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The History of Exterior Siding

Exterior siding materials have come a long way since their inception. The type of siding on homes is generally dictated by the time, groups of people and region in which the house was built — and the origins of profiles are fascinating.  From brick to aluminum to steel siding, read on to find out more of the history of residential siding, how it developed over the years and the best solutions available today.


What Is Siding? 

Siding or wall cladding is the protective material attached to the exterior side of a wall of a house or other building. Along with the roof, it forms the first line of defense against the elements, most importantly sun, rain/snow, heat and cold, thus creating a stable, more comfortable environment on the interior side. The siding material and style also can enhance or detract from the building’s beauty. There is a wide and expanding variety of materials to side with, both natural and artificial, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. Masonry walls as such do not require siding, but any wall can be sided. Walls that are internally framed, whether with wood, or steel I-beams, however, must always be sided.

Most siding consists of pieces of weather-resistant material that are smaller than the wall they cover, to allow for expansion and contraction of the materials due to moisture and temperature changes. There are various styles of joining the pieces, from board and batton, where the butt joints between panels is covered with a thin strip (usually 1 to 2 inches wide) of wood, to a variety of clapboard, also called lap siding, in which planks are laid horizontally across the wall starting from the bottom, and building up, the board below overlapped by the board above it. These techniques of joinery are designed to prevent water from entering the walls. Siding that does not consist of pieces joined would include stucco, which is widely used in the Southwest. It is a plaster-like siding and is applied over a lattice, just like plaster. However, because of the lack of joints, it eventually cracks and is susceptible to water damage. Rainscreen construction is used to improve siding’s ability to keep walls dry.

The different Types of Siding 

1. Thatch siding

Thatch is an ancient and very widespread building material used on roofs and walls. Thatch siding is made with dry vegetation such as longstraw, water reeds, or combed wheat reed. The materials are overlapped and weaved in patterns designed to deflect and direct water. Thatching methods have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation, and numerous descriptions of the materials and methods used in Europe over the past three centuries survive in archives and early publications. In some equatorial countries, thatch is the prevalent local material for roofs, and often walls. There are diverse building techniques from the ancient Hawaiian hale shelter made from the local ti leaves lauhala  or pili grass. 

Palm leaves are also often used. For example, in Na Bure, Fiji, thatchers combine fan palm leaf roofs with layered reed walls. Feathered palm leaf roofs are used in Dominica. Alang-alang  thatched roofs are used in Hawaii and Bali. In Southeast Asia, mangrove nipa palm leaves are used as thatched roof material known as attap dwelling. In Bali, Indonesia, the black fibres of the sugar palm, called ijuk, is also used as thatching material, usually in temple roofs and meru towers. Sugar cane leaf roofs are used in Kikuyu tribal homes in Kenya.

Wild vegetation such as water reed, bulrush/cat tail , broom , heather, and rushes was probably used to cover shelters and primitive dwellings in Europe in the late Palaeolithic period, but so far no direct archaeological evidence for this has been recovered. People probably began to use straw in the Neolithic period when they first grew cereals—but once again, no direct archaeological evidence of straw for thatching in Europe prior to the early medieval period survives. Many indigenous people of the Americas, such as the former Maya civilization, Mesoamerica, the Inca empire, and the Triple Alliance (Aztec), lived in thatched buildings. It is common to spot thatched buildings in rural areas of the Yucatán Peninsula as well as many settlements in other parts of Latin America, which closely resemble the method of construction from distant ancestors. The first Americans encountered by Europeans lived in structures roofed with bark or skin set in panels that could be added or removed for ventilation, heating, and cooling. Evidence of the many complex buildings with fiber-based roofing material was not rediscovered until the early 2000s. French and British settlers built temporary thatched dwellings with local vegetation as soon as they arrived in New France and New England, but covered more permanent houses with wooden shingles.

