There is undoubtedly a certain prestige surrounding natural materials and their use in the world of building and house design. A natural stone floor, beautiful hardwood windows, handmade bricks, rustic solid wood flooring and real timber cladding are all seen as the ultimate in quality and the pinnacle of good taste.

There appears to be a certain degree of snobbery surrounding the synthetic or manmade alternatives to natural materials — perhaps the very fact that so many of them strive to mimic the appearance of natural products is evidence enough that what people really want (but possibly can’t afford) is the real deal. But is this belief that natural products are always the better choice founded, or is it simply the fact that ‘natural’ often costs more and carries with it a sense of architectural purity that sways people towards thinking that it must be the best option?

Are there, in fact, cases when choosing a manmade or engineered product is the preferential option — and just what constitutes manmade anyway?

Bricks

When it comes to choosing bricks, handmade bricks tend to be viewed as top of the pile. And, it is true to say that in terms of appearance, handmade is pretty hard to beat. However, it is important to bear in mind that there is technically nothing different between a machine-made and handmade product — both are made of clay, after all. It is simply down to the way in which the products are formed.

Handmade or Machine-Made Bricks?
Handmade bricks have plenty of character carried within the brick’s face, which is creased and has a rough, open texture, while volume-manufactured machine-made bricks are either wirecut or ‘pressed’ and are more uniform in shape and tone.

Aware of the much higher cost of handmade bricks in comparison to wirecut – around £200-£400/1,000 for wirecut facing bricks and upwards of £600-£1,000/1,000 for handmade products – some brick companies also offer wirecut bricks which are designed to replicate the look of handmades. Many feature colours which have been hand-blended and are given a weathered appearance. While they still have the uniform shape, they are a more cost-effective option for anyone looking for a handmade, bespoke look on a tight budget.

If you are building from scratch in a period style, it is hard to deny that a handmade product is going to give the most authentic look. Of course, reclaimed is also an option, but you need to be aware that it can be hard to find large quantities of reclaimed bricks and it is unlikely that they will have been made to the established standard (BS EN771-1) that new bricks are made to (for frost resistance, etc.).

Brick Slips
Brick slips are thin slices of brick designed to replicate the look of masonry, but are typically fitted to a backing board. They are either wirecut into slimline profiles before being kiln-fired in the normal way (preformed slips) or sawn from the face of a standard clay brick (sometimes known as ‘real brick’ slips). The latter method produces a product that allows thicknesses to be varied and allows people to use a cladding hewn from a handmade product — however, it also costs considerably more.

Some slips are designed to be fitted to a backing board using an adhesive (much like tiling), while others have a profiled mounting system. You can also get panels that interlock.

Why then, might you use a brick slip over the ‘real’ thing, particularly when the costs of around £18/m² are comparable to wirecut bricks? Labour tends to be cheaper, the slips are lightweight compared to brick and using insulated brick-slip cladding as a finish for external wall insulation is a great way to upgrade existing solid wall homes to achieve modern standards of energy efficiency without adding too much thickness.

Verdict: Each has its place, but given the low cost of brick as a percentage of an overall spend, those seeking a traditional style should prioritise every penny on handmades.

Roof Tiles

Take a look at the roofs of extensions to period homes that are covered in cheap concrete roof tiles and it is clear why so many people fear ‘fake’ versions of the real thing.

Clay roof tiles can be a thing of beauty — available in a huge range of beautiful shades. Can look-a-likes ever really do as good a job? And could adding colours to clay tiles to produce a certain look during the firing process (a common practice) count as faking it? It certainly would according to the ‘Truth to Materials’ theory, that requires honesty of manufacture.

With real clay tiles, colour is baked through the natural material, so the clay mellows well as the years pass. However, with manmade concrete alternatives (which are typically around 20 per cent cheaper) the colour is just on the surface of the tile and they tend to lose it over time — a good reason to go for the real thing in this instance.

Handmade vs. Handformed Roof Tiles
But how far should homeowners go in their quest to keep things authentic — and will it be worth the extra cost? Handmade clay roof tiles are made by throwing clay into a mould, cutting off the back with a wire then forming the nibs and nail holes by hand. Handformed, on the other hand, are made using an extruded block, which is then manipulated by hand at the end of the process to give character to the tile.

