Like most, I take the same route to and from work – day after day after day. Part of me says I should mix that up from time to time. But at 7 in the morning, I am mostly on autopilot.

I did have some odd moments in the past, like the house I was certain was out of level. To this day I’m still not sure. But as that was the route to my old work, I haven’t been down that road for some time. I’ll have to swing by one day and see if it has toppled into the street.

Part of my current route, however, takes me between two newer apartment complexes. Usually I just notice the hotties walking their dogs or jogging past. (I may be on autopilot, but I’m not blind.) For some reason, though, as I was passing through the other morning, I couldn’t help noticing the difference in materials between the two buildings.

One real – mostly.

One fake – completely.

One brick and stucco with metal panels that I think were meant to look like copper. The other? Cement board siding and trim from top to bottom and unfortunately already looking worn.

Every year I’ve been in architecture, more and more materials have cropped up that look like the real thing but aren’t. And with each passing year, the technology for creating them improves so once in a while, you really have to look to tell what is and isn’t real.


Durability for one. I cannot count the number of times clients have wanted marble counters in their kitchens only to tell them it wasn’t practical. If there was any doubt, we’d just rub some mustard or ketchup on a sample and let them see for themselves. However, if you can get something that looks like marble without the fear of staining, why wouldn’t you?

Then there’s less maintenance, which for any facilities manager is ideal. When vinyl “wood” plank appeared on the market, the product resembled linoleum someone sent through a cheap printer. Now the quality is such that it’s part and parcel in material selections for student housing. One gets damaged? Simply pull it up and replace it with the next one in the box.

Except sometimes I find it hard to not look at something and wonder if going with a manmade material is the right choice, or just the cheap choice.

Unless a project is in an historic district or protected by preservation laws, we often opt for cement board lap siding versus wood. Yes, it’s more durable and easier to maintain. But at the same time, it can feel like a lesser product. Looking at the “fake” apartment building on the way to my office, I can see the siding starting to oil can, where instead of a flat surface, the siding is beginning to look wavy. Something I’ve seen on more than one building.

However, when the material you are using is less than half the thickness of traditional siding, care must be taken to install the product per the manufacturer’s instructions. Which makes me wonder if we are losing not just quality but craftsmanship as well.

And while I appreciate finding ways to get the look a client wants without breaking the bank, I do miss the craftsmanship involved in creating something as simple as a shower. Selecting each marble slab. Working out in the architectural drawings how each slab or piece of slab is placed. Deciding where joints will happen to not interfere with veining. More often than not, that’s been replaced with simply working out a tile pattern with whatever is the latest product that looks like marble but isn’t.

However, no matter how much I lament working with natural materials, manufacturers will continue to improve their products. Technology will make it harder and harder to tell the difference. Architects will continue to advocate for more durable and less costly alternatives for their clients.

And I will continue to take the same route to work. The buildings may not be great to look at, but I can still enjoy the view.