In most of England, thatch remained the only roofing material available to the bulk of the population in the countryside, in many towns and villages, until the late 1800s. Commercial distribution of Welsh slate began in 1820, and the mobility provided by canals and then railways made other materials readily available. Still, the number of thatched properties actually increased in the UK during the mid-1800s as agriculture expanded, but then declined again at the end of the 19th century because of agricultural recession and rural depopulation. A 2013 report estimated that there were 60,000 properties in the UK with a thatched roof; they are usually made of long straw, combed wheat reed or water reed.  Gradually, thatch became a mark of poverty, and the number of thatched properties gradually declined, as did the number of professional thatchers. Thatch has become much more popular in the UK over the past 30 years, and is now a symbol of wealth rather than poverty. There are approximately 1,000 full-time thatchers at work in the UK, and thatching is becoming popular again because of the renewed interest in preserving historic buildings and using more sustainable building materials.


2. Wood Siding

Wood siding is very versatile in style and can be used on a wide variety of building structures. It can be painted or stained in any color palette desired. Though installation and repair is relatively simple, wood siding requires more maintenance than other popular solutions, requiring treatment every four to nine years depending on the severity of the elements to which it is exposed. Ants and termites are a threat to many types of wood siding, such that extra treatment and maintenance that can significantly increase the cost in some pest-infested areas. Wood is a moderately renewable resource and is biodegradable. However, most paints and stains used to treat wood are not environmentally friendly and can be toxic. Wood siding can provide some minor insulation and structural properties as compared to thinner cladding materials.


3. Shingles 

Wood shingles or irregular cedar “shake” siding was used in early New England construction, and was revived in Shingle Style and Queen Anne style architecture in the late 19th century.

Today shingles are mostly made by being cut which distinguishes them from shakes, which are made by being split out of a bolt. Wooden shingle roofs were prevalent in the North American colonies (for example in the Cape-Cod-style house), while in central and southern Europe at the same time, thatch, slate and tile were the prevalent roofing materials. In rural Scandinavia, wood shingle roofs were a common roofing material until the 1950s. Wood shingles are susceptible to fire and cost more than other types of shingle so they are not as common today as in the past. Distinctive shingle patterns exist in various regions created by the size, shape, and application method. Special treatments such as swept valleys, combed ridges, decorative butt ends, and decorative patterns impart a special character to each building. Wood shingles can also be shaped by steam bending to create a thatch-like appearance, with unique roof details and contours.

Shingle fabrication was revolutionized in the early 19th century by steam-powered sawmills. Shingle mills made possible the production of uniform shingles in mass quantities. The sawn shingle of uniform taper and smooth surface eliminated the need to hand dress. The supply of wooden shingles was, therefore, no longer limited by local factors. These changes coincided with (and in turn increased) the popularity of architectural styles such as Carpenter Gothic, Queen Anne, and Shingle style architecture that used shingles to great effect.

Hand-split shingles continued to be used in many places well after the introduction of machine sawn shingles. There were other popular roofing materials, and some regions rich in slate had fewer examples of wooden shingle roofs. Some western “boom” towns used sheet metal because it was light and easily shipped. Slate, terneplate, and clay tile were used on ornate buildings and in cities that limited flammable wooden shingles. Wooden shingles, however, were never abandoned. Even in the 20th century, architectural styles such as the Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival used wooden shingles.’


4. Clapboard Siding 

Wood siding in overlapping horizontal rows or “courses” is called clapboard, weatherboard (British English), or bevel siding which is made with beveled boards, thin at the top edge and thick at the butt. In colonial North America, Eastern white pine was the most common material. Wood siding can also be made of naturally rot-resistant woods such as redwood or cedar. Flat-grain clapboards are cut tangent to the annual growth rings of the tree. As this technique was common in most parts of the British Isles, it was carried by immigrants to their colonies in the Americas and in Australia and New Zealand. Flat-sawn wood cups more and does not hold paint as well as radially sawn wood.


5. Drop siding

Jointed horizontal siding (also called “drop” siding or novelty siding) may be shiplapped or tongue and grooved (though less common). Drop siding comes in a wide variety of face finishes, including Dutch Lap (also called German or Cove Lap) and log siding (milled with curve). In this style of siding, weatherboarding is used so that the upper edges narrowed to fit into grooves or rabbets in its lower edges, and the board’s back ia flat against the sheathing or studs of the wall.


6. Stone Siding 

Slate shingles may be simple in form but many buildings with slate siding are highly decorative. Thin stone veneer was first developed in the late 19th century, but there were materials developed much earlier that foreshadowed its use. For instance, the ancient Romans built large structures out of Roman concrete, and sometimes used a form of stone veneer to face them. Parts of the Roman Coliseum were originally faced with marble veneer; the holes which once held the anchors for the veneer are still visible.

