Why Are We Still So Obsessed With Wood Shingles?
Wood shingles and shakes (their brawnier, split cousins) have been a notable component in the homebuilder’s tool kit since the earliest days of European settlement in North America.
It may be that newly arrived colonist were influenced by the practices of local Indigenous peoples such as the Wampanoag in Massachusetts, whose winter dwellings were constructed using overlapping sheets of bark. But the proliferation of wood shingles may also have been an adaptation of old-world models to a new context: “Shingles have been a common roof solution for a long, long time,” says John Ike, a partner at the AD PRO Directory–listed architectural firm Ike Baker Velten in Oakland, California. “And in America wood was the most plentiful, readily accessible material.”
Either way, cedar and cypress shingles quickly came into their own as a favored cladding for buildings of many sorts, applied to roofs and walls alike. “Cedar shingles are naturally resistant to rot, beautiful to look at, and their flexible and overlapping nature makes it possible to weatherproof many different kinds of architecture,” says architect Michael McClung of Connecticut-based Shope Reno Wharton. They were especially attractive to early housewrights, he adds, “due to the prevalence of cedar and the relatively efficient way that shingles are cut from the trunks.”
As is true with almost any building style or technique, the use of shingles has waxed and waned over time. Yet they’ve never disappeared entirely from view.
One major revival came in the later 19th century, as what AD PRO Directory listee Michael Tomei of Michael Vincent Design calls “almost an act of rebellion against Victorian fussiness.” Architects of the emerging Shingle style began marrying surprisingly modern open house plans with the charm of the old-fashioned Colonial cottage to forge a look that “now is considered quintessential beach-town chic,” he observes. Massachusetts architect Royal Barry Wills presided over a later vogue for Cape Cod dwellings starting in the 1930s, spreading the gospel nationwide via Houses for Good Living, Better Houses for Budgeteers, in addition to several other books aimed at a burgeoning class of suburban homeowners.
Current interest in shingled homes arguably traces back to the 1955 publication of historian and critic Vincent Scully’s book The Shingle Style, which caught the attention of young architects like AD100 laureate Robert A.M. Stern, who went on to train and mentor many of the professionals who head up successful practices today.
An Affair of the Mind and the Heart
Utility alone, can hardly account for the ease with which shingles have won over designers and homeowners again and again. So just what are the qualities that make them so prized?
1. Shingles are meaningful
For Alabama architect (and AD PRO Directory listee) Jeffrey Dungan, shingles’ emotional associations carry the day. “Wood shingles,” he says, “illustrate and convey those most important aspects of our life, comfort, and warmth, and can be one of the tools for creating a very inviting home.” Perhaps because of their early association with barns, fishing shacks, and similar workaday structures, they feel less buttoned-up than clapboards or masonry while still not coming off as too rustic. Dungan calls the effect “jeans and a jacket—I’ve got on blue jeans, and maybe a T-shirt, but if I put on a jacket, now I can go to dinner.”
“They have personality,” says Philip Regan, a partner at Hutker Architects on Martha’s Vineyard. “They change over time and individually. And they are easy to manipulate, and you can hold one in one hand, unlike most building materials that seem only to serve a characterless purpose—a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood, for example.”
2. Shingles are versatile
They come in multiple shapes—think diamond and fish scale forms, sawtooth edges—and can be laid out in a plethora of patterns to great decorative effect. Though traditionally installed in even rows of roughly five inches each, shingles may also appear in undulating waves. As vertically staggered, or even in a random-seeming “drunken weave” configuration. Says McClung: “We have bent them in steam boxes to shingle over curved volumes. We have cut patterns into them. In some cases, the amount of exposure can be varied to create layered coursing.”
They may be painted or left bare. “Natural shingles show their organic colors and wood grain so beautifully, and we cherish that,” McClung continues. “Alaskan yellow cedar or white cedar shingles will turn silver-gray from exposure to sunlight. Red cedar shingles create those beautiful deep brown colors.” If a more uniform appearance is preferred, or hues that don’t occur naturally, paints and stains easily fill the gap. (And some surface options may remain to be tried: “There is a really beautiful Japanese practice called shou sugi ban. Which is a method of preserving wood by charring it with fire,” Tomei says. “The results are gorgeous. I would love to apply this technique with shingles. The effect is strikingly contemporary.”)
3. Shingles are suitable for many styles
Stripped-down modernity is probably not what first springs to mind when you imagine a shingled structure. Yet plenty of architects have employed the covering in distinctly nontraditional settings.
“Modern architects took that material and adapted it to their forms. It gives a scale and texture to the buildings,” says Ike, pointing to the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, designed in 1959 by Edward Larrabee Barnes. Thomas Kligerman, Ike’s former partner in the AD100 firm Ike Kligerman Barkley and now principal of Kligerman Architecture & Design, another AD PRO Directory member, mentions the recent work of Bates Masi + Architects in the Hamptons, as well as that of Norman Jaffe, whose creations of the 1970s and ’80s were what he calls “very inventive architecture.”
(For that matter, Kligerman’s own houses, grounded as they are in historical precedent, can have a distinctly forward-looking aura. “Tom uses shingles in kind of an origami fashion,” Ike comments, “where they create planes that are folded and intersected.”)
4. Shingles can be used indoors and out
Just because shingles began their career as exterior protection from the elements doesn’t mean they haven’t made their way inside. “I just finished a house in the mountains of South Carolina, and the columns in the house are done in diamond-shaped shingles of white oak,” Kligerman notes. “My living room has a frieze of shingles. It’s wonderful to bring them inside; it gives this warmth and sense of scale.”
Regan adds: “A more modern approach we have utilized is to have a shingled [outside] wall enter the interior space of the home—particularly if we have floor-to-ceiling glass walls that show off the connection between interior and exterior.”
5. Shingles can be economical, long-lasting, and sustainable
Kligerman calls shingles “a relatively affordable option”. And “a wonderful alternative that is much less expensive than, say, doing a masonry house.” Better still, the cladding can be quite durable when the shingles are of good quality and correctly installed. “Shingles want to breathe,” Ike says, “in the old-fashioned applications, they were put on strips of wood called furring strips. And it allowed air to circulate both underneath and on top of them.” Both Dungan and McClung recommend the Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau’s installation guidelines as an excellent resource to consult.
In addition, “appropriately power-washing them can lengthen their lives and help to maintain a newish look,” says Regan. “We have also utilized copper strips or inlays within the coursing of the shingles. The acidic rain runoff over the copper helps to reduce tannin staining and mildew or moss buildup that can prematurely degrade the shingles.” Finally, “natural shingles can, at the end of their lifespan, be turned into compost…so they are a multicycle material.”
Are You Hooked Yet?
With so much going for them, how can anyone not be a shingle fan? This humble slice of wood is “ingrained in the American mind as something that says ‘home,’” Kligerman concludes. While at the same time “it has enormous flexibility. And because shingles are so lightweight, you can do all kinds of design gymnastics if you want.”
Clearly, in the hands of the design trade’s top practitioners, there’s nothing at all antiquated about this historical building material.
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