fiber cement siding: what it is and why i want it

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We’ve been noticing large-plank fiber cement siding on houses around our neighborhood and we just love it. It’s modern looking and, according to our sources, it will last forever. Sounds like quite a step up from what we have now: painted wooden boards that were allowed to blister and flake before we bought our house, greatly reducing their longevity. A friend snapped the photo of a house in progress above, which resembles the shape of our house somewhat. I realize the above might be a bit too industrial for some, but with plantings completed I think the look is rather cool. We can’t afford to make any big changes to our house right now, so for the time being we’ll just keep slapping paint on it. In the meantime, though, I asked two friends — Steve, an architect, and Bo, an interior designer — to tell me more. Here’s what they had to say. –Mary T.

PS I also want the metal roofing, but that’s a different post.

Click to get info from experts on fiber cement siding!

Who makes fiber cement siding?
Steve: Lots of companies. James Hardie makes HardiePanel, HardiePlank, and HardieShingle.

Bo: Everyone called the entire category HardiePlank at first because they popularized it, like Xerox or Band-Aids. The most popular is by James Hardie. The coolest is by Nichiha.

Steve: Fiber cement siding is a really big product in Japan. Nichiha comes in many different styles, some that are molded and painted to look like brick or stone. There’s also Ceraclad, which is made by Panasonic. CertainTeed also makes a version.

Where is it most commonly used?
Steve: It’s used mostly for residential, lots of multifamily. I’d bet most of the townhouses you see with beveled siding have HardiePlank instead of real wood. The panels are used on a lot of modern projects.

Bo: The horizontal panels are likely in the commercial section of the manufacturers’ websites because they have a modern look not typical to most traditional homes.

What are the benefits?
Steve: It’s cheaper than cedar siding; that’s why it’s used so much on townhouses. It doesn’t have the stigma of vinyl or aluminum siding. Cedar is probably $5.50 per sf, fiber cement is $3.70 per sf, vinyl is $2.70 per sf. The Nichiha and Ceraclad products would be more expensive.

It’s better for a wet climate probably, but it’s used everywhere. It’s not going to rot because it’s basically cement. If you get some of the products that are pre-stained, you should never have to paint it, so it’s low maintenance. It’s also fire resistant.

Are there any drawbacks? Is it difficult to install?
Steve: You can screw it or nail it depending on the look you want. The Ceraclad products have a special channel that’s nailed to the wall and the siding snaps into place without any screws. If you use the panel, you have to flash between them to keep moisture from getting behind the siding.

It’s a very hard material, so it’s tough on saw blades and hands. If you were going to use the planks, it used to be that you had to also use cornerboards because the cuts weren’t clean enough at the corners. But I’ve seen lots of projects without them lately, so that problem must have been fixed.

Bo: You can learn more about installation in this video at Nichiha.

From our partners
Megan B.

I like it! It may be an option for us too when and if we need to replace our wood siding!

DJ

Our neighbors installed it to replace very old, rotting wood siding. Siding that they had been repainting every four years!

It looks terrific, and has something like a 50 year life expectancy. But they said it was unbelievably expensive. But, since they plan to stay in the house for years and years, it sure beats painting every four years and still needing to replace the siding.

j

Is it mold and mildew resistant? Our vinyl siding is growing mildew with all of the rain we’ve had here in Ohio the last two months. And it doesn’t want to come off.

Tom Arlington

Here is another product that uses no nails for siding. It drains the moisture out as well. I know that siding leaks a lot!

http://www.sidingmaster.com/video.shtml

Mary T

j, I imagine it would have to be — since it’s so popular in Seattle’s rainy climate, i think that would be the reason.

Grahame C

I stumbled upon this item by accident and wanted to offer a response from Australia. Fibre cement sheeting (most recently in plank form) was the cheap building material of choice here for most of the 20th century and continues to be used now. What you might want to consider is that James Hardie is an Australian company which took itself offshore to attempt to avoid tax and particularly to attempt to avoid its responsibility for paying compensation to those affected by the asbestos in its past products. This company continued to use asbestos in its sheeting until around 1983 despite knowing the dangers for very many years. Google James Hardie asbestos if you want more.

hardi is something we use on all of our building projects. i am not a contractor, my brother is and it seems to be cool stuff. i love the way it feels and it comes textured like wood or smooth, lots of nice colors to chose from. we’re in the southeast, humid to wet, it it’s sustainable-green too. love this post! thanks.

Aida

I agree with Grahame C – I am also currently living in Australia – James Hardie’s executives are currently being prosecuted for the whole asbestos compensation scheme scandal http://business.smh.com.au/business/james-hardie-former-directors-banned-face-fines-20090727-dy7x.html
“Fibro is the material of choice for cheap housing commission (public housing) projects throughout Australia. it is brittle and has the reputation of being the stuff that covers up badly designed houses at a cheap price – it shatters when angry people punch walls and is difficult to repair! ( Don’t laugh there are people who apparently do these things!) Designers however can make anything fashionable! Please consider the injustice done to Australian workers by Hardie’s and buy from another manufacturer.

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Jay

There seems to be some doubt about the longevity of the panels. I know a contractor in New England who makes a business doing nothing but replacing the bottom 4-5 courses of fiber cement on houses a few years after it goes up. If water gets behind the planks, it gets drawn towards the face by the fibers. By the time it shows up visually, repainting won’t solve the problem, as the fibers are coming apart.

In the large panel version shown here the homeowner is going for a very specific look. However in the case of the planks, it’s good to remember that many people aren’t fooled that it is bevel cedar siding. It looks different and because they are unable to produce it beveled, you don’t get the shadow lines that are the best feature of beveled cedar siding.

It should be thought of as what it is – a middle ground between cheap, low-maintenance, tacky vinyl siding, and expensive but classy painted cedar that does require periodic maintenance.

There’s no such thing as a perfect product. Any like with most products the vast majority of problems come from poor installation. Cedar siding has it’s pro’s and con’s, vinyl siding has it’s pro’s and con’s, and so does fiber cement. Different options are right for different people in different climates. We’ve been installing fiber cement in New England for over a decade, and I can assure you, we’ve never had to replace large sections of it.

Here is a great comparrison of the 3 most common siding options.
Siding Replacement Options

Mike D

In our neighborhood, the houses with long sides facing the sun have extensive cracking, mostly around the nails. Our home used CertainTeed Fibre Cement. Several people complained and were told by CertainTeed that they’d have to remove and ship a sample to them.
Consumer Reports rated CertainTeed at the bottom of the three manufacturers they compared.

In my old home, they used Hardiplank and we never had a problem.

Mike

This looks like a good product to use on my next siding job. It is in a remote location that experiences great variations in heat, wind, moisture, and fire threat. I think this will be the correct product for the project.