The New York Times recently ran an article focusing on one Lewis Canfield, apparently an ardent apologist for vinyl siding. His rhapsodic rants about vinyl’s beauty, authenticity, and ties to the history of neighborhoods such as Williamsburg are enough to induce nagging nausea. If this were just about relativistic architectural fashion, then nothing would really matter, because one citizen’s garbage might be another’s treasured find. But it’s not. Other things are at stake here. Things like sustainability.
I’ll profess a disposition towards definitions that are common-sense and plain-spoken. Taking that approach, the definition of “sustainability” should be something like “keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future.” If that future extends only until the building is bulldozed a decade or two in the future, then vinyl is highly sustainable. But if “long into an uncertain future” means something decidedly beyond 15 years or so, then a different set of criteria come into play. Here’s why:
Let’s say a small piece of vinyl siding fails. Maybe the puppy gnaws it while teething. Maybe you inadvertently get the charcoal grill too close and melt a piece or two. Whatever happens, even if you have the good fortune of having an extra stock of the sad stuff stored up over the garage, there’s no chance that it’ll precisely match what’s been weathering out on the wall all those years. So what are your choices? Replace the damaged pieces and have a miserable mismatch, or tear all of the wretched stuff off, haul it down to the landfill, and start all over again with new siding. What could be less sustainable?
But it doesn’t stop there. Wrapping natural materials like wood with unnatural materials like vinyl or aluminum causes serious problems for the underlying substrate. There’s the real danger of collecting moisture that will rot or otherwise corrode the supporting structure, all the while hiding that damage behind a seemingly “maintenance-free” facade. So it’s entirely possible that you might not be replacing just the siding. If enough hidden damage has been done, you just might be replacing the entire structure.
What’s the solution? If you want to keep a building sustainable long into an uncertain future, then you really need to build it in a way that is patchable and repairable. Construction that is patchable and repairable is forgiving. That which makes the absurd claim of being “maintenance-free” is not. When so-called “maintenance-free” materials fail, they fail catastrophically, and you have to cart it all off to the landfill. Haven’t we had enough of that? If there’s anything we’ll need long into an uncertain future, it’s forgiveness… let’s choose our materials accordingly!
Steve Mouzon is principal of Mouzon Design, an architecture and urban design firm, based in Miami Beach, Florida.