Modern stone veneer first made its appearance in the late 1800s. The oldest of modern stone veneer product is now disintegrating. It was cut into thick portions and then hand tooled into the appropriate panels; the stones that were used were “granite, marble, travertine, limestone, and slate.” Early in its development, thin stone veneer only had the capabilities to be utilized in areas such as the inside of buildings, street-level facades and storefronts.

In the Late 19th and early 20th centuries non-load-bearing stone veneers were regularly affixed to load-bearing walls behind. As buildings began to grow taller with the advent of skeletal steel framing, it became necessary to diminish the thickness and weight of masonry walls in order to withstand the dead weight of the building. Without steel supports, load bearing walls could grow several meters thick on their lowest stories. A solution employed in the construction of early skyscrapers was the use of a steel structural frame that supported exterior stone walls at every floor, thereby distributing the load into the frame. This avoided a gradual buildup of weight that resulted in inconveniently thick lower walls. The Empire State Building uses this method, having two steel beams for attaching stone veneer on each floor; one inside to bear weight, and one acting as a shelf outside to support the building’s limestone veneer. One-and-a-half inches became the common thickness of stone veneer in the 1930s. The utilization of thin stone veneer for complete facades of buildings popped up in the 1940s. Stone veneer construction became much of what we see today in the 1950s. Transportation improved, so stone veneer was transported more efficiently and at lower costs than ever before. Methods to attach veneer to steel were developed; diamond-bladed tools became popular for developing thin stone veneer, while elastomeric sealant began to replace mortar techniques in the construction process. Thin stone veneer in the 1960s became more of a standardized look – in fact, standard education on stone veneer became available in The Marble Engineering Handbook and Marble-Faced Precast Panels, which were published by the Marble Institute of America and National Association of Marble Producers.

As stone veneer panels got thinner in the 1960s, the properties of the stone used became more important in order to compensate (as did safety considerations). Concrete as an aid to stone veneer continued to develop, as “in order to eliminate bowing, cracking, and staining of the veneer.”


7. Vertical Boards

Vertical siding may have a cover over the joint: board and batten, popular in American wooden Carpenter Gothic houses; or less commonly behind the joint called batten and board or reversed board and batten. Board-and-batten siding is an exterior treatment of vertical boards with battens covering the seams. Board-and-batten roofing is a type of board roof with battens covering the gaps between boards on a roof as the roofing material. Board-and-batten is also a synonym for single-wall construction, a method of building with vertical, structural boards, the seams sometimes covered with battens. Battens are used for solid wall insulation. Regularly spaced battens are fitted to the wall, the spaces between them filled with insulation, and plasterboard or drywall screwed to the battens. This method is no longer the most popular, as rigid insulation sheets give better insulation (with battens bridging the insulation) and take less time to fit.


8. Vinyl Siding 

Vinyl siding is plastic exterior siding for houses and small apartment buildings, used for decoration and weatherproofing, imitating wood clapboard, batten board and batten or shakes, and used instead of other materials such as aluminum or fiber cement siding. It is an engineered product, manufactured primarily from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) resin. In the UK and New Zealand a similar material is known as uPVC weatherboarding. Approximately 80 percent of its weight is PVC resin, with the remaining 20 percent being ingredients that impart color, opacity, gloss, impact resistance, flexibility, and durability.  It is the most commonly installed exterior cladding for residential construction in the United States and Canada.

Vinyl siding was introduced to the exterior market in the late 1950s as a replacement for aluminum siding. It was first produced by an independently owned manufacturing plant called Crane Plastics in Columbus, Ohio. The process was originally done through mono-extrusion, a process of forming the profile from a single material into the desired shape and size. At that time, blending of colors was done manually. This original process made it difficult to produce and install a consistent, quality product. Beginning in the 1970s, the industry changed its formulation to improve the product’s production speed, impact resistance, and range of colors. In the following decade, vinyl siding grew steadily in popularity in large part due to its durability, versatility, and ease of maintenance. Today, vinyl siding is manufactured by co-extrusion. Two layers of PVC are laid down in a continuous extrusion process; the top layer is weatherable and durable material, which comprises up to 25% of the siding thickness. This capstock can include about 10% titanium dioxide, depending on the color, which is a pigment and provides resistance to breakdown from UV light. Vinyl siding that is exposed to the sun will begin to fade over time. However, the fade rate is slower with vinyl than most other claddings. Most manufacturers offer 50 year warranties that their products will not fade much over that period of time. In the past darker colors tended to fade more than lighter ones, but advancements in technology and materials can mean this is no longer the case.


