George Washington would surely be impressed with today's selection of imposter building products and materials. After all, he perfected the art of imitation way back in the 1700s when he redesigned his home, the famous Mount Vernon estate just outside of Washington, D.C. The nation's first president replaced his mansion's original plain wooden siding with bevel-edged pine blocks that had been coated with a mixture of paint and sand to imitate cut ashlar stone a technique that was fairly common in Colonial times. Three centuries later, builders are still faking it, using a wide range of faux products to replicate everything from stone and brick façades to wood flooring and glass block windows. Developers, architects, and residents alike appreciate these products' price tag (often cheaper, but sometimes on par, with the real thing), green attributes, and user-friendly qualities. The goods are durable, lowmaintenance, resistant to water damage, easy to install, and highly uniform.
"We use look-alike products on nearly every community," says Rick Morris, senior vice president of construction for AvalonBay Communities, an Alexandria, Va.-based REIT. "The faux products allow us to upgrade some communities that can't afford the real materials." Morris' favorite look-alikes include vinyl designed to mimic both plank wood flooring and wood siding, plus laminate countertops that can pass for granite. "The original laminate faux countertops were kind of tacky, but over time, the manufacturers have gotten the mixes better. [Now] the laminates really look nice in a lot of these projects."
Builders agree that virtually all faux products have come a long way thanks to the authenticity of the next generation of high-tech materials whose names polyurethane, polyethylene, and copolymers, for starters are certainly trickier than their natural counterparts. But even though many of today's faux products could easily be stunt doubles for the real thing, the American public isn't completely sold on the notion that faux is better than going au naturel.
"Faux products in general are considered cheaper, even though they may not be, and I think the public at large equates value to real, natural materials like wood and stone," says Cory Alder, president of The Nexus Cos., an Orange County, Calif.-based developer. "It's a fine balance when you use them to denote a level of quality that is acceptable to the buyer. That is the biggest challenge and why faux products probably haven't gone as far as they can." To earn a buyer's seal of approval, his firm often uses natural materials such as stone and tile at the base of a high-rise and then switches to faux materials toward the top, where people can't touch or feel the façade.
Some look-alikes have garnered public support faster than others. At the top of the list: composite decking and vinyl and fiber cement siding, all praised for their ease of maintenance, durability, and ability to withstand harsh weather conditions. "Hardiplank is becoming the standard name [for fiber cement siding]," says Christopher Texter, a principal at KTGY Group, an Irvine, Calif.-based architecture firm that often selects faux products for its projects. "It's like saying Kleenex; it's used that often."