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Manufactured masonry thin veneer has hit its stride. Popularity in the product has grown dramatically over the past decade and recent years have seen further innovation that seeks to refine its visual appeal and other benefits. While full-depth veneer options have expanded, the market has also seen an increase in lightweight or thin veneers used both in commercial and residential construction, with today’s products engineered to look better, adhere better, and weather better than their traditional counterparts. This article will explore manufactured masonry thin veneers with respect to their aesthetic appeal, durability, and economical advantages. Also discussed will be options in installation systems that have been designed to facilitate energy efficiency and moisture control.
Thin veneers are any lightweight, flat-backed, thin surface product that is applied directly to a solid facing. Thin veneers average in thickness from 1 to 2 inches and per International Code Council regulations must weigh 15 pounds or less per square foot.
Manufactured masonry thin veneer is typically fabricated by pouring a lightweight concrete mix into rubber forms. The trend started with emulating the look of natural stone but has gone beyond that—thin veneers can be manufactured in a wide range of looks and options. Glazing the face can change the appearance of the veneer unit to resemble other materials such as tile, for example, and pictorial elements can even be added for visual effect.
In the recent past, advances in the molds themselves as well as in finishing techniques, mortar, and substrates have enabled manufactured masonry thin veneers to offer not only more visual effects and the ability to match an increased number of colors, shapes, and textures, but greater economic and environmental advantages as well as ease of maintenance. Today’s products are machine made with quality aggregates and admixtures to make them very dense and water repellent to facilitate moisture control so that they can be used at grade and to withstand over 60 mph wind-driven rain. Additionally, veneers may be manufactured to be mold and mildew resistant. Many thin veneer products are either naturally colored or have integrated pigment for color fastness. After they are produced, some thin veneers are cut to the desired thickness and shaped to the customer’s specifications. With a new understanding of the thin veneer products, manufacturers have made some adjustments to their sawing equipment to be able to cut these thin veneer products more precisely. But not all thin veneers are produced by being cut, some are manufactured at the desired depth and are ready to install without cutting. Advances in packaging materials assure safe shipment of these products nationwide while maintaining product integrity and quality.
Because it is made with concrete, manufactured masonry thin veneer provides a number of benefits. By its very nature, thin veneer is light in weight, making it generally more economical than full-depth veneer. Thin veneer also tends to install faster, saving money and the all-important resource of time. Further, thin veneers may be used for nonload bearing applications and do not require a footing, further eliminating costs because of the reduction of structural reinforcements required. They offer flexibility in customizing sills, arches, coping units, and larger-size units, and can be easily cut and shaped in the field. While most commercial applications have used a thin veneer stone from time to time, they have been increasingly utilized over the past few years due to several reasons, including the need for a lighter veneer due to an application or particular location on the building, and installations on projects with other thin veneer systems such as metal panels or glass curtain walls.
Many applications call for the look of stone and, in use since the 1950s, manufactured stone is a frequent lightweight alternative to natural stone. Particularly with wood frame walls, building codes may stipulate that when natural stone cladding is used, more wall support, footings, and expansion joints may be required. Over the years, manufacturers have solved a number of problems present in early versions of manufactured stone, particularly its sometimes unauthentic look and texture, and manufacturing innovation in finishes and installation methods has generated an uptick in face and size options. With the actual material costs of manufactured stone and natural stone veneers running neck and neck1 , due to its lighter weight—roughly one third the weight of natural stone—manufactured stone is a less expensive alternative in terms of fabrication, shipping, lifting, and installation, and a more economical and environmentally sound option in areas without natural quarries. Manufactured stone may also have an edge over natural stone in color options—while natural stone is confined to the palette that Mother Nature has presented, manufactured stone products are available in almost limitless colors and textures.
Manufactured masonry thin veneer usage is on the rise, with the North American market for general masonry veneer in residential and commercial applications reaching more than 160 million square feet valued at nearly $700 million in 2010, according to a study by business consulting firm Principia Partners entitled Masonry Veneer 20102 . The firm maintains that the residential market for masonry veneer will be the primary driver of new growth between 2010 and 2012, contributing over $150 million in new demand.
According to the study, masonry veneer including manufactured stone, thin veneer stone, thin brick, and masonry panels, simulates stone or brick appearance at an installed cost of 50 to 60 percent that of full-dimensional masonry—a figure made even higher with the shortage of skilled masons to install fulldimensional masonry.