9. Metal Siding 

Metal siding comes in a variety of metals, styles, and colors. It is most often associated with modern, industrial, and retro buildings. Utilitarian buildings often use corrugated galvanized steel sheet siding or cladding, which often has a coloured vinyl finish. Corrugated aluminium cladding is also common where a more durable finish is required, while also being lightweight for easy shaping and installing making it a popular metal siding choice.

Formerly, imitation wood clapboard was made of aluminium (aluminium siding). That role is typically played by vinyl siding today. Aluminium siding is ideal for homes in coastal areas with much moisture and salt, since aluminium reacts with air to form aluminium oxide, an extremely hard coating that seals the aluminium surface from further degradation. In contrast, steel forms rust, which can weaken the structure of the material, and corrosion-resistant coatings for steel, such as zinc, sometimes fail around the edges as years pass. However, an advantage of steel siding can be its dent-resistance, which is excellent for regions with severe storms—especially if the area is prone to hail.

The first architectural application of aluminium was the mounting of a small grounding cap on the Washington Monument in 1884. Sheet-iron or steel clapboard siding units had been patented in 1903, and Sears, Roebuck & Company had been offering embossed steel siding in stone and brick patterns in their catalogues for several years by the 1930s. Alcoa began promoting the use of aluminium in architecture by the 1920s when it produced ornamental spandrel panels for the Cathedral of Learning and the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings in New York. The exterior of the A.O. Smith Corporation Building in Milwaukee was clad entirely in aluminium by 1930, and 3-foot-square (0.91 m) siding panels of Duralumin sheet from Alcoa sheathed an experimental exhibit house for the Architectural League of New York in 1931. Most architectural applications of aluminium in the 1930s were on a monumental scale, and it was another six years before it was put to use on residential construction.

In the first few years after World War II, manufacturers began developing and widely distributing aluminium siding. Among them Indiana businessman Frank Hoess was credited with the invention of the configuration seen on modern aluminium siding. His experiments began in 1937 with steel siding in imitation of wooden clapboards. Other types of sheet metal and steel siding on the market at the time presented problems with warping, creating openings through which water could enter, introducing rust. Hoess remedied this problem through the use of a locking joint, which was formed by small flap at the top of each panel that joined with a U-shaped flange on the lower edge of the previous panel thus forming a watertight horizontal seam. After he had received a patent for his siding in 1939, Hoess produced a small housing development of about forty-four houses covered in his clapboard-style steel siding for blue-collar workers in Chicago. His operations were curtailed when war plants commandeered the industry. In 1946 Hoess allied with Metal Building Products of Detroit, a corporation that promoted and sold Hoess siding of Alcoa aluminium. Their product was used on large housing projects in the northeast and was purportedly the siding of choice for a 1947 Pennsylvania development, the first subdivision to solely use aluminium siding. Siding could be applied over conventional wooden clapboards, or it could be nailed to studs via special clips affixed to the top of each panel. Insulation was placed between each stud. While the Hoess Brothers company continued to function for about twelve more years after the dissolution of the Metal Building Products Corporation in 1948, they were less successful than rising siding companies like Reynolds Metals. 


10. Masonry Siding 

Stone and masonry veneer is sometimes considered siding, are varied and can accommodate a variety of styles—from formal to rustic. Though masonry can be painted or tinted to match many color palettes, it is most suited to neutral earth tones, and coatings such as roughcast and pebbeldash. Masonry has excellent durability (over 100 years), and minimal maintenance is required. The primary drawback to masonry siding is the initial cost.

