Ask Katie: Thoughts on exterior finish

Q: I am currently looking for an older, one and one-half story home in the Pittsburgh area. Unlike New England, many have first stories that are mostly brick - yellow brick, red brick, brown brick - you name it. Often they have, at some point in the past, sided the dormer of the house with some sort of inexpensive (and ugly) siding, like aluminum. Sometimes they do this in a contrasting color (white dormer siding with a red brick first story) and sometimes they try to match the siding to the brick, colorwise. Is it better to blend the siding and the brick color or pick a contrasting color? Is it possible to clean or re-paint aluminum siding? Are there other, and better, options for siding? What about changing the brick color/finish?

Karen from Pittsburgh, PA

A: I’m a purist, so to my mind the aluminum siding on the dormer has got to go. Don’t even think about painting it; that defeats the point of the product. As long as it’s aluminum, it’s going to be aesthetically impaired, no matter how you try to conceal it.

I’d consider replacing it with cedar shingles, cedar clapboards, or another type of cedar siding, like shiplap novelty siding. I wouldn’t recommend substituting a synthetic or other composite siding material. Salespeople for such products will tell you that you’ll never notice the difference, but you will or you should, especially where siding and trim elements intersect. Ask your local building supplier to show you some sustainably-harvested cedar options. If you’re concerned about maintenance, consider finishing it with a penetrating solid color stain rather than paint. Look into low VOC products like Sherwin Williams Woodscapes Premium House Stain or Cabot PRO V.T. Solid Color Acrylic Stain.

In terms of color palette there are a number of factors to consider, most having to do with personal preference and context. I’m not a yellow brick fan myself, but maybe you are. Maybe all of the houses on the street use some type of yellow brick, and you want to fit in, or maybe they’re all red brick, but you’d like to stand out. So start by deciding which, if any, of the existing colors you’d like to keep. Don’t forget that roof color plays a role in the overall scheme too. If it’s something other than black or dark gray, it may steer you one way or another. Trim color is also relevant. I’d resolve all of the other color choices first, and then choose one exterior trim color to use throughout.

You can always paint brick, though this opens the door to an ongoing maintenance issue. In the short-term, though, it’s a fairly inexpensive way to eradicate an offensive brick color. You’ll want to be careful to prepare the existing brick surfaces to receive paint. Power-washing or sand-blasting may make the bricks more porous, so consult with a local expert on the nature of your specific brick and how best to prepare it and keep it functioning properly once painted. Consider a low VOC finish paint specifically formulated for brick and use a compatible primer.

To avoid future painting, you may prefer to cover over unsightly brick with stucco instead. Since this option would add thickness to the face of the walls, it might also involve replacing the existing trim with new trim better suited to receive the new finish. This alternative can get quite pricey. The advantage is that pigment can be added directly to the finish stucco, so that painting is unnecessary. Again, consult with a local expert to explore your options, method of installation, and implications.

Ultimately whether the dormer siding color contrasts with the first story brick/finish color depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If the dormer siding color is dramatically lighter than the lower story it will call attention to itself (assuming it’s also lighter than the roof color). This will make for a somewhat busy look. If the dormer siding color is darker than the lower story it’s more likely to be closely associated with the roof (assuming the roof is a dark color).

My tastes tend toward subtle differentiation, so I would probably opt for a lower story color that is a warm, earth tone, and dormer siding that is a slightly lighter tone but from a complementary color family which will in turn be offset from a dark roof. Then choose a single trim color that works with the rest of the palette. This might mean an ochre colored first story, grey green dormer siding, a lighter grey green trim color, and a charcoal grey roof, for example. Or you could lighten up the overall scheme, but again, I’d aim for subtle differentiation. The different elements should read independently from each other but not compete for attention.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

Email architect Katie Hutchison ( your general-interest residential design question. Put "Ask Katie" in the subject line and summarize your question in a couple of paragraphs. Include your name, town, and state. Don't include any attachments. Check back with the Ask Katie category to look for Katie's responses to select questions.