Comparing Architectural Façade and Cladding Material for Rain Screen Systems

This three-part series covers everything architects and commercial building specifiers need to know about rain screen systems: why they’re important, how to design them, and why composite cladding is a smart choice for the outermost component.
Architectural rain screen systems need durable, attractive cladding

By now, you know that an architectural rain screen system is a smart, eco-friendly way to ensure effective moisture management in the building envelope. If inward- or outward-moving moisture cannot drain, convect, deflect, and dry, building materials can be compromised, and that can lead to a host of problems: structural, environmental, even legal. While there are many considerations when designing a rain screen system or architectural façade system, your choice of cladding is among the most important. It is the one component everyone will see, so the cladding must offer real aesthetic value and enhance the building’s design. And of course, it’s the first line of moisture defense, so it’s important to select a material that is truly up to the task. How do you know which is best for you or your client's project? Read on.


exterior cladding options
Compare cladding material options

Generally speaking there are five main options for cladding: composite cladding, fiber cement siding, wood lap siding, stucco, and brick and stone masonry. Here are some items to consider before making your selection.

Is the architectural cladding visually appealing?

If you are drawn to natural materials, wood may seem like the obvious choice. Keep in mind, however, that wood does have its drawbacks. While wood siding will look great upon installation, the boards are prone to fading, staining, and cracking – particularly when you consider the constant exposure to the elements and the damage repeated freeze/thaw cycles can inflict. Wood is also prone to mold and mildew.

For a warm wood look without the drawbacks, composite cladding can be a great choice. Made from a wood-composite blend, these boards feature graining that emulates natural hardwoods. The color selection is similar to wood but won’t fade as wood will. Composite cladding is virtually impervious to the elements (including those freeze/thaw cycles), so it won’t swell or crack.

Fiberon cladding for commercial new construction

Fiberon Horizon Cladding in Ipe injects warmth and a humanizing element to this Houston, Texas, public safety facility constructed of sterile tilt-up concrete. (Roth Sheppard Architects)

Fiber cement is another option. It can be painted to customize its appearance; however, the color will be flat and lacking the multi-tonal aesthetic you can get with composite cladding or certain hardwoods. While its surface is hard, it’s not tough when it comes to impacts from passersby and lawn maintenance. Plus, the paint will fade over time, and fiber cement does not always fare well when faced with repeated freeze/thaw cycles.

Stucco, brick, and stone masonry have plenty of visual appeal; however, stucco is prone to cracking and brick and stone can spall (that is, flake or break off) when exposed to continual moisture and freeze/thaw cycles.

Fiberon composite cladding case study featuring Roth Sheppard Architects

Is the architectural cladding easy to install?

If your cladding of choice requires a multi-step process or specially trained crews, you could be looking at significant labor expenses and a longer timeline to completion.

Wood lap siding requires multiple steps and tradespeople to install and finish. The main reason: wood needs to be primed or sealed before installation and then painted or stained once it’s up. Extra steps can add days to the project, not to mention the labor expense.

Composite cladding installs with standard tools and crews. No specialized labor, and no multi-step processes. Installation can be completed with workers on ladders rather than scaffolding. Suitable fasteners are composite material screws or Cortex hidden face fasteners. Longer board lengths (up to 20 feet) reduce splices and labor, and there are no concerns about possible carcinogen release during the cutting process.

Fiberon composite cladding for commercial retail

Fiberon composite cladding installs easily. No multi-step process or special crews needed. (Shown: Horizon Ipe)

Fiber cement siding is limited to shorter lengths; even then, it can break under its own weight. Careful handling is required, as is special care when cutting. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) mandates that exposure controls and protective equipment be used when working with fiber cement. Plus, if you nail the siding to close to the edge, it could fracture due to its brittle nature.

As construction project managers know, stucco is very labor-intensive. The application process is usually a 2- or 3-step undertaking, plus painting. All layers must be applied in a uniform manner to ensure satisfactory long-term performance (although that doesn’t ensure it won’t crack at some point). What’s more, stucco requires two layers or applications of building paper/wrap plus lath reinforcing. And it’s heavy, so plan on scaffolding if it’s to be installed on a second story or higher.

Brick and stone masonry also require scaffolding, and there are a host of must-have’s when installing; among them, a wider foundation wall to support the weight and accommodate code-required one-inch air space, steel support lintels over doors, windows, and gable ends, as well as brick ties, thru-wall flashings, and weep holes for water drainage.

Will the façade maintain its like-new appearance?

Properly installed and finished, any architectural cladding will look great initially. But, how long will the look last? And how will the product perform under constant exposure to the elements? The answers vary.

Wood lap siding can split or splinter (think how wood decking handles the elements) and is prone to fading. You can, of course, re-stain and refinish it; however, capturing that like-new aesthetic is never easy. In fact, most design and construction specifiers agree that the real cost of wood doubles every two to five years because of upkeep expense.

Composite cladding never needs staining, sealing, or painting. Fiberon capped composites, for example, are manufactured through a co-extrusion process. The protective outer layer (or cap) is bonded to the wood-plastic composite core. This enhances both durability and resistance to the elements. So the look you love at installation is the look you’ll retain. No need to worry about cracking, splintering, peeling, rotting, or insect infestation.

Fiber cement siding is painted, so fading is to be expected. In very cold environments, there is also the risk of the finish and face spalling; that is, flaking or breaking off.

Stucco, as noted earlier, is prone to cracking. Brick and stone masonry can also spall when exposed to continual moisture.


Does your cladding choice offer a warranty or third-party testing?

Fiberon composite cladding carries a 10-year commercial and 25-year residential warranty. Fiber cement siding may carry a warranty. It varies by manufacturer. Generally speaking, fading and weathering are not covered under a fiber cement warranty. The other options we’ve mentioned do not carry warranties.

Code compliance and third-party testing are other important considerations. If you are building in an area prone to high winds or hurricanes, you will want to ensure your chosen product is suitable for use here. Fiber Composites, LLC (dba Fiberon) is the first leading wood-alternative decking manufacturer to be issued both a Florida Product Approval number (#21959) and a Texas Department of Insurance Product Evaluation (MC-18) for use of its products in rain screen cladding applications.

Flame Spread Index (FSI) may be another important consideration. Fiberon cladding carries a Class B FSI. Wood varies by species. Fiber cement, brick, and stone rate well for fire resistance; however, we recommend doing your research before making any final product determination.

How does the cladding impact the environment?

Environmental impact is one final area that commercial developers are paying more attention to. Here, only one option will give you the satisfaction of knowing you’re working with a product that contains recycled content: composite cladding. Fiberon composite cladding contains 94% recycled content; specifically, recycled plastics and wood flour from lumber waste. Even better, using this recycled content means Fiberon has prevented more than 60,000 tons of waste from ending up in landfills and incinerators.

The bottom line: Consider all of your options, do your research, and ask lots of questions.

architects guide to fiberon composite cladding

For Fiberon cladding technical resources, specifications and more, visit