Industry Outlook: Between A Rock And A Dollar Sign

Words: Bronzella Cleveland

Duo Dickinson, AIABy Duo Dickinson, AIA

There are many reasons to use masonry in building. The single most commonly used reason not to use masonry is cost. Wood, steel, plastic, and glass are all cheaper cladding. Even CMU’s and brick are pricier than most other options.

But cost is always relative in construction. What seems cheap when installed can be pretty expensive if it needs replacement in the short term—and chronic maintenance of any building component is painful beyond the dollars-and-cents cost.

If installed well, masonry lasts far longer with less maintenance than almost any other exterior building product. Beyond durability, using stone to create surfaces and shapes has unique properties almost no other option can offer, including the following:

  1. Masonry forms curves with ease and efficiency when compared to wood or steel—fieldstone masonry forms its own armature for support; its surface is its substrate. Being built of independent pieces, stone can easily transition into curves. This applies to openings as well as surfaces.
  2. Masonry has zero solar degradation. Wood gets brittle and erodes with sun. All paint fades over time.
  3. If kept pointed, masonry resists water intrusion better than any other surface, simply because its surface is its core.
  4. Masonry’s appearance is either inert or enhanced over time—even dirt, moss, and lichens can enhance a fieldstone surface.
  5. But if you disdain weathered aesthetics, you can scrub masonry to a completely pristine state because of its tough, dense, and integral composition.
A design by Duo Dickinson that shows how stone uniquely forms curves—and needs none of the yearly maintenance these wood steps require.
A design by Duo Dickinson that shows how stone uniquely forms curves—and needs none of the yearly maintenance these wood steps require.

Beyond the tangibles of money spent initially and over time, almost no other building material evidences the humanity embodied in craft like stone. Wood can be magic in its intricate weaving realities, steel dynamic and precise, but fieldstone can mesh the essence of natural expression and the human hand better than any other building technology.

While cut stone eschews the organic aesthetics of fieldstone, the subtle grain of even the blankest of granite has an iridescence no synthetic material can duplicate at any price—and its durability over time is unmatched. Anecdotally, when an extensive restoration of Yale’s Beinecke Library designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings & Merrill confronted the 50-year-old marble cladding, the fear was there could be real issues, given its completely exposed situation. However, the restoration just involved cleaning and coating, with a few cracks filled; there was zero degradation.

Everything in building—and perhaps life—can be seen as a cost-benefit equation. Masonry has the unique visual characteristics of a natural product, but embodies the extreme durability synthetic materials aspire to. When costs are applied to its undeniable benefits, stone can have a value that actually pays for itself over the long haul.

About the author:

Duo Dickinson, AIA, graduated from Cornell in 1977, and opened his own architectural practice in 1987.

His work has received more than 30 awards, including Architectural Record, Record House, Metropolitan Home Met Home Awards, and Connecticut and New York AIA design awards. He is the first non-member award-winner of the Society of America Registered Architects’ 2009 Special Service Award and the 2015 Sacred Landscape Award from the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture.

The co-founder of The Congress of Residential Architecture (CORA), Dickinson has taught at Yale College and Roger Williams University.


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