Inexpensive Replacement Materials Don’t Stack Up to Originals

Inexpensive and maintenance free or short sighted and maintenance proof: How do substitute materials stack up in the long run? By John H. Cluver, AIA

The pressure to replace historic materials with inexpensive substitutes is strong. There are arguments, however, to support keeping those original clapboards and roofs. 

Marketers would have you believe that there are fundamental problems with historic materials that require their replacement. Rotten wood, peeling paint, cracks and loss of function, however, can be repaired and, more importantly, can be prevented. The real problems are aggressive marketing, a lack of knowledge about historic materials and a focus on short term costs to the detriment of the long term. The unfortunate results are the five fables of modern replacement materials that contribute to the lowcost, low-maintenance mirage.

Fable #1: Replacement is cheaper than repair; substitutes are relatively cheap and traditional materials simply cannot compete on price.What people fail to consider, however, is that repairing what already exists may cost the same, or possibly even be cheaper. So why don’t more people do repairs, if price is so important? In most cases, it is because they do not even think that repair is an option, either because they do not know where to find someone to do the job or because they assume it will cost more.

Fable #2: The best price is the best deal. When it comes to construction, it is very hard to comparison shop. Because people buy items like roofs only once or twice in their lifetime, and rarely own the product from start to finish, they are not educated consumers. Lacking proper knowledge and not wanting to get “sold up,” the natural tendency is to simply buy the most affordable option out there. Marketing has successfully removed the question of quality from most buyers’ minds by offering a “lifetime warranty” that frequently either the buyer or the seller are not around to cash-in on.

Fable #3: New looks better than old. Unless you are an old house aficionado, there is a great satisfaction in removing those old, peeling, ratty-looking materials and replacing them with something new.The problem is, today’s new is tomorrow’s old, and many contemporary materials simply do not age as gracefully as traditional materials.

Fable #4: Replacement is more energy efficient than repair.With increased environmental awareness and rising energy costs, people get great satisfaction in upgrading the energy efficiency of their house by replacing materials that are drafty and allow heat to escape. Unfortunately, they fail to take the steps, like increasing insulation or sealing cracks, which can have a bigger impact on heat loss. It may take decades for the replacement material to “pay for itself ” in energy savings, but heat loss is only part of the equation: It takes energy to make, ship and install new materials, as well as to remove and dispose of the old materials.

Fable #5: No maintenance is the ultimate goal. Everybody wants more time and mundane house maintenance is never high on anybody’s priority list. So why spend time and money repairing a material that will need constant maintenance, when that money can be spent on something that can be installed and never thought of again? Very often, periodic maintenance can prevent more expensive and disruptive major repairs later. Even paying someone to paint the house while you relax on the hammock will cost less than new siding. 

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