Home & Garden Columns

Friend or Faux? Examining the Origin of House Materials

By Jane Powell
Thursday May 08, 2008 - 10:51:00 AM

Once upon a time, houses were built with the materials at hand, or those things that could be made using the materials at hand (concrete, for instance). Around here, that tended to be wood and masonry (stone, brick, stucco, and concrete). These days, more and more construction materials are fake.  

The old-growth timber with which the East Bay was built in the 19th and 20th centuries has pretty much all been logged. We don’t use much stone any more, unless you count all those granite kitchen counters.  

Concrete is still around, but even the stucco these days tends to be synthetic, sprayed on top of foam. Wood is still used for framing, but many of the visible parts of the house are now various composites: fiber-cement siding, composite countertops, PVC trim boards, MDF moldings, fiberboard siding, laminate flooring, cultured stone, and composite decking.  

Intellectually, I have no problem with a lot of these substances, as they often make better use of scarce resources. Well, except for PVC, which is toxic throughout its lifecycle, and impossible to avoid—it should just be banned outright. But I digress. 

Aesthetically, I do have a problem with some of these faux building materials. Sometimes the problem is not even innate in the composite material, rather, it’s the fault of those who design and manufacture it. 

Let us take siding as an example. Now, I’m not even talking about vinyl siding or aluminum siding, which we don’t have very much of compared to some parts of the country, thank God. No, I’m talking about fiberboard siding and fiber-cement siding. Now, fiber-cement siding is a fairly decent product which (so far) appears to be holding up to the elements fairly well, can be painted, and comes in various traditional siding profiles as well as shingles.  

Fiberboard, on the other hand, is akin to particleboard, and available in big floppy two foot by sixteen foot sheets down at the home center that shall remain nameless. Yet both of these products, for reasons which are not clear to me, come embossed with a large and exaggerated wood grain pattern which repeats every two or three feet. No real wood looks like that, unless perhaps it has been sandblasted.  

It might even be OK had they opted for “sandblasted old-growth wood,” but no, the “growth rings” on the embossed siding are a good inch apart, like the tree-farmed lumber that is common these days. And the embossing of exaggerated wood grain extends to composite decking materials (Trex and the like) as well. Fiber-cement siding is also available with a smooth surface, but apparently the wood grain is far more popular.  

Which brings us to Pergo and its little laminate friends. Ignoring for the moment the issue of whether you want to walk around on what is essentially a Formica counter that’s now on the floor, the fact that laminate flooring comes mainly in various kinds of fake wood is what offends me aesthetically. Wood is hard to fake. Laminate “wood” flooring is basically a photograph of wood under a piece of clear plastic. Sometimes it’s embossed a little to look like it has “grain”—at least the embossing is usually more subtle than what is used on siding. Laminate also comes in fake “ceramic tile,” which for some reason is easier to fake. 

Just above the laminate floor you may well find a baseboard made of MDF or medium-density fiberboard. MDF is a fine use of sawdust which would otherwise go to waste, and it’s cheap. It doesn’t expand or contract as much as real wood, and it comes pre-primed. That’s the upside. The downside? Looks okay until you bang into it with a piece of furniture or something, at which point a chunk breaks out leaving a small crater, unlike banging into a wood baseboard, which might dent it or chip off some paint, but will definitely not leave a crater.  

Also, they say MDF looks just like wood when painted—well, maybe after five or six coats. Otherwise the random “grain” of the sawdust shows through on close inspection. Thus, I would save MDF moldings for use up near the ceiling, where they are unlikely to get knocked around and can’t be seen too closely. 

I don’t necessarily have a problem with fakeness as a concept. Faux finishing has a long and splendid history, and I like a linoleum oriental rug as much as the next person. Okay, more than the next person. But I despair for a world that so willingly sends real old growth timber to the landfill by demolishing old buildings, while building new ones using materials that are often synthetic or composite because that is more “green.” Maybe it’s that the attempt to look like natural building materials is such a reminder of what we’ve lost. 


Jane Powell is the author of five books about bungalows and one about linoleum, all available at www.bungalowkitchens.com. She can be reached at hsedressng@aol.com.