Vinyl Siding And Historic Restoration

Historic Restoration
Response to Allegations
U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service Secretary's Standards
Tips for Obtaining Approval

Historic Restoration

When a group concerned with historic restoration prohibits the use of vinyl siding, the decision is usually precipitated by one or more of the following:

  • Reliance on the 1979 versions of The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings and Preservation Briefs #8, which were replete with misinformation and which were subsequently revised.
  • Anti-vinyl propaganda disseminated by the manufacturers of other materials in a desperate attempt to restore their market share.
  • Application problems, which are universal and not exclusive to vinyl siding.
  • Failure of homeowners/builders/installers to convince the decision-making groups of their respect for historic properties and their intention to maintain the architectural integrity of the building.
  • Lack of information on the styles available, the finished appearance of a vinyl siding installation, and the acceptance by other historic groups throughout the country.

Response to Allegations

Response to frequent Allegations generated by the obsolete Department of the Interior's Standards:

1. Allegation: The Department of the Interior prohibits the use of vinyl siding, and failure to adhere to the Standards will jeopardize the area's National Register classification.

Response: The most recent issue (1990) of the Department of the Interior's Standards does not prohibit the use of vinyl siding. The use of vinyl siding does not, per se, constitute a failure to adhere to the Standards or jeopardize the National Register classification of the districts. If, for example, the homeowner cannot afford restoration with wood siding, the use of vinyl siding would be in observance of the Standards.

2. Allegation: Details will be removed.

Response: The removal of details is not caused by the use of vinyl siding. To the contrary, vinyl siding installers are much more aware of the importance of retaining details as a result of information which has been distributed by the Vinyl Siding Institute for the past 15 years. Please see the Historic Guidelines published as part of its Application Instructions (which can be ordered from the VSI).

3. Allegation: Vinyl siding will cause structural problems.

Response: Vinyl siding will not accelerate inherent problems in the building. It will neither cure, not cause structural problems. The Historic Commission can perform an invaluable service by promoting the importance of inspecting a historic building prior to restoration to make certain that it is structurally sound prior to restoration.

4. Allegation: Appearance will be affected.

Response: There are vinyl siding styles available which so closely replicate the appearance of wood as to be indistinguishable from three feet away.

5. Allegation: Repairing and painting the wood is more economical.

Response: There is no contest between ongoing repair to wood and the application of vinyl siding. Usually the payback period is ten years. Over a period of 20 years, the scale swings significantly in favor of vinyl siding. Research has evidenced that the homeowner realizes a savings of $3500 to $4000 when vinyl siding is used.

6. Allegation: Vinyl siding can become brittle and more susceptible to damage.

Response: Although vinyl siding does lose some of its flexibility in time, "brittleness" is not an issue. Vinyl siding is no more susceptible to severe abuse than wood, which if struck with a hammer will dent and splinter, plus its paint will be damaged. Nor is it a problem during installation. Vinyl siding has been in use in the New England region for over 30 years. Many installations were performed during the winter months. Vinyl siding has also been installed successfully in Alaska under extreme cold conditions.

7. Allegation: Vinyl siding cannot be repaired.

Response: Vinyl siding, by its very nature, is easy to remove and repair without interrupting the rest of the wall. (Please refer to the VSI Application Instructions which can be ordered through the VSI.) Vinyl lends itself to replacement because it is possible to replace a damaged vinyl panel with a weathered panel taken from an unnoticeable location (i.e. from behind a bush) and put the new panel in its place. Mechanically, vinyl siding can be treated like a jigsaw puzzle - you can move it around.

8. Allegation: Vinyl siding dents, cracks, fades.

Response: Anything that could cause denting and cracking of vinyl siding would cause similar damage to other sidings. Regarding color hold, everything fades, including painted wood. There really is no degree of difference as compared to paint. You can't dab paint on spots and expect that it will match. On the other hand, vinyl siding in whites, off-whites, ivories, light grays and beige tones, the colors most used to replicate the appearance of historic buildings, will show little or no color change after weathering.

9. Allegation: Vinyl siding causes moisture and rot.

Response: Vinyl siding does not cause moisture damage. Moisture from the inside is caused by inadequate ventilation and should be addressed by a qualified engineer. Insofar as moisture from the outside is concerned, vinyl siding systems are designed to allow for ventilation behind the siding and experience has shown that the design is effective. Weepholes are punched at intervals along the bottom butt edge of the siding to allow any condensation to drain out. The locks and lap joints in conjunction with the open ends of the siding, although hidden from view in J-channel or corner posts, still allow for the dissipation of water vapor from behind the siding to the outside. If moisture is presently being trapped in the walls of the structure, obviously the installation of vinyl siding will not cure the problem. However, it will not make it worse. Painting the old wood siding is not an answer. In fact, a couple of coats of oil paint make an excellent vapor barrier. That is why blistering is so often observed on painted clap board - the moisture is trapped behind the paint.

10. Allegation: Vinyl siding causes insect damage.

Response: Claims that vinyl siding can worsen insect damage are simply untrue. Termites avoid daylight and a coat of paint would conceal sidewall damage as effectively as siding. Termites must maintain access to the ground for moisture. Therefore, they begin at the sill of the house and work their way into the interior woodwork (floor joists, framing, flooring, etc.) on which they feed. The house would collapse before their activities were visible by looking at the ex terior of a sidewall. Proper termite inspection must be done within the cellar or crawl space of a building.

