RSF Association continues talks on building materials like faux wood

The RSF Association board considered samples of imitation wood and wood planks.
(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe Association continues to have discussions about whether faux materials such as imitation wood could be allowed in the construction of Covenant homes.

At the Association’s Sept. 5 meeting, the Covenant Design Review Committee’s longtime consulting architect Andrew Wright gave a presentation about the differences in the building materials in front of five planks of both wood and imitation wood. Looking at the planks from a distance, aesthetically it was hard to tell the difference between what was real and what was fabricated.

According to paragraph 159 of the Association’s Protective Covenant, the preferred materials in the Ranch are plaster, adobe or stucco, concrete, stone or an approved artificial stone. Wood is not listed as a preferred material but it is “clearly not prohibited” Wright said.

“Within that context, the board could approve options related to wood that fall in line with the spirit of the Covenant,” Wright said.

In a 4-3 vote in March, the Association board approved a resolution in favor of the California Ranch-type home which also stated that the use of wood, while not preferred, is consistent with the Covenant if the material is consistent with the allowed styles. Per the resolution, the use of Hardie board, metal siding that has the appearance of wood or other material that imitates wood, remains strictly prohibited.

“Since the resolution passed we have been getting projects with board and batten in certain parts of the building,” said Covenant Design Review Committee (CDRC) president Shauna Salzetti-Kahn said.

Salzetti Kahn said the CDRC mostly sees applications for wood and faux materials in relation to the California Ranch architecture that was approved, as well as in a lot of barns.

“The resolution does allow wood in limited circumstances and certainly architecture is more aesthetically pleasing with board and batten with Monterey style,” Salzetti-Kahn said.

As the board approved wood material with conditions, Wright said the next conclusion is that some of the faux materials might be acceptable.

Association board President Rick Sapp said materials are a complex issue and one that the board is taking its due care in considering, including seeking legal advice. Sapp said they hope to alert the community at large about what they are discussing and get member input on what they think about the use of faux wood.

“Although the board is given the power to interpret the Covenant, there are limits to the board’s power to actually change the words,” Sapp said. “We can’t eliminate or change wording without potentially putting it up to a Covenant-wide vote.”

Also at issue is ultimately what a change such as allowing faux materials would have on the overall character of the community that was intended by the Covenant. As Sapp asked, would they lose the nature of the community that the Covenant was supposed to preserve, enrich and carry forward if there was a proliferation of non-preferred materials?

Wood vs. faux wood

As Wright explained, board and batten describes a type of siding—the background paneling is the “board” and the “batten” is the vertical element that covers up the joint. Types of wood used in board and batten vary from western wood cedar to spruce or pine; they additionally vary with the type of finish, whether it is rough sawn or smooth sawn.

This wood type is currently approvable that if the CDRC sees that the project is aesthetically pleasing and meets the other Covenant guidelines.

By itself, wood board and batten does not meet Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District requirements and must include the installation of gypsum board for fire prevention purposes. “The gypsum board slows the fire’s intrusion into the building but it doesn’t keep the wood surface from catching fire,” Wright said.

Wright said when it comes to building materials, architects are concerned with safety, performance and maintenance.

“Over the years since the Covenant was written in 1929, technology has changed in the building industry and some very good products have been designed, used and been successful, “Wright said, pointing to the Hardie board wood plank type and steel gauge siding which currently are not allowed.

The wood-look Hardie board is fabricated out of a fiber-cement. The material meets the fire code and can be applied without the gyp board. Wright said that both the cement fiber and steel gauge products are fire-proof, the surface does not catch fire and burn.

Unlike wood, Wright said the cement fiber siding does not get termites, crack or weather, “If the maintenance (of wood) is not good, that has an effect on neighborhood aesthetics,” Wright said of one of the benefits of the faux material.

At the meeting, Vice President Mike Gallagher said he was confused about what was driving the conversation to consider alternatives to wood.

“If wood is not preferred…why would we be considering a different version of wood and artificial treatments of wood at this time?” Gallagher asked.

Gallagher said since the resolution, which he voted against, he has struggled with the use of wood itself questioning whether they want it to proliferate as the main type of construction in the community when clearly the Protective Covenant was looking for different types.

Salzetti-Kahn said right now the board’s resolution limits the application of wood only to those homes that are Latin-inspired. From the CDRC perspective, she said they would not approve 75 percent of the architecture that comes through.

“Since the resolution passed there have been some projects that have gone through that have board and batten in certain parts of the building so that’s where this comes from,” Salzetti Kahn said.

About 30 percent of homes in the Covenant now are in the Ranch style and of those, a significant number have board and batten or wood siding. After time, some of those people might want to revisit their wood homes for remodels and small additions so the CDRC is looking for direction from the board, she said.

“In some cases, faux materials looks a lot better than wood application,” Salzetti-Kahn said.

Director Laurel Lemarie said the word “preferred” in the Covenant doesn’t mean only, “It doesn’t mean we ban anything else.” She said that it might be useful to consider allowing a product that would look aesthetically pleasing to neighbors, as well as one that was fire-safe.

Other board members, such as Bill Strong, believe that the use of the word “preferred” was intentional.

“When they originally drafted the Covenant—why wouldn’t they add four letters and a comma to add wood?” Strong asked. “It would’ve taken four letters and a comma and wood would have been allowed. Right now it’s not preferred. The issue becomes what is the allowable percentage of non-preferred and when does non-preferred invalidate the style purpose of the Covenant?”

Director Sharon Ruhnau agreed, sharing her concerns that allowing the imitation material could be a slippery slope “That’s why I like to stick clearly to the Covenant because it set exactly what it should look like,” Ruhnau said. “Every time we deviate from that, I worry.”

Strong said as directors, the board has an obligation to follow the Association’s governing documents. If there is a belief that the Protective Covenant needs to be changed, it must be amended and approved by two-thirds of the members.

“To do otherwise is malfeasance and chaos,” Strong said. “To ask directors to either ignore or stretch any provision of the Protective Covenant will not be successful with me and hopefully all other directors.”