it can be achieved through variation within a consistent range of style. To describe what creates harmony within diversity along a block face, architects often use highfalutin-sounding terms such as “horizontality” and “verticality.” One way to think of horizontal or vertical harmony is in terms of horizontal and vertical stripes. Most people would not sport a striped shirt with checkered pants, so follow the same principle when designing the block face (Figure 9a and 9b). 

Figure 9: Here you can see what happens when a bungalow style home that expresses “horizontality,” or width over height, clashes with surrounding buildings that emphasize “verticality,” or height. While an exaggerated example, it makes the point. Certain styles work well together, such as Craftsman and Prairie styles, which accentuate their width, but contrast with Victorian and Farmhouse styles that emphasize their height. When you look at a well-preserved older neighborhood, you will see how houses along the block face generally respect this rule of compatibility.
Fernando Pagés Ruiz
Figure 9b: This drawing illustrates a well-designed block face with homes that accentuate verticality. Although the sizes vary from single family, through duplex, to a small apartment building, the overall block face has a pedestrian scale and remains harmonious. The pedestrian scale is achieved by placing smaller massing elements, such as single-story porches toward the street hiding the larger massing behind.
Drawing from The Architecture of Traditional Neighborhoods, Onaran et al 2019, courtesy authors.

Horizontality refers to styles that accentuate width, such as Prairie and Craftsman style buildings. Verticality relates to styles that accentuate height, such as Victorian, Modern and Southern styles. On a single block face, a house emphasizing horizontality, such as Prairie style, flanked between two soaring Victorian homes will look out of place. If building infill, careful attention should be given to neighboring buildings so that the new building blends in harmoniously. The idea of a traditional neighborhood is precisely neighborliness: homes that get along (Figure 10). 

Figure 10: A newly constructed traditional neighborhood that illustrates homes that emphasize verticality and compatibility while offering a variety of housing configurations. Note that the design allows neighbors to interact from the sidewalk, a public space, to the porch, a semiprivate space. This proximity, which encourages neighborly interaction, creates community.
Courtesy Vinyl Siding Institute

The devil in the detailing

In this lifetime, there are so many examples of poorly detailed buildings that some of us have become blind to the mistakes; we have forgotten what carpenters knew instinctively 100 years ago. To remedy this, look to the older parts of a town to find examples of proper architectural detailing. 

Figure 13a: Real shutters shut. They screw into the window frame, not next to it.
Fernando Pagés Ruiz

Work to develop a sense of proportion and discover the original purposes for details. For example, that brick molding is for, well, brick, and not for siding. (Figure 11a). Crown molding (cyma recta) goes on top, and the ovolo (cyma reversa) goes under, as a supporting molding (Figure 11b). Shutters should shut and attach to the window jambs rather than beside the window (Figure 13a and 13b). And windows and doors have a structural frame that resembles posts and beams more than picture frames (Figure 14a14b, and 14c).

Figure 13b: These PVC shutters won’t keep out burglars or protect your windows from a storm, but they look like they could!
Fernando Pagés Ruiz

Much of the blame that cheaper materials get for looking fake comes from poor detailing rather than deficiencies in the product. An architect or builder can, however, obtain a satisfactory reproduction of most traditional construction patterns using cheaper products if they know what they’re doing. Learning how the details should go is the first step; researching products available to reproduce those details comes next.

Designing with modern materials

The most comprehensive selection of trim choices comes with cellular PVC moldings; they can take any shape imaginable. Major cladding manufacturers offer a full line of profiles that resemble and sometimes improve upon available wood products because they are not limited to milling patterns out of dimensional stock. 

Figure 15a: The PVC trims on this Italianate home would require annual upkeep if made from wood. On the East Coast, where most of our traditional housing styles developed, traditional neighborhood developers use polymeric cladding and trims because their customers don’t want to maintain them.
Courtesy Vinyl Siding Institute

Independent providers augment the assortment of available trim, especially when it comes to lintels, casings, fluted columns, pediments, and brackets. Look online to find the options available; some are unique and others offer easy-to-install versions of complex, traditional shapes that would require master artisans to fabricate with wood (Figure 15).

