The exterior finishing on a commercial building is the first line of defense against outside elements. Proper finishing should remain intact and sturdy regardless of these influences. Simultaneously, a commercial building’s exterior must give a good first impression for the businesses or activities within.
This balancing act can pose a true challenge to even the most seasoned architect. They must consider the structural integrity of the building’s exterior while also creating an aesthetically pleasing piece of architecture.
To assist with this decision-making, our experts at ClarkDietrich have assembled this exterior wall finishing guide for those in the commercial building industry. We’ll examine some of the more popular types of exterior walls for commercial buildings and weigh the pros and cons of each.
What Is the Most Common Exterior Finish for Commercial Buildings?
Stucco, fiber cement, vinyl/PVC, brick, metal, and manufactured stone veneer are all common finishing materials used in commercial buildings. However, the best exterior finish for a commercial building will vary greatly depending on functionality, aesthetics, cost, and geographical location. Let's take a look at each of these types of exterior wall materials.
Stucco (or Portland Cement Plaster)
- Functionality: A Department of Energy report notes that a stucco plaster finish that has been properly applied will have a 100-year life span. The excellent condition of many stucco-finished buildings from the 19th century or earlier serves as testimony to this fact.
- Aesthetics: Stucco has serious design flexibility and aesthetic appeal, as it can be used on most flat and curved surfaces. You can also use stucco to build out decorative elements to the exterior finishing. This leads to many inventive and imaginative creations, like finishes inspired by Roman and Grecian ruins, or the stucco bungalows of the southern and western U.S.
- Cost: The lower cost of stucco makes it an appealing solution for commercial buildings, as it usually costs between $5-$6 per sq. ft. However, exterior wall installation costs can get a bit pricey, as stucco requires several application layers and can be quite time-consuming. Fortunately, there are numerous products to cut down on installation time and labor, like Structa Wire. This welded wire lath enhances the performance of stucco cladding by reducing cracking and increasing embedment, yet it is also designed to ensure worker ease-of-use and construction site efficiency, reducing total labor costs.
- Optimal Geographical Location: Because moisture can pass through stucco, it usually functions best as an exterior wall material in arid climates to avoid rot and other moisture problems. Draining methods are vital to long-lasting stucco construction, such as properly installing weep and sill screeds to allow trapped moisture to drain from the exterior of the building.
- Functionality: Made of cement, cellulose fibers, and sand, fiber cement is non-combustible and quite resilient to common siding foes. It doesn't have issues with rotting or warping because it is a nonporous material. Fiber cement is also recognized as eco-friendly due to its sustainability and use of recycled materials.
- Aesthetics: This cladding is highly versatile, as it can take on the appearance of painted wood clapboards, stone, brick, and many other common finishes. Alternatively, you can customize the color, texture, and pattern of fiber cement to achieve a unique look, like the colorful hues of The Midwife Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or the Kalasatama Community Centre in Helsinki, Finland.
- Cost: The cost of fiber cement ranges from $0.79-$15 per sq. ft., depending on the design. Professional installation will drive up costs, as there are some peculiarities to consider. When applied improperly, fiber cement (which is heavier than other finishing types), is prone to cracking. Its installation requires specialized equipment and expertise to prevent gaps, which could lead to future water damage and costly repairs.
- Optimal Geographical Location: Fiber cement works well in most climates, as it is resistant to extreme weather conditions, like hail, high heat, and wind. You won't need to be as concerned with freeze-thaw cycles, as fiber cement does not expand and contract in response to temperature changes as much as other materials do. It can also withstand hot weather conditions without melting or warping.
Vinyl (or polyvinyl chloride plastic, aka PVC)
- Functionality: Vinyl siding is a common finish in residential buildings, but it also has its place in commercial spaces. It's affordable, accessible, and easy-to-install due to it being one of the more lightweight, exterior wall materials. Cleaning vinyl is also easy—a quick sweep with a power wash will usually get the job done, which is handy in more industrial environments.
- Aesthetics: Vinyl siding has a stigma of being “cheap looking.” You won't find many well-known buildings touting the use of vinyl siding. However, not everyone has an endless budget to build large commercial spaces with the most aesthetically pleasing materials. This is why many architects mix and match vinyl siding with other, more expensive forms of cladding to create a unique interplay of textures and color while staying on budget. Vinyl siding can also be made to mimic other finishes, like wood or stone.
- Cost: If you're wondering, “What is the cheapest exterior building material?” The answer is typically vinyl. The cost of vinyl siding is around $4-$5 per sq. ft, with labor costs around $3.70 per square foot. These costs can be higher or lower depending on the type of vinyl siding. For example, the material costs for vinyl shake siding with faux wood-grain can be between $3-$10 per sq. ft., while faux stone vinyl finishes can be between $4-$10 per sq. ft. Additionally, vinyl siding usually can't be repaired and has to be replaced when worn out or cracked.
- Optimal Geographical Location: Vinyl is rather climate-delicate when compared to other exterior wall finishes. It's best used in regions that don't experience extreme weather conditions. High heat can cause vinyl to warp, creating an odd, wavy appearance, while frigid temperatures can cause brittleness, resulting in cracking.