Both are available with a ‘pre-aged’ finish, meaning they immediately give a weathered look which can be useful if you’re extending a period house or want to add instant character to a traditional-style self build — but clearly this is messing with an otherwise natural product. Does it make it less authentic and less real? Essentially you are buying a product that has been made to look like something it is not — is it really so different to buying a concrete ‘clay’ roof tile or a fibre cement ‘slate’?

In the case of roof tiles a lot of your decision should be based on finding a good-quality tile — be that real or a fake. Take slates, for example. Choosing a good-quality fibre cement, manmade roof slate over a very cheap Chinese or Brazilian slate could result in a product which is easier to lay and lasts many more years looking good.

Verdict: Buy well. There are good and bad versions of concrete tiles as well as naturals; authenticity is difficult to find in this market.

Stone

Natural stone has many uses within the home, from a building material to flooring, for architectural details or as a worktop. As testament to its beauty, there are a massive number of look-a-like stone products out there. Take flooring — stone tile replicas are in abundance. There are vinyls, ceramics and laminates out there all designed to add a touch of ‘natural beauty’ to the home without the price tag of the real thing.

However, they can be disappointing. From a distance, squinting, a few of the ceramic tiles can look a little bit like stone — but they don’t feel like stone or have the same texture as stone. The point is that if you want the look of stone in your interiors, you need to go for stone — the look-a-likes, in this case, will not do the same job.

If cost is an issue, the range of different stones available does present the opportunity for using a cheaper type of stone — slate for example is cheaper than limestone, as are many types of travertine.

If you are happy to accept that your look-a-like product will always look like a fake, then go ahead. Otherwise, it may be better to buy a ceramic that looks like a ceramic, or a vinyl that looks like a vinyl.

Building Stone
In terms of building stone, cast stone (try Haddonstone) is often used as an alternative. This is one instance where it actually makes a lot of sense to use the manmade alternative, although undoubtedly there are natural stone enthusiasts out there who would disagree with this.

Used in the UK since Georgian times, cast stone is often seen used on conservation and refurbishment projects in conjunction with natural stone. It can cost up to a third of the price of natural stone – meaning significant savings, particularly when used in the form of ashlar blockwork for solid masonry, which can be hugely costly in a natural stone format – yet stands up well to the real thing in terms of appearance and performance. It weathers in much the same way too and is also more readily available in general.

Verdict: Avoid internally, but cast stone has a distinct architectural legacy all of its own (on the right houses).

Timber Flooring

Solid timber makes for a beautiful floor. Laminate flooring is a practical, cheap and quick-to-install type of flooring — but it does not look like or perform like timber. Wood-effect laminate flooring consists of a photograph of a wooden floor, under a protective layer, which is glued to boards usually made up of a mixture containing composite wood.

The classic middle way is in the form of engineered timber. It’s far removed from its solid state but has many advantages. Engineered wooden flooring is made up of a layer of solid timber (the thickness of which will vary depending on the quality of the product), fixed to several layers of timber veneer or board placed at right angles to one another.

On the plus side, engineered flooring is much more resistant to movement, twisting and warping than a solid product. It is also almost always supplied with tongue-and-groove edges, making it quick and easy to fit compared to a solid plank requiring nailing and gluing. It can be laid as a floating floor over almost any existing flooring too.

On the downside, the final appearance of some types of engineered floor can result in a look that is a little too uniform for some interior schemes, although boards with ‘rustic’, ‘aged’ and ‘limewashed’ finishes are seeking to solve this issue.

Verdict: Choose carefully. Engineered flooring is a sensible option and some products can replicate the slightly rusticated look of solid wood — without any of the problems. In this instance, fake can be best.

Timber Cladding

Using timber as a cladding material continues to be hugely popular, and is a method that has been in use for hundreds of years. Western red cedar is among the most popular softwoods used for cladding today as it has a natural resistance to decay and moisture absorption, meaning it can be installed without treatment — it is also the most stable of the softwoods, prone to little movement.

You might wonder why a manmade alternative would be necessary. But, of course, there are options out there.

