If you’ve ever driven throughout the American Southwest and seen a home with a sand-colored, cement-like siding, that is stucco. Stucco is one of the most popular siding styles in America right now, and its popularity is growing. According to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Construction (SOC), stucco was the most popular siding type of newly constructed homes in 2019, sitting at 29% over more traditional vinyl siding at 25%.
As a trend and home design style, stucco exteriors are catching on. It’s no longer solely relegated to the American Southwest, as contemporary styles have incorporated it across the United States. You can now see stucco siding coating modern housing everywhere, from California to North Carolina. So, what is stucco, why is it catching on, and should you consider using it for your home’s exterior?
What is Stucco?
Stucco is a building material composed of sand, cement, water, and, traditionally, lime. Stucco has its roots as a building and artistic material dating back to ancient times, with many civilizations utilizing it. Modern stucco is primarily a cement plaster designed to coat walls and ceilings. It’s applied multiple times in 1-inch layers and, after drying, solidifies into a cement-like siding. Stucco is strong, rock hard, resistant to weathering, provides impressive fire resistance, and comes in various colors and styles. Stucco finishes can be smooth and professional, rough and textured, or sandy and coarse.
Stucco is a versatile material. Its application to a home can vary greatly depending on your home’s construction, your preference for material and style, and the environment around your house. Generally, stucco is divided into two broad groups, traditional and synthetic.
- Traditional: Originally, stucco only consisted of lime, sand, and water. Today, cement is added for increased strength and durability. Other materials, like acrylics and glass fibers, also see use as strengthening agents. This form of stucco is applied to exterior walls by layers of building paper and a wire mesh (called a lath) in two to three layers. The amount of layers depends on the home’s building materials, with cement or other mason work not requiring the base coat. Otherwise, a layer of construction cloth is placed, followed by a lath, then the initial coat of stucco. The first coat is called the “scratch coat,” and its primary purpose is to adhere to the structure and act as a base for the other coats. The next layer is called the “brown coat,” and it reinforces the stucco’s structure and prepares it for the final coat. In the last coat, or “finish coat,” colorants are applied, and it is spread with a hand trowel, allowing for distinct textures and designs.
- Synthetic: This is a new style of stucco that is usable in more climates and provides better insulation and flexibility. This form of stucco, also called “Exterior Insulation and Finish System (IEFS),” does not use cement or lime, utilizing synthetic polymers instead. Synthetic stucco adheres to a layer of foam board and fiberglass mesh. Compared to traditional stucco, synthetic stucco is more flexible, thinner, more water-resistant, and better insulated. This new form of stucco is seen as an overall improvement on traditional stucco but is more expensive.
History of Stucco Homes
Stucco’s history dates back to several ancient cultures, including the Aztecs, Islamic civilizations in North Africa, Spain, Rome, and Greece. The earliest known uses of stucco date back to 7,500 B.C., with Jordan’s ‘Ain Ghazal people. They mixed lime, limestone, and water to create a plaster used to coat walls.
Stucco was popularized throughout Europe in the renaissance era, as artists and architects utilized it as a common building material. Modern stucco was established in the 1800s with the invention of Portland cement. This cement replaced lime in stucco’s composition, making it much harder and more durable. As Spanish colonial revival-style homes became popular in the early 20th century, stucco became a go-to material and was cemented in our architecture. Many landlords and home designers have even begun incorporating stucco siding to increase curb appeal.
With plaster technology evolving and contemporary styles making comebacks, stucco houses are seeing a resurgence. Stucco’s primary limiting factor is its susceptibility to foundational shifts and cracking. Locations in the United States with higher moisture levels and more malleable ground make stucco essentially unusable and unreliable. With the advent of synthetic stucco or synthetic resins in traditional stucco, stucco homes have been able to find a place outside the Southwestern states. While still most prevalent in Texas, Utah, California, and New Mexico, it’s not uncommon to see stucco homes in Florida, the Carolinas, and Southeastern states. Unfortunately, locations with brutally cold winters still have issues adapting stucco. Even the most weather-resistant and insulated variations can chip and crack at extremely low temperatures.
