Stone has been used throughout history on buildings of many styles as a cladding material. Until relatively recent times it was used for structural applications in foundations and wall construction. In modern construction, stone is used primarily as a cladding option to cover less attractive structural substrates. Stacked stone isn’t a good structural material. It can support a lot of weight, but because it is difficult to reinforce with steel, it is notoriously bad at surviving earthquake events, and thus doesn’t meet the strict requirements that architects must meet in modern building codes.
Architects use stone on building exteriors to create a sense of permanence and solidity. Drawing from the historical precedent of stacked stone building foundations, stone veneer is often used around the base of a building to visually anchor it to the land. Stone is also commonly used on fireplaces, chimneys, column bases, planters, landscape elements and even as an interior wall finish.
Stone cladding (also called stone veneer) is available in many forms. Many historic and modern style buildings use cut stone slabs as a wall finish material. Similar to the slabs used for making counter-tops, this type of stone cladding is used to create a refined look with clean, straight lines. In the nature themed mountain style homes we design at Hendricks Architecture, stone veneer is used in a more rustic application. Stacked stone masonry fireplaces, foundations, column bases, and landscape features add an organic aesthetic and help buildings blend in with their surroundings. Besides the Mountain Architecture style, others employing the use of stone include the Arts and Crafts, Adirondack, Shingle, Tuscan, and Storybook styles, and are popular in both Timber Frame and Post & Beam methods.
The types of stacked stone masonry commonly used on mountain homes are available in three basic forms, all of which have advantages and disadvantages. Here is an overview of the three options:
Thick stone veneer is the traditional and time tested stacked stone application, and uses real stones that are cut or broken to be 4″ – 6″ thick. Applied over concrete, masonry, or wood substrates, thick stone veneer is the most realistic looking, but is also the most expensive. Because it is heavy, thick stone is costly to transport, handle, install and support. Substantial structure is required to support stone installations and keep them from moving or failing over time, and this accounts for a good portion of the cost. Thick stone masonry allows individual stones to be offset horizontally, creating a more natural look that adds rustic appeal. It is also the best material to use if a true dry stack look is desired.
Thin stone veneer also utilizes real stone, but minimizes the weight by cutting the individual stones to a thickness of ¾” to 1 ½”. A quality installation of thin stone veneer will resemble a thick stone installation (it’s the same basic material), but this type of stone doesn’t allow for the horizontal relief that can be achieved with thick stone, and thus shadows and perceived textures are not the same. Thin stone looks more refined and less organic. This type of stone has the highest material cost, but ends up being approximately 15% less expensive installed cost than thick veneer because of savings in structural costs, transportation, handling and installation labor.
Thin stone comes with specially made pieces that are “L” shaped to make corners appear as if full thickness veneer was used. We recommend using thin stone veneer on less visible applications and in locations where the cost to create the structure required for thick veneer is significant. Rooftop chimneys are a good place to use thin veneer, whereas a masonry fireplace that is right at eye level and already has the structure to support stone might be a better place for thicker stone. Another option is to mix in 30% full stone with 70% thin stone to achieve a more natural, textured application.
Another texture option is to place other masonry materials, such as bricks, into the mix. This is an “Old World” application and is seen on many European structures, including in Tuscany, where stone and other materials were recycled from older buildings (even Roman ruins) or whatever was available. Brick has also been mixed with stone, in a more refined way, in some homes of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Cultured stone is a manufactured product made of formed lightweight concrete that is stained or colored to look like stone. Depending on the brand, cultured stone can be in the form of individual stones or panels that are shaped to key together. Cultured stone is the lightest weight option, owing to the highly porous material from which it is made. Structural requirements to support it are minimal, but because it is so porous cultured stone absorbs and wicks water. It needs to be installed properly and placed over suitable substrates or it can lead to moisture problems and premature failure.
Cultured stone is the least expensive option, but is also the least convincing. Some brands look better than others, but no cultured stone I have seen looks or feels like real stone. Additionally, after several years cultured stone will begin to fade when exposed to sunlight. Almost all manufacturers of cultured stone recommend that it not be installed below grade, and this can lead to installations that are awkward and unconvincing. Many applications of cultured stone leave the material hanging above the ground (and 6″ to 8″ above soil), giving the building the appearance of floating.
When any type of stone is used on foundations, window bays, or any application where the support structure is not an obvious part of the design (such as an arch or beam), it should engage with the ground. To be a valid architectural element, stone should appear to support the building instead of the building supporting the stone.
Natural stone is a beautiful material that can enhance the look and durability of most styles of architecture. As architects of mountain homes, we believe stone, and native stone in particular, is an important material to help a building harmonize with the landscape and appear to “grow from the land”.
Tom Russell, LEED AP and John Hendricks, AIA Architect
Hendricks Architecture specializes in the design of mountain style homes and cabins, often with a rugged, rustic appearance including the use of stone and timbers. Most of the homes we’ve completed are in mountain resort areas throughout the West. Visit our portfolio for examples of some of our recently completed custom projects. If you are interested in a mountain home, or you have any other inquiries, please contact us.
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