EL Historic District Commission Allows Some Uses of Fiber Cement Siding

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017, 10:00 am
Alice Dreger

The East Lansing Historic District Commission is now allowing property owners in historic districts to replace original exterior wood siding with cement fiberboard siding in some cases. In the past, this relatively new product had been questioned as an appropriate use, but more recently the Commission has seen it as a viable alternative to attempting to restore or replace damaged exterior wood siding with wood products in certain exterior situations.

Owners of historic properties sided in wood often find that the time and money it takes to maintain wood siding presents a challenge, particularly in a wet climate like East Lansing’s. Cement fiberboard siding—sometimes called fiber cement siding, fiber siding, or cementitious siding—can be made to look like traditional wood siding and is believed by its proponents to be more durable than many wood types.

Amanda Harrell-Seyburn is Chair of East Lansing’s Historic District Commission and a designer at east arbor architecture in downtown East Lansing. (The company uses the lowercase for its business name.) Asked about when it’s appropriate to use a product like this, Harrell-Seyburn responded, “The historic district ordinances and design guidelines emphasize the repair of original features rather than replacement. However, in special circumstances, where repair is not possible, replacement with similar materials may be an option.”

In general, Harrell-Seyburn notes, “The use of synthetic materials is discouraged. Synthetic materials (such as vinyl, aluminum siding, etc.) are often incompatible in appearance, profile or texture with the original features.”

But, “In special circumstances where original wood siding has deteriorated, and repair or replacement with wood is no longer the best solution, cement fiber siding can be a welcome alternative where the new materials does not degrade the architectural features and character of the structure.”

Harrell-Seyburn says that “smooth fiber cement siding has an appearance similar to wood siding, unlike vinyl, and comes in traditional widths and profiles.” Whereas vinyl siding generally looks like vinyl and not wood, cement siding can look quite convincingly like wood.

Property owners in the historic districts must obtain permission if they seek to replace siding with this product. According to Harrell-Seyburn, “The applicant must demonstrate to the historic district commission that the wood siding cannot be repaired and build a case for the use of cement fiber siding as replacement. All applications are considered on a case by case basis.”

As a professional in the restoration business, Harrell-Seyburn says, “I readily use cement fiber siding on new building projects and historic building additions. I use it sparingly on historic buildings when replacing original wood siding. To date I have been pleased with its performance and appearance in all my projects.”

That said, this product is relatively new on the market, and so it has not yet withstood the test of time in places like East Lansing. Harrell-Seyburn warns, “It is important to hire a skilled installer. Poor installation results in erroneous vertical seams all over the house façade and low performance.”

Applications to replace wood siding with vinyl siding have consistently been rejected by the Historic District Commission of East Lansing and of many other locales. Harrell-Seyburn says that not only does vinyl not look historic, it “is subject to denting, sagging, cracking, and even warping. Repairing or replacing damaged vinyl siding is far more difficult than wood or cement fiber siding because it can be very difficult to find a piece to exactly match the old.” This leads to unattractive patchwork effects.

Cement fiber siding doesn’t come as cheap as wood can. Says Harrell-Seyburn, “Cement fiber siding begins at about $8.00/linear foot. Wood siding varies in cost but often begins at $2.00/linear foot plus cost of painting.” Cement fiber siding is pre-colored and can also be painted. Those who recommend it say that the money saved on initial painting and in long-term maintenance makes the product a good value.

Owners of properties in East Lansing’s historic districts are required to apply for permission before making exterior modifications, including, but not limited to, replacing front doors and siding, adding porches, changing rooflines, altering front walkways, and replacing or adding windows. The Historic District Commission is particularly concerned with changes visible from the street.


Disclosures: The author owns a home in the Oakwood Historic District and her spouse is on the Historic District Commission. east arbor architecture is a financial supporter of East Lansing Info.


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