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Not Set in Stone

More homeowners and builders are opting for fake rock as quality improves.


The golden glow of Santa Barbara sandstone is a hallmark of the coastal city's early mansions and masonry walls. The warm look of the castle-style stone blocks is still popular today, but the cost of building with the heavy material can be a budget buster.

That was the challenge facing homeowner Jan Winford when plans for renovation of her 1907 Craftsman-style home called for extensive additions to the original sandstone walls. The solution: fake sandstone. A thin veneer of lightweight, synthetic sandstone was applied to new concrete-block retaining walls.

"Even my neighbor, a stickler for historical detail, didn't detect that it was artificial stone," Winford said. "It's beautiful."

Fake stone veneer, which is basically colored and molded cement, has become increasingly popular among homeowners and builders as better manufacturing techniques have dramatically improved its look and believability. Faux stone can also be two to three times less expensive than real stone.

Today, faux sandstone, limestone or river rock, among dozens of other manufactured stone veneers, is being used on everything from a Corona del Mar beach house to tract homes in Orange County to the Tuscany-inspired clubhouse at an upscale golf community in Rancho Santa Fe to buildings at the Mammoth Mountain ski resort area.

Even some homeowners who can afford the real thing are choosing manufactured stone.

"I actually installed a bunch on the house I'm building in Lake Arrowhead," said John Ginger, owner of John Ginger Masonry, which has sold and installed natural and faux stone throughout Southern California for 25 years.

Ginger, who could have had his pick of the real stuff from his Riverside company's supply yard, chose manufactured stone for its light weight and visual appeal. He mixed faux fieldstones and horizontal ledge stones, using mortar techniques to achieve a rustic look appropriate to his mountain site.

The trend has traveled beyond California, where several faux stone manufacturers are based. One dealer and installer in Colorado said he goes through three semi-trailers a week of manufactured stone, all of it from San Marcos, Calif.-based Eldorado Stone.

"We have six crews working full time, and we still can't keep up," said Ron Rossi, co-owner of Landscape Edging of Colorado Inc. in Littleton. He attributes the popularity in part to transplanted Californians who prefer stucco-and-stone houses to the brick or wood homes traditional to Colorado. To meet the increased demand, Eldorado Stone recently opened a new plant, its fifth nationwide, in Colorado.

Manufactured stone offers a relatively affordable alternative to natural stone. That cost advantage has become increasingly important to homeowners, architects and builders as the popularity of stone as a building material has grown over the last decade, according to Stone magazine editor Gregg Wallis.

Better cutting technology and increased competition from the growing number of natural stone companies have helped pushed down the cost of real stone in recent years, according to Wallis.

Natural stone may require more extensive--and expensive--installation procedures than lightweight faux stone. That's one reason why the recent renovation of Winford's Santa Barbara Craftsman used manufactured sandstone.

Installation of the sandstone block veneer cost about $12 a square foot, according to independent mason John Casey of Trabuco Canyon, who worked on the project last winter. Real sandstone would have cost about $40 a square foot.

"You get the same look for a fraction of the cost, plus it was easy to handle," Casey said.

Because it is a relatively lightweight veneer, faux stone also can be used where real stone might be impractical or illegal. Earthquake concerns, for example, have limited the use of real stone or brick on chimneys in many cities.

Homeowner Peggy Rhoads of Corona del Mar was able to get the look of river rock on the chimney extending from her third-story roof deck by using lightweight faux stones. Real stones would have been impractical, she said.

"You are talking weight, unpredictability of size, heaving the stone up three stories," said Rhoads, a principal of Rhoads Color Design. "There is no reason to quarry Mother Nature when they can make the stuff."

Rhoads and her husband, an architect, used a mix of faux river rocks and smaller faux creek rocks for exterior accents on their bungalow, wainscoting in the outside entryway and on a wall on the perimeter of their property.

Of course, manufactured stone has its drawbacks. It chips and scratches more easily than stone because, as a cement product, it is softer than most natural stone. And because its colors are only surface deep, a chip or scratch will usually reveal the lighter cement underneath. (If the damage is serious enough, manufacturers suggest replacing the individual stone or having the area dyed.) Also, faux stone's color can fade over the years if substandard pigments are used.

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