Why Use Stucco for Homes?
Historians believe that stucco was popular due to its ease of creation, versatility, and cost-effectiveness. Since it was highly malleable and hard, ancient cultures used it as a building and sculpting material. It was also easy to create, as lime, sand, and water were plentiful and not particularly expensive. Historically, stucco is one of the most popular building materials, having a place in any society with hot or arid climates.
Stucco is still popular for many of the same reasons it was popular in history:
- It is expressive.
- It is resistant to heat.
- It is durable.
- It is low maintenance.
- It has importance in our architectural culture.
Today, stucco is just as much a stylistic choice as a practical one, as it can be more expensive than vinyl, depending on your location and its availability. If you’re considering using stucco for your home’s siding, you should fully understand its main benefits and disadvantages.
Pros and Cons of Stucco
- Stucco is durable: Stucco can last for decades when correctly applied and in the right environment.
- Stucco is weather-resistant: Stucco is weather-resistant in all forms, with more modern synthetic compositions adaptable for more climates.
- Stucco is fire-resistant: Stucco has a fire-resistance rating of one hour. Meaning that it takes a full hour before stucco succumbs to flames and the fire spreads.
- Stucco comes in many colors: Colorants can be added to its final coating, allowing a homeowner to customize their house’s look and style.
- Stucco is paintable: If you decide later down the road that you don’t like the color of your stucco, you can paint right over it.
- Stucco can crack: This is the most significant drawback of stucco. Stucco is hard and durable but also rigid and unbending. Stucco can develop serious cracks if your foundation shifts or moisture gets behind the stucco. Stucco can also crack over its lifetime, but these are hairline cracks that do not indicate serious damage.
- Stucco does not insulate well: Compared to most other forms of siding, stucco does not insulate well. This problem applies more to traditional stucco, as more modern stucco application methods have better insulation layers.
- Stucco can stain: Stucco can stain through constant exposure to water. This staining resembles dark or cloudy streaks running down where the water was applied. This is common in rainy regions or places where water frequently pools or runs, such as gutters or drains. This staining can be removed and cleaned but is considered a nuisance by homeowners.
- Stucco is not resistant to extreme cold: Stucco can be highly weather-resistant and fend off most winter weather. However, stucco can be susceptible to damage in colder weather under certain conditions. If your winters are cold and wet, stucco may not be the best option. Stucco expands and contracts more than other kinds of siding when exposed to cold. This expansion and contraction can create a dangerous situation when combined with water. If water gets inside small hairline cracks as they open and expand, the water will freeze, and the cracks can become bigger.
Maintenance and Care of Stucco
Stucco, if correctly installed, requires little upkeep. Routine maintenance consists of a yearly inspection and cleaning. You should look for small hairline cracks in the siding. If spotted, you should fill these cracks with sealant to prevent further damage. A professional should repair cracks larger than a quarter of an inch in width. For cleaning, you should use a garden hose to rinse off most of the dirt. For tougher grime, use a medium bristle scrub brush with soap and water. Do not apply too much pressure on the scrub brush or use power washing, as these methods can damage the surface of the stucco.
Repair Cost of Stucco
Stucco has a reasonable repair cost, averaging $60-$120 per square foot, depending on your area, stucco type, and damage severity. Stucco should only be repaired by a professional, no matter your DIY skills. Proper repair requires specific training and tools to manage correctly. Repairing significant stucco damage can also be highly labor-intensive and challenging and, if done improperly, could result in further damage.
Stucco is an ancient siding material that has kept up with and thrives in modern times. With usage dating back to the 7,500 B.C, it has endured the test of time. Made of sand, concrete, water, trace strengthening materials, and originally lime, it’s a durable and reliable type of siding. Versatile, adaptable, and customizable, it’s no surprise that stucco is getting more and more popular each year. While it isn’t fit for every climate and has some inherent drawbacks, stucco is a perfectly viable option for those looking to evoke Spanish colonial-style architecture.