Figure 15b: The Victorian styles lend themselves to modern materials precisely because they reproduce complex millwork without requiring woodwork precision and painting.
Courtesy Vinyl Siding Institute

When choosing products, consider their limitations. For example, most modern cladding cannot satisfactorily reproduce a mitered corner. Some polypropylene shake does a reasonable job from afar, but not up close (Figure 16). Cellular PVC shake does do an excellent job with mitered corners, but does not offer the depth of grain required for a realistic appearance.

Figure 16: Polypropylene shake offers a good mitered corner from a distance. Up close, the illusion disappears. Cellular PVC does a good job with the corners, but does not have the depth of grain.

Fiber cement siding, with the ends alternating course to course, creates a reasonable resemblance from a few feet away (Figure 17). The new polyash (polyurethane and fly ash) siding offers the best corner because it cuts like wood and corners can be mitered. Of note, polyash siding requires painting (Figure 18).

The absence of smooth (non-textured) siding remains a sensitive topic with the manufacturers of most siding lines and explains, in part, the ascendancy of fiber cement siding that offers one smooth and one grained face; either can be specified. Pro tip: Choose the smooth. Milled wood has no grain texture unless it has rotted. 

A new wood fiber line from SmartSide features smooth clapboard, and Restoration Smooth from CertainTeed offers a select line of thick, smooth vinyl siding. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, none of these companies manufacture smooth siding in all their profiles, so you’re limited to clapboard. 

Architects complain about the use of J-channel, the receiving end of siding that expands and contracts with temperature variations. The J-channel provides a slot that accommodates this movement, and a gutter to drain water around openings. However, it is also the telltale sign of artificial materials since wood does not require a J-channel. A middle-of-the-road solution comes with trims that have an integrated J-channel, avoiding the maligned trim.

Figure 20: Although architects will rail against J-channel, you should know that old-time carpenters were lazy, too. This window trim over historical Dutch lap from the Dutch colony of St. Croix was laid right over the siding, creating the same shadow line to which architects object.

Instead of using wood casing around a door or window, use a polymeric trim kit with an integrated receiver (Figure 19a and 19b). The effect is of a carpenter that slapped the trim over the siding rather than cut each plank to fit, but carpenters have done this for generations (Figure 20). If J-channel is an absolute ‘no’, fiber cement, wood fiber, and polyash products can butt up against trim and adjacent panels without a receiver.

Figure 21: Polyash siding cuts like wood and does not expand and contract with temperature changes, so it will comfortably butt up tight to trims.

Some cellular PVC siding profiles interlock to produce a satisfying end-butt between adjacent panels and don’t require a receiver at corners and around openings. Cellular PVC siding represents a high-end material category with elegant and highly durable product lines (Figure 21). 

Quality counts

As with most products, architectural polymers come in a range of quality. Premium siding products range to a thickness of .048 inches to 0.050 inches, with builder’s grade siding at 0.040 inches to 0.045 inches. The thinner materials (0.040 inches and less) are the least costly and lowest quality. They may telegraph defects in the substructure, such as bowed framing and swollen sheathing.

The thicker and, thus, more rigid materials provide a smooth finish. Due to high flexibility and durability, they also increase life expectancy. Most polymeric manufacturers follow ASTM standards and industry certifications for durability and colorfastness. The ASTM and certification labels can be found on the packaging. In high-wind areas, confirm the wind resistance rating and follow the installation instructions carefully to ensure the siding will not blow off the house in a storm. 

Because polymer products are relatively inexpensive compared to their wood counterparts, these materials have often helped developers construct low-cost structures. The association between polymeric materials and lesser architecture has prejudiced the designer’s eye. The products are not at fault; the inattention to detail, authentic design, and quality of construction are to blame.

Authentic, contextual urban architecture can be achieved by integrating innovative materials that reproduce traditional construction patterns with added durability. Builders can now combine modern technology with human-scale urban environments that please the soul, attract the eye, and stand the test of time.

About the Author

Fernando Pagés Ruiz

Home builder, developer, and author Fernando Pagés Ruiz speaks, writes, and consults internationally on how to build high-quality, affordable, and energy-efficient homes. He is the author of Architectural Design for Traditional Neighborhoods; please contact Fernando to obtain a copy.