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Stuck with Stucco

 
A fresh coat of paint can usually be counted on to brighten up a home exterior. But if it doesn't - even after a large expenditure of time and money - the reason might be that your house is stucco, and what's really needed is a fresh application.

Think of it as a hairstyle: No matter how much you fuss with an out-of-date or unattractive do, it won't look right unless it's newly styled.

Stucco homes begin to look shabby for several reasons. Layers of paint added over the years can cause the home exterior to lose definition and appear uneven and blotchy. In addition, texture styles may have changed, making your stucco home look dated.

Stucco homes of the 1950s and '60s had a flat texture that was awkward and haphazardly applied, says Joe McClain of the San Francisco Gravel Company, a firm that sells stucco material to residential and commercial contractors. A heavy, lacier texture became popular in the '80s, and today's favorite is a float finish, a continuous and unbroken texture that is much lighter in appearance.

Thus, restuccoing "changes the whole appearance of the home," says Rick Rebozzi of Rebozzi Construction in San Jose, "modernizing and making it look brand new."

As well as providing aesthetic benefits, a new stucco application covers hairline cracks and prevents new ones from developing. However, this isn't a do-it-yourself job; it requires skill and expertise. Otherwise your home could end up looking worse off than before.

Generally, though, homeowners don't opt for restuccoing because they don't know it exists, says Aiden Nugent of Nugent Plastering in San Francisco. "People aren't aware you can do it, so they stick with what they know," he says. Like clockwork, they simply apply another coat of paint and are done with it.

Nugent learned to stucco in his homeland of Ireland, where stucco and brick are the building materials of choice. Many Irish have immigrated to the United States, he says, bringing sought-after skills in trades such as stucco, carpentry and brick lathe work. With Ireland's economy now booming some are returning home, but not Nugent.

"I like the weather better here," says, Nugent, laughing. "It's too foggy there; it's like the (San Francisco) Sunset (district) in summer and I don't live there either," he says with his Irish lilt.

He points out that stucco isn't just found in the Sunset and Richmond districts; it's spread throughout many neighborhoods in San Francisco, including Noe Valley, the Marina and Pacific Heights.

First things first

There are two kinds of stucco on the market. Synthetic stucco, which has an acrylic finish with fiberglass mesh and a layering of foam, accounts for 25 percent of the marketplace. Cement-based stucco comprises the rest.

Just as with painting, preparation is key to beginning a stucco job. The home should be inspected for any sign of rot or termites and necessary repairs made.

Stucco can't be applied over paint, so you must either have the surface sandblasted or apply an adhesive glue that acts as a buffer between the paint and stucco. However, if there is acrylic paint on the home, the glue won't adhere properly and in this case it would need to be sandblasted. Since most people use latex paint, this won't affect very many houses. A contractor may recommend sandblasting if the home is older than 50 years or the paint is peeling excessively, but approximately 80 percent of homes can simply be power washed, and loose debris and paint scraped by hand. Then an adhesive, which acts as a primer, is either rolled or sprayed on the home, says Andy Ramirez, manager of Stucco Supply Co. of San Jose, a stucco manufacturing company. Keep in mind that paint manufactured before 1978 may contain lead, in which case it must be removed and disposed of properly.

After the prep work is completed and the adhesive applied, the new stucco can be applied the next day. In most cases, just a finishing coat is applied, not the three coats necessary in a new stucco job (see accompanying story).

Stucco should be applied in good weather, not in extreme temperatures or when it's rainy. It's applied either by hand trowel, still the preferred method, or by machine - a more uniform, but messier, application.

Stucco will last indefinitely, but not necessarily look its best forever. Realistically, expect it to last about 50 years when properly applied, says McClain.

Color and texture

Picking out the color and texture is the fun part; there are lots of choices. Colors include traditional earth tones and custom colors in a wide range of hues. The color lasts from 10 to 15 years in mild climates such as the Bay Area's.

One advantage of stucco is that the color permeates the product, so a scratch will merely show more of the same color.

Because stucco is applied in a liquid form, some discoloration may occur upon drying, particularly in the darker colors. This is actually preferred by Europeans, who refer to it as patina, but Americans can be a bit fussier. "We expect and demand uniformity," says Ramirez.

This is changing in many upscale neighborhoods where homeowners are looking for an aged look. But the average homeowner not anxious for an older looking home should stick with the lighter colors, and experts recommend painting over the stucco for the most uniform look.

Stucco textures range from perfectly smooth to rough and are obtained by varying the amount of sand used as well as the application technique.

Although finish names like adobe, fan and sponge are commonly used to refer to textures, they vary and there's no industry standard. So what one person calls Mission texture, someone else might call Spanish.

In addition, each plasterer has a distinct style, making stucco work difficult to duplicate.

Another consideration when deciding upon a finish is that the smoother stucco finishes tend to show cracks more easily.

A smooth stucco finish, though, was the favorite of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's first Prairie style home was stucco; he switched from wood to stucco because of its clean, geometric lines.

The Prairie architecture of the early 1900s was characterized by flat roofs with overhanging eaves, an emphasis on natural materials and strong horizontal lines. It is common throughout the East Bay in houses built in the early '20s.

Synthetic vs. natural stucco

The main advantage of synthetic stucco is that it repels water better than its cement-based counterpart and is also more durable. However, the material has fallen out of favor in recent years because of lawsuits stemming from a certain synthetic application called EIFS (exterior insulation and finish system), where moisture problems have led to rot and termite damage.

Although synthetics are designed to repel water, if moisture does manage to creep inside it will not dissipate, thus the potential for disaster. But not everyone agrees that the problem lies with the material itself.

"Unfortunately, acrylics have gotten a bad rap, but in most of these cases it wasn't installed properly and moisture got behind it," says Ramirez.

Synthetic stucco requires more expertise to apply, as well as being more expensive.

Restuccoing a home costs approximately $9 to $11 a square yard, says Ramirez. As with most jobs, though, much depends upon a homeowner's preferences and any inherent problems that might need fixing.

A rough estimate for a single-story home is $6,000 to $7,000, says Rebozzi, but the investment can be well worth it. He says that the value of one of his customer's homes shot up by $80,000 after new windows were installed and fresh stucco applied.


Stucco resources

San Francisco Gravel Company, San Francisco; (415) 431-1273.

Nugent Plastering, San Francisco; (415) 225-6248.

Stucco Supply Company of San Jose; (408) 292-0454.

Rebozzi Construction, San Jose; (408) 229-9689.


What exactly is stucco?

Stucco is most commonly associated with the massive development of tract homes during the postwar years of the 1950s and '60s.

In reality, it dates back to the ancient Romans and Greeks, who used it over other materials such as brick to insulate buildings and for its ability to mimic fine stonework.

The term stucco is used interchangeably with plaster, but it primarily refers to exterior plastering.

Stucco is made of cement, lime and sand and is best applied in three coats: First is a scratch coat, which serves as the foundation for the next two coats and is pushed through wire mesh to prepare for the second coat. The second is called the brown coat, which provides a flat surface for the third, finishing coat, which is responsible for the color and texture.

In the interests of saving time and money, some builders will only apply two coats, but three coats is the preferred method.

Before color additives were invented, stucco's appearance could be altered by using different colored sand. This offered limited colors, mainly earth- colored tints.

Stucco containing color pigments was developed in the early 20th century by Californian O.A. Malone, who founded the California Stone Products Corp. and was said to have "put the color into California." California stucco was sometimes called "jazz plaster."

Long favored for its durability and low cost, stucco has been especially popular in California since the 1920s.

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