- Functionality: Bricks utilized with mortar are a well-known, long-lasting outer cladding on homes. As construction technologies progressed, brick veneer, which is made of thinner bricks, started to become popular as well. Newer construction with brick façades is more likely to have this thin veneer of brick placed over a wood frame. Brick also boasts rather extreme longevity, with one study finding an average life span of 500 years or more.
- Aesthetics: Brick buildings tend to have a timeless aesthetic and add a certain warmth to any design. They are found in many older buildings as well as modern architecture, like the Tate Modern museum in London, UK. Contemporary brick veneers also come in a variety of hues and textures. Most of the traditional brick siding is available in earthy red and brown colors, but some exist in colors like gray, white, blue, and black.
- Cost: Standard bricks can cost between $2.50-$8 per sq. ft., with brick veneer and facing brick costing $3-$10 per sq. ft. Red clay bricks and recycled bricks are typically on the less expensive end of this range, while antique bricks and higher-end bricks will cost more. Installation costs can get expensive, ranging from $9-$20 per sq. ft. to install. Keep in mind that even though initial costs may be higher than other finishes, the longevity of well-installed brick exteriors can save significant costs over time.
- Optimal Geographical Location: Bricks have high thermal mass, as they can absorb, store, and release heat better than other materials. This works well in climates that have a significant difference between daytime and overnight ambient temperatures. The bricks can store heat absorbed from sunlight throughout the day and then slowly release that heat into the structure as it cools down at night.
- Functionality: One of the main benefits of metal cladding is its durability as an exterior finish and its relatively long-life span. Additionally, commercial metal siding panels can be joined together and affixed several ways, due to their pliable nature.
- Aesthetics: Metal cladding is commonly associated with modern construction, as it tends to give drama and elegance to commercial exteriors. Think of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California, or the multipurpose Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, India.
- Cost: Although metal cladding adds flair and protection to your design, some clients might not want to pay the price associated with metal. How much is a sheet of metal siding? Aluminum is on the lower end, with industrial metal siding panels costing around $16-$26 per sq. ft. Zinc and copper, however, get more expensive, with costs hovering around $36-$45 and $45-$55 per sq. ft. respectively.
- Optimal Geographical Location: Metal finishing is resistant to corrosion, electrochemical reactions, hail, high heat, extreme cold, and water damage, making it a solid choice for most climates. However, due to the characteristics of the various coating or finishing materials used on metal cladding, be mindful that the performance of metal products changes in environments with different pressure and temperature conditions.
Manufactured Stone Veneer
- Functionality: Manufactured stone veneer (MSV) is a material created from concrete and mineral pigments to mimic the appearance of real stone. High-quality MSV looks so authentic that even a skilled eye may struggle to distinguish between natural and fake stone without careful examination.
- Aesthetics: Architects use MSV in a range of architectural applications, such as outside façades and distinctive statement walls. If done well, MSV creates a natural, outdoorsy look on any building. You can get MSV in nearly any color, texture, or pattern you wish, which will give your commercial building a truly unique finish.
- Cost: As one might expect, the cost of MSV is significantly less than real stone, with the price range from $4-$20 per sq. ft. (real stone is around $42 per sq. ft. on average). This is ideal for clients that want the look of real stone without the high price tag. In addition, many manufacturers now provide commercial wall panels of MSV products to facilitate quicker application without sacrificing appearance.
- Optimal Geographical Location: MSV will weather most climates, although excessive moisture can cause issues. Using a high-quality, weather-resistant barrier over the sheathing will ensure water inside the wall is drained away more efficiently, saving your investment in this more expensive exterior finish. For example, ClarkDietrich's E-Screen Drainage Mat can be used under various siding installations, with a 95% open design that creates a continuous capillary break and a channel for moisture to drain away from the wall system while accelerating the drying time.
Other Commercial Exterior Wall Options to Consider
The choice of finish is only half the battle—next, you must decide on the internal components of your exterior wall finish to avoid common failures caused by environmental factors or challenging installation. By specifying these improved products from the start, you can set your commercial projects up for success. This is where ClarkDietrich can make a difference.
As one of the main suppliers of steel and lath framing systems in the United States, ClarkDietrich has continually set the bar for quality and leadership in the industry. Since our establishment in 2011, we have striven to create premium products, platforms, and services that make the work of our customers easier. These initiatives are a cornerstone of our ongoing dedication to utilizing technology that boosts productivity during the design, specification, and installation of framing and finishing products.
Consider our Easy Embedment System™ (EES) as an example. It facilitates expert stucco installation—without the traditional crew of experts. We recognize that the scratch coat is the most crucial step in the plastering process, as it offers an ideal base for embedding lath, resulting in a sturdy, long-lasting stucco covering. EES ensures that the lath is embedded easily and thoroughly with up to 80% greater embedment thanks to Structa Wire, E-Flange™ Casing Beads, and Control Joints.
ClarkDietrich has numerous solutions for your commercial building exterior finishing needs—check them out here.