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Fiber Cement Siding

Fiber-Cement Siding: An In-Depth Review

By Camille LeFevre Home Features Editor
Jun 9, 2020

I bought my catalog kit house some 30 years ago. It was built-in 1889 near a busy railroad in what was then considered a new working-class suburb of Minnesota's capital city. However, the siding gave me pause. It's an asbestos-cement shingle. It was probably installed in the early 1900s, over what I've discovered is lovely wide wood lap siding. Asbestos shingles were a hit at the time for being light-weight, rigid, durable, and fireproof. They don't warp or rot and are resistant to insects.

They also hold paint like a boss. My neighbors with wood siding have painted up to four times since I've lived in my house, with years of scruffy-looking paint peeling in between. I, on the other hand, have painted twice. The first paint job was immediately after purchasing my home, and then again in 2018. The exterior of my house always looks good.

"Just don't touch it," friends told me as I contemplated purchasing a house with asbestos siding. They were, of course, referring to the asbestos fibers. These fibers embed in the lungs and cause asbestosis (chronic inflammation of lung tissue), lung cancer, and mesothelioma (cancer of the pulmonary membrane). So it is hazardous when they are disturbed when the material cracks, breaks or is removed.

One of the companies that created asbestos siding, James Hardie Industries, also innovated a different product once the dangers of asbestos came to light. The new product, fiber cement siding, replaces asbestos with silica and wood fibers. While fiber cement siding is safer for installers and homeowners, the product still comes with several safety and sustainability caveats.

Hardiplank
HardiPlank Lap Siding. Photo Credit: HardiPlank

James Hardie Industries, founded in Melbourne, Australia, in 1888, was one of several companies involved in the mining of asbestos. By the mid-20th century, the company was also the largest manufacturer and distributor of building products, insulation, and pipes containing asbestos. In the mid-1980s, as the dangers of asbestos were finally acknowledged and lawsuits became prevalent, the company began developing fiber cement technology using wood pulp instead of asbestos.  

What is Fiber Cement Siding? 

Fiber cement siding is a new siding product made by combining wood pulp or cellulose with Portland cement, silica, and other products. It is now commonly known as "HardiPlank" or "Hardie board," as James Hardie Industries is the primary manufacturer. Other companies manufacturing similar products include Cemplank, GAF, and Nichiha. Fiber cement siding produced by these companies shares the same based recipe, aside from proprietary ingredients. 

For a video of the fiber cement manufacturing process, courtesy of the Discovery Channel, go here

Fiber cement siding is often a popular choice for modern homes because of its clean lines and versatile look and feel. It is used on houses with a variety of styles, from Colonial to Arts and Crafts. It's tough, durable, holds paint, can be textured to resemble wood, and is fire and bug resistant. When properly installed, it is impervious to moisture. It's also dimensionally stable, meaning it doesn't expand and contract with temperature changes (unlike wood). 

fiber cement siding styles
Photo Credit: Siding Authority

Fiber cement siding can be installed in a variety of ways:

  • In panels
  • To resemble horizontal lap siding
  • As squares
  • As a vertical accent panel
Nichiha Fiber-Cement Siding
Nichiha Fiber-Cement Siding. Photo Credit: Nichiha

Nichiha produces fiber cement siding with stone (fieldstone, sandstone, quarried stone) and in brick patterns (in colors from red to tan). 

How Much Does Fiber Cement Siding Cost?

Fiber cement siding is a premium product, meaning it costs about $10 per square foot, installed. This makes HardiePlank about three times more expensive than vinyl siding, for instance. If a homeowner paints the product, it decreases to about 2.5 times more expensive instead of buying it pre-painted. There are a few factors that make fiber cement siding a premium product. These include high demand, the need for a professional installer, and shipping costs, as the product is heavier than others (vinyl, for example).

HardiePlank, James Hardie Industries' flagship product, is 5/16-inch thick by 12-foot long lap siding, in widths ranging from 5 1/4-inch to 8 1/4-inch. It's available in a variety of colors already baked in. Still, it can be painted any color, just like any other siding. James Hardie siding is also available as long planks, panels (4-foot by 8-foot), and siding shingles.

"If homeowners are looking for a premium siding, we often recommend Hardie," says Abe Degnan, president, Degnan Design-Build-Remodel, Madison, WI. "The distinctive advantage Hardie has is that it's doing single-stream sourcing, meaning the company manufactures and distributes the siding, they take care of the pre-finishing, and if you're working with an approved installer, they provide installation warranty. Their warranty is superior in the industry. They take responsibility for the entire package."

How Long Does Fiber Cement Siding Last?

