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Clad intentions: Minneapolis considers codifying what materials can be used for building exteriors

Builders and developers have pushed back on the idea, questioning whether the city should be in the business of deciding which materials — and how much of them — they can use. 

photo of brick building exterior
The building at 2743 Lyndale Ave. South was cited by planners as an ideal example of exterior materials use, with a facade composed primary of brick and stone and metal panels and fiber cement used as secondary materials.
Courtesy of Minneapolis CPED

Call it surface tension.

The Minneapolis Planning Commission this week supported a proposed ordinance that would further regulate the types of materials developers of residential and commercial buildings put on the exterior of their buildings.

The ordinance is being sponsored by Council President Lisa Bender and the vice chair of the Housing and Zoning Committee, Jeremy Schroeder. It would codify in city law the types of materials that will be permitted and for what percentage of exterior walls they can be used, creating — as the plan calls it — a “hierarchy of exterior building materials.”

Favored under the proposal: traditional materials such as brick, stone, precast concrete, metal panels and glass walls. Considered class II materials, which can be used on a more-limited basis: fiber cement panels, lap siding and stucco. Class III materials — which could cover no more than 30 percent of a building under the proposal — include unfinished concrete, wood and wood composite lap siding. 

Sponsors say the proposal isn’t necessarily new in practice but would enhance the current process, which puts projects through a site plan review. City staff made the case that it would benefit builders and developers, bringing more clarity and specificity about which materials, and how much of them, can be used. 

Proposed exterior materials standards
Building typeMinimum Class I materialsMaximum Class II & III materials
Residential/Mixed-use (4-150 units)30%70%
Residential/Mixed-use (151+ units)60%40%
Commercial/industrial/institutional70%30%

While the proposed regulations seem to be based on aesthetics — “to ensure a quality, lasting, affordable and beautiful urban built environment” — one of the sponsors said he is most concerned with durability: “For the folks on the Planning Commission, this is their passion. They want a beautiful city,” Schroeder said. “We as a city have never figured out how to regulate that. As much as aesthetics came up, it was more about the durability and about having housing that was going to stand the test of time.”

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There is also an equity component, according to the staff report prepared by the city planning department, in that the current, informal process ends up benefiting wealthier residents who know how to work the system. “Without clear design expectations that are codified,” the staff report states, “development is often shaped by less formal and more subjective processes at the local neighborhood level. Wealthier, more organized, and white communities … have been more successful at pushing for higher-quality development and design products.”

Concerns from builders and developers have centered on wood and cement fiber board, as well as the very concept of cities regulating such a thing as what new buildings can be made of. “I just struggle with seeing the benefit of actually setting a rule capping the percentage of wood on a building when it’s such a high quality material,” wrote Grant Simons, an architectural designer. 

While developers can go through a process called alternative compliance to show that a project meets the spirit and intent of the ordinance, Simons said that would be an extra burden. “It’s a disservice to the design community to try and regulate these limits when a client typically want something to move through the city as quickly as possible,” he wrote. “Exceptions will only be made when we have the privilege of time and money.”

Steve Minn, a former city council member who develops multifamily projects, including affordable housing, objected that fiber cement cladding — commonly known as Hardie plank — wasn’t a Class I material.

Minn told the commission that he has built 1,500 units of affordable housing in Minneapolis and St. Paul over the last 15 years and has used cement-fiber panel and cement-fiber lap siding without problems. “Cement fiber is uniquely durable, lightweight, very flexible, adapts to colors very well,” Minn said. It also works well in weather-proofing installations with metal panels, he said. “I used cement-fiber panels in very creative ways and I encourage our architects to do so. Sometimes that involved multiple colors on the same plane and variation on the projection of the facade sometimes.”

But Ryan Kronzer, an architect and former member of the planning commission, wrote to say the city wasn’t restricting fiber cement plank siding enough. He said the proposal had been changed through the process to actually increase the amount of a building’s facade that could use the material — up to 70 percent — compared to current city guidelines. He said that amount of surface for smaller buildings might be appropriate but, “the issue comes when the vast majority of a facade is fiber cement,” Kronzer wrote. “The material telegraphs the irregularities of the structure behind it, providing an aesthetically undesirable appearance and the potential for water to infiltrate.” Kronzer also said the material is more likely to be used in lower-income areas of the city.

photo showing water damage to fiber cement board exterior
Courtesy of Minneapolis CPED
Critics of fiber cement board note the materials susceptibility to water damage, even in new construction.
In response to a question from Commissioner Bill Baxley, an architect, city planner Peter Crandall said that a building could be 100 percent cement-fiber under the alternative compliance process.

Baxley said he was concerned about the concept of the ordinance. “I think wading into what materials are appropriate on buildings is highly subjective and kind of a slippery slope,” Baxley said. “In most instances, as stated earlier, the problems are in the installation and the design of the application and not the material itself. I’m reticent to restrict percentages just because, as Steve Minn had mentioned here, even sometimes a monolithic application is better than a piecemeal, tchotchkeid up one that is mandated X-percentage.” 

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Baxley ultimately voted for the proposal, as did all members of the commission who attended the Monday meeting.

Schroeder said that he is sensitive to the concerns of builders and developers that city regulations add to the cost of construction. But the Ward 11 council member said he thinks making sure durable materials are used and properly installed will save money for people over the life of a building.

What was approved by the commission was itself a compromise, one that allows more use of material like cement fiber, as the Kronzer letter indicates.

“It’s been a difficult conversation because you have a number of projects — usually affordable housing — where the product has failed and it’s cost a lot of either city money or county money,” he said. “These are precious dollars.”

When it comes to an ordinance on building materials that are supposed to last for decades, Schroeder said: “We won’t know for 30 years who is right on this one.”

The issue now goes before the council’s business, inspections, housing and zoning committee on September 14 and could move the full council on Sept. 24.