Thursday, November 15, 2012

Stucco, For A More Sophisticated Look

It's funny, being born and raised in the southwestern United States, I never ever appreciated stucco. I've lived in stuccoed houses my entire life. Nearly every house here, new or old, has either stucco or aluminum siding. Guess I figured it was common so it wasn't that great. Little did I know that stucco is a great building material -- even a SOPHISTICATED one -- especially for our hot and dry climate.
I got my first real hint that stucco was something unique when I was carpooling with a couple from Canada whom I was taking wedding pictures for. As we were riding to the park for the shoot, they remarked how they liked how all the houses here were all stucco. I laughed and said, "What are the houses made of in Canada?" and they said "Bricks and wood." I told them I thought that bricks and wood siding were nicer than just plain old stucco. I guess if you see something all the time, it just becomes common and you don't appreciate it for what it truly is. In this article, reposted from the Ottawa Citizen, Mike Holmes talks about stucco, and how it not only looks nice (surprise to me!) but is also a good material in colder climates if applied properly.

Stucco, for a more sophisticated look

Stucco, for a more sophisticated look

Stucco exterior finishes are popular in warm climates but can withstand cold weather, if applied properly.

Photograph by: Alex Schuldt , The Holmes Group

Traditionally, stucco has been a popular exterior wall system. It adds character and can give a house a sophisticated finish, especially when combined with other masonry wall systems such as brick. If it’s done right, stucco can also be a great barrier against rain and snow and provide extra insulation.
The big problem is that it doesn’t work great in all environments. It works best in dry climates, because if it’s exposed to moisture it can start to crumble. Have you ever seen an old building with crumbling stucco walls? Not pretty. It’s also a pain to fix because you’re not dealing with just one layer.
Fixing it usually requires tackling all those other layers. It takes time, and it’s expensive. A stucco exterior on a home can cost $30,000 to $40,000, sometimes more. That’s why you mainly see stucco on homes in hot, dry climates such as the southern United States, where it generally lasts longer. But there are a couple of strategies that help preserve stucco in climates like ours.
First, you don’t want a stucco wall to have snow resting against it. If you’ve seen a house or building that has a stucco exterior from top to bottom, you might see it crumbling or flaking wherever it’s been most exposed to moisture. In most cases, that’s along the bottom of a house where moisture from the ground, precipitation and snow will sit.
That’s why if we’re doing stucco I like to have a masonry bottom and a stucco finish at the top of the house — usually on the second floor. Keeping stucco away from the ground helps prolong its life.
The second strategy is controlling the air and moisture behind the stucco finish.
As I’ve said before, stucco has many layers. The first layer is the substrate — the material the stucco is applied to. This material must be tough and durable. A product such as oriented strand board (OSB) works best, but plywood sheathing is also effective.
On top of the substrate is the air and moisture barrier, probably the most important layer. Some people call it water/moisture/weather material.
The purpose of this layer is to prevent moisture from penetrating through to the substrate material that’s vulnerable to moisture, like wood sheathing or gypsum. If moisture gets trapped there it can start to rot the material and damage the stucco finish on the surface.
Depending on local code or manufacturer’s instructions or both, there might be specific moisture barrier and assembly requirements. Always check what they are and verify it with your contractor. In my line of work, asking questions rarely leads to problems. It’s when homeowners don’t ask enough questions that things get messy.
Some contractors will use waterproof building paper as the air and moisture barrier. If that’s the case, vertical seams should be overlapped by 15 centimetres or more; horizontal seams by 10.2 centimetres or more. But my guys apply an air and moisture barrier that looks a lot like icing on a cake. There are no seams so it provides one solid layer of protection.
The traditional way of doing stucco requires a steel mesh that’s properly installed on top of the moisture barrier. Then the stucco is applied — two layers if you’re working over masonry or concrete (one base coat, one finish coat). Three layers if it’s going over wood framing (scratch coat, base coat and finish coat). But there are a couple of new systems out there that have changed the process.
We now have exterior insulation finish systems (EIFS) that are basically rigid foam panels that go over the moisture barrier. I like them for two reasons: It gives us extra insulation and increases the R-value (resistance to heat loss) of your exterior walls. Two, these systems can help drain any moisture caught behind the stucco layers.
On a recent job we used a type of EIFS called PUCCS (pressure-utilized compartmented cavity system). PUCCS insulation is flat on one side with puck-looking shapes on the other — go figure. The side with the puck shapes goes against the air and moisture barrier. So in case moisture gets in, it flows through the cavities in between all the pucks and finds its way to the bottom of the wall where there is the drainage track.
There’s so much to consider when it comes to stucco. Every tradesperson will have a different way of doing it.
But the most important thing to keep in mind is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on all the materials. If they aren’t followed, the manufacturer’s warranty can be compromised, so if there was a problem you’d be out of luck and stuck with the repair bill.
Be smart. Be involved. And ask questions to make sure your home’s stucco stands the test of time.
Catch Mike Holmes in his new series, Holmes Makes It Right, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV. For more information, visit For more information on home renovations, visit

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