Ken Jacobson, partner at Principia Partners, says, “Property owners are increasingly using masonry veneer products because they are significantly more affordable than natural stone and full-dimensional brick.” Jacobson continues, “According to our extensive research, property owners continue to seek products that are aesthetically pleasing, offer a wide range of design options in color, form, and texture, and can be easily installed. Masonry veneer products install easier than fulldimension masonry. More product can be moved and installed per man hour. Due to masonry veneer’s lower volume and weight, more product can be shipped per truckload than traditional masonry, and with no load-bearing foundations required, thin masonry veneers are easier and less expensive to install than their full-dimension equivalents.”
Thin veneers have wide applicability in settings from residential single-family homes to multistory commercial buildings, and are used extensively not only in façades and foundation facings but in many interior settings as well, creating striking effects. Archways, entrance pillars, courtyards as well as accent walls, alcoves, stairwells, chimneys, mantels, and fire pits are all popular candidates for thin veneer installations. Further, thin veneer can be an effective solution in both new construction and renovations, and can be fabricated to replicate a natural or specified material.
Interior. Considered a premium aesthetic as both a full application or as an accent, manufactured thin veneer is widely used in interior settings, as the 1-inch depth of a typical unit leaves more space than the full 4-inch profile. Accenting one part of a wall in a living or dining room can add visual interest and high drama at a relatively low cost. In the kitchen, stone veneer backsplashes, islands, walls, and entry arches can enhance the appearance of the room, adding a rustic feel, or emphasizing a natural aesthetic. Thin veneer is appropriate for fireplace upgrades, changing or reinforcing the design sensibility of the space—a rugged surface around the fireplace, for example, may add warmth and texture to a modern room. Door and window surrounds as well as transitional walls or arches are also prime spots for manufactured thin veneer stone treatments and can bring the dramatic richness and warmth of natural stone without the drawbacks. Options in manufactured veneers range from rough edged to natural cut, irregularly shaped field stone and the rounded smoothness of river rock.
Exterior. Manufactured thin veneer can be used to striking effect in both complete coverage or as an accent to the exterior of a structure, with a combination of different surfaces and textures adding interest and depth. Appropriately colored and textured units can help the structure blend in to its natural surroundings, be they marked by stone outcroppings or deep woods or other types of landscape. Simple or multidimensional designs for outdoor living can also be created with a combination of thin veneer products. Popular trends include built-in seating, definition of an outdoor room with seat walls, and customization of water or fire features and an outdoor kitchen. Architects can also use thin veneer walls to pleasing and practical effect in outdoor living settings to define spaces, wrap columns, control erosion, build seat walls and raised gardens, and create multidimensional poolscapes and patios.
The diversity of face alternatives of manufactured full-dimension stone veneer, including color, texture, and size options, can also offer architects a versatile palette. Exterior veneer, for example, can have the look and feel of natural limestone or cast stone, creating the unique appearance of old stone with a slightly embossed, antique finish to achieve an air of softness and warmth. In some instances, a choice of two types of joints is available in order to create two very different looks within the façade, and many product lines include various proportions of large stones and accessories to create interesting architectural details that require few or no cuts. Angular and surround stones offer a variety of design possibilities, as do thin veneer units with rounded contours, and modular shapes.
Another popular option is a monument white exterior look, achieved by a mixture of white Portland cement combined with fine aggregates that can result in a highly dense product with clean lines, or a bold chiseled finish. For those who prefer a stacked stone look, manufacturers offer multi-length units that can be used on the entire façade or as accents on architectural elements such as wall sections or skirting. A product that has a single height but differing lengths makes for a stacked stone appearance with an easy installation process. Innovative manufacturing processes even enable units that possess the look of natural slate, or large stonework highly sought after in urban settings.
The manufacturing process is engineered to create in random fashion, a number of distinct textures with marked edges. Using color ranges and blends, as well as varying types of joints—concave, half recessed, recessed, and flush—and various ratios of large to smaller stones make for a façade or interior application with depth and intricacy.
When choosing a manufactured masonry thin veneer, several factors should be considered. Depending on manufacturing process, many concrete masonry thin veneers integrate the color throughout the unit. As opposed to surface finishes, aggregate coloring creates a product that is more visually appealing and durable. Units that were surface colored, as was the case almost universally in earlier times, were subject to chips and scratches, often rendering them unusable. Specifiers should also look for products with an increased freeze thaw resistance and a low water absorption rate. Naturally, a product that is designed to fit the adherence system will quicken time and lessen the difficulty of the installation process, making for a more pleasing aesthetic effect; equally important is selecting a product that is dimensionally tolerant and does not have unwanted flanges on the back of the stone. Other desirable attributes of manufactured thin veneers are resistance to salt damage and ease of cleaning, with those that can be easily wiped without the color rubbing off being the preferable choice. In addition, some products are manufactured with an integral water repellent limiting moisture penetration and increasing the service life of the structure.
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