11. Allegation: Vinyl siding is life-threatening in a fire.

Response: Rigid vinyl siding is made from organic materials and will melt or burn when exposed to a significant source of flame or heat. Building owners, occupants and outside maintenance personnel should always take normal precautions to keep sources of fire, such as barbecues, and combustible materials, such as dry leaves, mulch and trash, away from vinyl siding.

When rigid vinyl siding is exposed to significant heat or flame, the vinyl will soften, sag, melt, or burn, and may thereby expose material underneath. Care must be exercised when selecting underlayment materials because many underlayment materials are made from organic materials that are combustible. You should ascertain the fire properties of underlayment materials prior to installation. All building materials should be installed in accordance with local, state and federal building code and fire regulations.

For general information about vinyl siding products or to obtain a historic restoration information packet, contact the Vinyl Siding Institute, 1801 K Street NW, Suite 600K, Washington, DC 20005-4006.


U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service Secretary's Standards and Preservation Briefs

The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings and Preservation Briefs #8 are documents which warned against the use of synthetic siding in historic restoration citing serious consequences such as rot, moisture retention, insect infestation and combustibility, and asserted that false claims were being made by the industry regarding energy conservation and maintenance.

Although rife with false and unsubstantiated statements, the referenced documents were accepted as fact and, worse, the warnings contained therein provided the basis for subsequent publications such as Brian Conway's "Hazards of Synthetic Siding" and a newsletter, The Old House Journal, which was distributed to home improvement editors nationwide, resulting in a rash of anti-vinyl siding propaganda.

Discussions were held with the Department of the Interior and state-of-the-art data presented. As a result, both publications were revised.

The Allegations regarding moisture retention, combustibility and insect infestation were deleted from the Standards which were revised in December, 1983. Preservation Briefs #8, revised October, 1984, eliminated all derogatory references to vinyl siding. Instead, it focused on the correction of structural defects, and use of a competent applicator with an awareness of the importance of retaining architectural details.

Unfortunately, although wide distribution was given to the 1979 version, only token distribution was made of the 1983 Standards and 1984 Preservation Briefs #8 due to federal budgetary limitations. As a result, many local regulatory groups are still reacting to the misinformation contained in the obsolete publications.

The 1983/84 revisions reflected a markedly enlightened attitude. However, it was not until the 1990 issue of the Standards that the Department turned around and clearly accepted the use of synthetic siding, as well as the premise that economic and technical feasibility were primary considerations. (In 1983, long before the Secretary's recognition of economic considerations, a judge ruled in favor of vinyl siding on grounds of economic expediency - a copy of the Paul Tilley decision can be requested by contacting the VSI.)

The 1990 Standards contain many of the original recommendations. The important difference, however, can be found in the following statements, which appear in the introduction on page 6 of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings:

The following Standards are to be applied to specific rehabilitation projects in a reasonable manner, taking into consideration economic and technical feasibility.

"...the new feature shall match the old in design, color, texture, and other visual qualities, and where possible materials." (Siding is considered a feature.)

The reversal in philosophy was considered so significant that an interim pamphlet was published highlighting the revisions.

Previous revisions to the 1979 issue were carried forward, and the result is a standard that is reasonable while at the same time, protects the historic quality of the structure.

There has been no revision to the Preservation Briefs #8 of 1984, which was based on the 1983 Standards, but is not contrary to the 1990 Standards. Please see pages 2 and 5 of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings for conditions under which the use of synthetic siding was deemed acceptable, even under the more restrictive 1984 Standards.

A copy of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings and Preservation Briefs #8 can be obtained by contacting either the Department of the Interior or The Vinyl Siding Institute.

Tips for Obtaining Approval

  • Read the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings and Preservation Briefs #8 carefully.
  • Advise the regulatory group of the background of this issue. They are most likely referencing the obsolete documents and are unaware of the 1990 version.
  • Refer to the Paul Tilley case (material may be obtained by contacting The Vinyl Siding Institute). Although this dates back to 1983, the findings are still relevant. Point out that the judge's decision in this case, citing economic considerations, predates even the 1983 revision and that this and similar cases throughout the country prompted the 1990 recognition of the importance of economic and technical feasibility.
  • If correct, be prepared to state at a hearing that:
  • The existing siding is so deteriorated that it cannot be repaired and it is not feasible or eco nomical to use the original historic wood to replace the siding.
  • The application of vinyl siding is reversible. In other words, the original would remain intact and some time in the future, if desired, the vinyl siding could be removed.
  • The vinyl siding to be used will duplicate the appearance of the original siding.
  • The building in question has been, or will be, examined and pronounced "healthy" before undertaking re-siding.
  • A qualified applicator will be used - one who has been apprised of the necessity to retain historic architectural detail and has committed to the task. Adherence to this principle will be carefully monitored by the owner and contractor.
  • If at all possible, have pictures of completed jobs or refer to specific jobs by location. Letters of reference citing proven attention to details and excellence in workmanship are desirable.
  • Present the list of historic areas which have permitted vinyl siding (list included).
  • Show samples of siding installed over sheathing (for a more accurate representation of the finished product).
  • Show before and after photographs of actual historic restorations (available upon request).