Precipitation can threaten the structure of buildings, so it is important that the siding will be able to withstand the weather conditions in the local region. For rainy regions, exterior insulation finishing systems (EIFS) have been known to suffer underlying wood rot problems with excessive moisture exposure. Because brick itself isn’t waterproof, the airspace also functions as a drainage plane, allowing any water that has penetrated the veneer to drain to the bottom of the air space, where it encounters flashing (weatherproofing) and is directed to the outside through weep holes, rather than entering the building.The environmental impact of masonry depends on the type of material used. In general, concrete and concrete based materials are intensive energy materials to produce. However, the long durability and minimal maintenance of masonry sidings mean that less energy is required over the life of the siding.


The History of Siding 

While builders in the 18th and 19th centuries did not have the luxury of today’s technology and construction tools, they still managed to create strong, sturdy homes with siding made from stone, brick and wood. One of the earliest materials used as exterior siding is brick. Today, the term siding is synonymous with vinyl siding The earliest known brick structure dates back all the way to 7000 BC in Turkey. It featured coarsely crafted blocks of clay that were accidentally left to dry in the hot sun until they fully hardened.  Ancient Egyptian bricks were made by mixing clay with straw, and Aztec communities had a similar method as well. The evidence of this can be seen today at the ruins of Harappa Buhen and Mohenjo-daro. Paintings on the tomb walls of Thebes portray Egyptian slaves mixing, tempering and carrying clay for the sun-dried bricks. 

Bricks remained a tool that was reliant on the weather until around 3000 BC when the ancient Romans began firing clay bricks in their earthen kilns. This greatly increased the bricks’ structural integrity, and from there, bricks as a building block boomed. Bricks were used to build structures in the Baltic region, and then they crossed the Atlantic with Dutch and British immigrants who had brick masons among them. In Virginia, brick structures were built as early as 1611. During the renaissance period, bricks became much less popular. During the mid 18thcentury, bricks started to make a comeback, but the material was still made by hand, making it a complex and slow-moving process. Builders needed cheaper, easier and more accessible materials.

While parts of the Roman Coliseum, Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids were made out of stone, modern stone siding first appeared in the late 1800s — but mostly in the interior of buildings.  Then, in the 1940s, technology made stone easier to transport and manufacture, and as a result, the utilization of thin stone veneer began to pop up as a common exterior siding option. Since then, stone veneer has been a popular choice for builders because of its durability. 

And while wood has been used for hundreds of years in log cabins and Georgian Style Mansions built by early settlers, once the transportation costs of popular brick siding started to rise, builders turned heavily to wood because trees were almost always readily available near their building location — and so residential wood siding was introduced. However, once the Industrial Revolution broke out, brick making machinery was created and clay capacity skyrocketed. A brickmaking machine could create over twice as many bricks in a day and now brick structures could be built much quicker and cheaper, surging them back into popularity and reducing the use of wood siding during this time. But because trends are circular, board and batten wood siding shone in American Bungalow and Gothic Revival Houses in the mid 19th century thanks to a simplified milling process, and rustic wood siding became popular during the Great Depression and the creation of the Works Progress Administration.

The first documented case of aluminum as an architectural material was the mounting of the grounding cap on the infamous Washington Monument in 1884. It was a very pricey metal at this point in time, a contrast to today’s cheap and affordable aluminum pricing. Sheet-iron units were officially patented in 1903, and embossed steel siding with brick and stone patterns were marketed in the highly sought-after Sears catalogs in the 1920s. Finally, in 1937 modern aluminum siding was invented, and by the end of World War II, aluminum was a popular residential exterior siding option. Steel siding innovation came much later. From the 1940s to the 1970s, aluminum was the most common material for siding. Around the same time as aluminum’s rising popularity, wood started to become more expensive to buy and homeowners were growing frustrated with the maintenance, water damage and pest control. Then, in the early 1960s, vinyl came out and quickly replaced both wood and aluminum in siding popularity. However, the aesthetic of wood was still very popular so manufacturers recreated the look with vinyl material. 

Alongside aluminum siding, steel siding became commercially available and prominent in residential design in the 1940s. Before that, steel gained prominence in rural North America when farmers started constructing pole barns that utilized galvanized, corrugated or grooved sheet steel siding. The durability shocked rural America and most barns today still incorporate steel as a siding material. At first, homeowners didn’t necessarily like the metallic roof-life appearance, but in the 1980s, manufacturers began experimenting with embossed coatings to the metal and a variety of siding styles and designs became readily available.  The introduction of seamless steel siding completely innovated the residential construction industry. 

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