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Exterior Motives

You might think that the only thing worse than pedestrian stucco is faux stucco. But a new acrylic system is being touted as watertight, highly resistant to cracking and virtually maintenance free. And it looks pretty goodtoo.

February 10, 1996|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just about everybody has stucco.

That's great if you are a conformist or hate to scrape and paint wood siding every few years, but it does tend to make everybody's house look like everybody else's.

There's little, it would seem, that can be done to make stucco anything but the rough, dust-catching, dull-finished product that has come to typify the Southern California house.

But if you take a drive along the coast, or into the hills where people still build custom homes, among the towering half-timbered Tudors and faux French chateaux, you can spot a nice little manse--sometimes modern, more often Mediterranean--with a luminous, rich exterior of smooth, smooth stucco.

"The more you texture stucco, the less desirable the look," says Laguna Beach architect Gary Whitfield. "A smooth look is a richer look. It sets you apart from the merchant-built housing of the tracts."

The absence of coarse sand or tiny pebbles in the mix turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Walls of smooth stucco are inviting, not repulsing; they soak up and give back the light; their colors seem more alive.

Of course, they also cost a ton of money. That smoothness comes with hours of patient, skilled, hand troweling by journeymen plasterers. And patient, skilled plasterers aren't easy to find these days and don't work cheap.

There's one other problem, even if cost isn't an issue. Stucco--including expensive, smooth stucco--cracks and cracks and cracks, thanks to Southern California's unstable soil and its propensity for earthquakes.

That's why several plasterers, including Laguna Plastering's Gary Simpson, have been aggressively selling architects and remodeling contractors on a stucco replacement system that uses a troweled-on acrylic substance over fiberglass mesh and a lightweight foam insulation board.

"It's a transition from the old, traditional methods to new technologies and methods," said Simpson, who added that, applied properly, the acrylic systems are watertight, highly resistant to cracking and virtually maintenance free. With proper cleaning, they may never need to be painted.

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In Southern California, the two systems most often used are called Dryvit and Sto, said Whitfield, principal of Whitfield Associates.

Developed in Europe after World War II and brought to this country for use in commercial construction, the acrylic systems now are used in both commercial and big-budget custom residential work, Whitefield said.

The Sto system is made by Sto Industries of Atlanta. Dryvit Systems Inc., of West Warwick, R.I., makes the system used by Simpson, who has added his own touch.

He has developed a proprietary color coat that combines special oxides and a unique troweling technique to give the finished product a patina that would take Mother Nature decades to achieve. He calls it a Venetian finish after the warm, softly aged colors that typify the centuries-old stone and smooth-plastered homes of that Italian city.

One example of his work can be seen inside the gates of the Irvine Co.'s posh new Pelican Point development, where huge custom homes are being built on million-dollar lots.

Simpson's crew has given a Mediterranean-style home there nearly glass-smooth walls with a bronzy patina that glows in the ocean air.

Across the street and up a hillside, another builder has opted for a traditionally troweled-and-pointed smooth stucco finish.

The house Simpson "plastered" looks as if it has been there for decades, with a color that has melted into the finish. The other looks brand new, with appreciably rougher stucco and a multi-tone paint job that just approximates a weathered and aged look.

In addition to special coloring, which wouldn't work with stucco, Simpson says he likes the acrylic system for its ease of application and its lightweight, insulating abilities and flexibility.

That flexibility is double-edged: The acrylic material is physically flexible, able to resist cracks by stretching, and the system is flexible, allowing all sorts of modifications and special treatments to be added while a job is in progress without having to tear out all the finishing work that already has been done.

The reason is that the plastic-based acrylic puts the weather barrier--or waterproofing--on the outside.

A traditional stucco or cement-based plaster absorbs water and lets it through. A stucco house is first covered in waterproof paper to prevent moisture from coming through the walls. Then a wire lath--much like chicken-wire fencing--is stretched over the paper, and two undercoats of stucco are applied before the final coat. The final coat, which usually contains the color as well, is sprayed or troweled on.

When anything is added to a stucco-finished building, the existing stucco must be cut back; new waterproof paper must be applied over the paper on the original part of the wall, and new wire lath must be woven into the old lath to help tie it all together. And even then it is almost a certainty that a crack will develop where the new stucco meets the old.

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