There are now a group of thermally modified timbers, such as ThermoWood, Accoya, THOR Torrefied Wood, Kebony and PlatoWood. The latter are created by slightly different (patented) means, but the process typically involves heating lesser durable softwoods such as pine at high temperatures in order to remove moisture and resin and permanently enhance them. The timber may also be injected with chemicals.

The result is a very durable and stable product (and in most cases expensive). Many manufacturers also promote the sustainable benefits, with thermally modified softwoods offering a good alternative to depleting tropical hardwoods.

Then there are those ‘timber’ cladding products which are not timber at all, but in fact fibre cement. Where these products beat timber is that they are maintenance-free, come in a range of pre-coloured finishes and are fire, rot and pest resistant.

On the downside, if you are looking for a more traditional, featheredged finish, it can be hard to replicate this using fibre cement, although textured designs are now available. The look produced is a uniform one — ideal for many contemporary homes, but often felt to be lacking the same warmth and character as real timber for those after a more traditional look.

Cost wise, there is little in it. Cedar cladding comes in at around £20-£30/m², while a fibre cement product would set you back £20-£25/m², both plus labour.

Verdict: Cedar and larch remain the best choices for most, although choose carefully on sections where ongoing maintenance might be an issue. Fibre cement boards have optimum stability and are maintenance free, too — but struggle to replicate the ‘natural’ look which is a big appeal for timber.

Real or Fake?

It’s surprisingly tricky to tell the difference between handmade, machine-made and reclaimed bricks.

bricks-cutouts-numbers

Creased-facing is easily applied in the factory (as in 1 and 2 above) while other stock bricks have the look of handmade. The only genuine handmade is number 3 (from York Handmade Brick Company) while the only one with a defiantly machine made look, the blue engineering brick (4, from B&Q), would look great on contemporary styles.

marley-eternit-cement-board

Marley Eternit’s Cedral (fibre cement) weatherboard (above) goes a long way to matching the look (and, to an extent, feel) of timber. Fortex PVCu cladding from Freefoam (featured image at the top) has a similar embossed effect. It struggles with looking a bit uniform on larger surface areas but has many performance benefits over the natural option.

Ceramic Stone Floring by Paris Ceramics

When it comes to flooring, ceramics (above) are often seen as a cheaper alternative to stone (below) but it would be better to think of them as a different design solution in their own right, even though they do try to mimic the look. They tend to be smoother and better suited to modern schemes — the gloss kitchen as opposed to the timeless timber unit.

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When to Fake It

Ultimately, there are products out there aiming to replicate the look of natural materials, that are well worth a second look. The best look-a-like products offer a low-maintenance, durable and cost-effective alternative to the real thing, while the worst look cheap and weather badly.

Purists will always push the use of materials in their most natural state and, in most cases, it is hard to beat the inherent character that natural materials offer — the variations and tactile qualities. If you are leaning towards this mentality, then it might be best to avoid look-a-likes altogether and accept that if you can’t afford the real thing (or at least the very best manmade alternative), better to go for a manmade product that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is.

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  • Anthony Walker

    Hi Natasha – great article!
    It’s nice to hear someone else banging the drum that a good quality fibre cement slate will outperform a cheap / poor quality natural slate.

    In the world of roofing we see a lot of snobbery about natural vs fabricated. If ‘lowest cost’ is the key driver behind a project, we would much rather a client walks away from us with a product that has a guaranteed life expectancy, rather than them taking a massive risk on a cheap natural slate.

    Also don’t forget that some man made products outperform their natural counterparts. A manmade fibre cement slate will outperform a natural slate at lower roof pitches. This is especially important to those of us trying to build house-extensions that require a 15-20°roof pitch to keep in line with building regulations.

    Bez Walker
    Ashbrook Roofing Supplies

    p.s – you have another vote here for the ‘less is more’ approach. Those products that look ‘best’, tend to be influenced by the natural version, rather than try to copy exactly. Cembrit Moorland Fibre Cement Slates are a good example of this.

  • […] but does it mean that the new products are inferior – not necessarily if this recent article from Home Building and Renovating which discusses whether look -a -like products can ever stand comparison with the real […]

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