For many people, however, the upfront cost is also balanced by the product's durability and longevity. "Hardie outlasts vinyl by two to three lifetimes," Degnan says. "Unlike vinyl siding, it doesn't rot, get dirty, crack in the cold, or get dented by hail. Hardie's factory-painted coatings can last up to 50 years, and the siding can be repainted and look as good as on day one." The siding is also easy to touch-up and repair. 

As for resale, an article in Remodeling Magazine estimated that fiber cement, an upscale siding project, recoups approximately 78 percent of a homeowner's initial cost. 

Cempland Lap Siding
Cempland Lap Siding. Photo Credit: Cemplank

How to Install Fiber Cement Siding? Proper Installation is Key

Architect Bob Shaffer, president of The Foundation Architects in Minneapolis, has fiber cement siding on his house. Hardie products were installed at three different times on different portions of the house by three different contractors. "If it's installed correctly, it's very durable," he says. "It can take a lot of abuse." But installation is key, he continues.

The panels have to be within a certain distance from the roof, as the warranty specifies. Also, it cannot be in direct contact with the ground. "Contractors don't always understand its weaknesses, nor do homeowners," Shaffer says. "If it's not installed correctly, it will fail - spectacularly. When it fails, it's like oatmeal. It turns into mush." Fiber cement siding, including Hardie plank, is also heavy, Degnan adds, and can be difficult to cut and install. 

Homeowners installing their own siding can do it—but only if they have the right equipment, the right blade, and protective gear; the process can be difficult.

Is Fiber Cement Siding Dangerous?

Fiber cement board contains fibers and silica. Crystalline silica is made up of particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand. It is created when sawing, cutting, drilling, grinding, and crushing rock, stone, concrete, block, brick, and mortar. There are specific OSHA rules that need to be followed for worker safety to avoid particles. Installers should wear masks, but don't always do so.  Why does OSHA require workers to wear masks? It doesn't sound much better than asbestos: crystalline silica is classified as a human carcinogen affecting the lungs, leading to severe lung disease and lung cancer. 

Marken Design Consult Fiber Cement Siding
Fiber Cement Siding. Photo Credit: Marken Design + Consult

Fiber Cement Sustainability Considerations 

Cement, which is one of the primary components of Hardie plank and other fiber cement siding products, "is not a low-energy use product," Shaffer says. "So whether fiber cement siding is sustainable depends on what you're comparing it to." Take cedar siding, he says. Where is the cedar coming from? An FSC-certified sustainable forest? An agricultural forest, which requires fertilizer and water and isn't a bug-resistant as old-growth cedar? Or an old-growth forest?  

Vinyl siding, even if manufactured with recycled content (an "environmental" claim made by some vinyl siding manufacturers), lasts about ten years, Shaffer continues. "Hardie lasts 20 years, compared to two cycles of vinyl. So, many people choose Hardie, even if it doesn't contain recycled materials." (Editor's note: vinyl siding actually can last quite a bit longer; it depends on how one defines "lasts" and when it must be replaced. Vinyl can dent and warp more easily, and colors can fade, it is a poor insulator on its own, and is made of petro-chemicals—so while it's not technically "flammable," it will melt easily. It also gets poor marks for the manufacturing and disposal process, which emit harmful emissions.)

In comparison, where do fiber cement products come from? The manufacturing process is large scale and energy-intensive. Many factories are overseas. Shaffer says, however, and this may be true for many other homeowners, "If I can put a product on a house that will last a long time, even if it's not produced using a sustainable manufacturing process, to me that's sustainable." 

LP Smartside Siding
LP Smartside Siding. Photo Credit: LP Smartside

The New Kid on the Block: Smartside Siding 

Lately, many contractors have been asking to install LP Smartside Siding instead of fiber cement. "It can be cut with traditional woodworking tools, and installers don't have to worry about the silica, as it's a blend of wood fiber and resins," Degnan says. Moreover, LP Smartside proudly embraces its environmental stewardship, from sustainable fiber sourcing to its Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) Certification.

LP Smartside's engineered-wood-strand technology promises durability and longevity as well. It is resistant to extreme weather conditions such as excessive moisture, hail, freeze/thaw cycles, and up to 200-mph winds. It's also resistant to termites and fungal decay. "If a homeowner decides to go with a premium siding product, fiber cement siding is extremely durable and, if installed correctly, could last the life of the house," Shaffer says. "But more and more people are asking about LP, which is as durable, but lighter and easier to work with."

Bottom Line

The choices of exterior siding can be a bit overwhelming. It depends on your climate, your budget, and your taste. From a sustainability perspective, fiber cement board is a good choice for its durability. But the "just don't touch it" adage used with old homes and asbestos still rings true - or at a minimum, we should say, "just don't cut it yourself without wearing protective gear." 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-01-16T05:56:32+0000
Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.