molded and cast ornament

Stock Options

Stock columns are moving up the ladder of respectability and are appearing in more new homes.

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What came first - the availability of high-quality stock columns or an increased awareness of how to use them in new homes? Probably both began to emerge at the same time, but the reality is that stock columns have become an important part of the high-end residential landscape in the past few years, and more architects are specifying them than before.

The Selection
The biggest advantage, of course, is cost. As a rule of thumb, custom columns cost about three times more than stock, according to Jeff Davis, founder and owner of Chadsworth's 1.800.Columns of Wilmington, NC, "until you get into the massive two-story columns. Then the savings are not so great. Our stock columns are mass produced and warehoused for delivery within three to four weeks. They're available in heights up to 12 ft. and diameters up to 12 ins., although we do have some 14- and 16-ft. ones."

Stock columns are available in wood and composite materials, according to Davis, who adds that most of his firm's standard columns are now made of PolyStone. "Very few people are using wood now because it needs more maintenance. With PolyStone, you get a more architecturally correct column and a higher level of detail, at the same price as wood."

One of the disadvantages of stock columns is that they are adjusted by cutting the shaft, so the proportions are not always correct. "A custom column is exactly proportioned to the overall height," says Davis. "You don't get that accuracy with a stock column."

As to what prompted the increase in the use of stock columns in the past 10 years, Davis says that it corresponds to the arrival of the use of composites for the column itself. "We introduced the PolyStone column about 12 years ago in our Authentic Replication line, and it has become very popular. Now everyone offers composites."

At Manor Style in Baltimore, MD, managing partner Paul Waskey agrees that the business has shifted significantly from custom to stock and from wood to composites during the past decade. "Ten years ago, when fiberglass columns were just being introduced, our business was 80% custom columns in wood and 20% stock wood. Now, we sell a lot more fiberglass, and it's mostly stock.

"We inventory quite a bit of 8-, 10- and 12-in.-dia. fiberglass columns," he says. "We have also started to inventory 14-in. columns because we see architects specifying this size."

Waskey estimates that stock fiberglass columns cost 30% less than custom ones, while stock wood columns cost 35% to 40% less than the custom version. "Stock fiberglass costs a bit more than stock wood columns, but they offer more of a Classical order. Stock columns in wood lack true entasis. Another advantage of fiberglass is its weight-bearing capability."

In addition to its fiberglass columns, the firm also offers DuraStyl square PVC columns, with the same base and capital options offered for the fiberglass. "The advantage of PVC is that it is lightweight, smooth and can be painted, but it doesn't bear any load. We insert a 4x4 inside as an option for load bearing," Waskey explains.

"Column use has trended upward during the last 10 years," adds Troy, AL-based HB&G Marketing Manager Tim Bobo, "and the trend now is toward synthetics in an overwhelming way. Seven or eight years ago, that was not the case." He also notes that the past three to four years have seen a movement toward square columns. "A large number of new homes have square columns," he says. "Traditionally, these would be built in the field, but builders are finding they can buy a synthetic column; and it comes with a lifetime warranty."

HB&G offers a large selection of PermaCast stock columns ranging from 6 ins. in diameter and 6 ft. tall up to 30 ins. in diameter and 30 ft. tall. "They are very close to Classical proportions," he says. "For rounds, we do our best to keep them architecturally correct. We also offer our new square PVC PermaWrap column."

In the Field
Architects and designers echo many of these sentiments. "I use stock columns if I can and if the job calls for them," says Christine G. H. Franck, of Christine G. H. Franck, Inc., in New York City. "Generally, they are less expensive than custom. There is not as much design flexibility as there is with custom columns, but when you're talking about a slight difference in quality of design and saving someone a lot of money, it becomes a matter of balancing priorities.

"One of the lessons I have learned is that you have to find your columns and then work around them," she says. "One of the problems is that, in many cases, it's difficult to get precise information from the manufacturers, such as how wide the base and how tall the capital really are, for example. There are also some issues with the detailing. Generally, you have the shaft with the base and the capital slid into place like donuts, so you don't get a smooth connection between the base and the shaft or at the astragal - there may be a slight gap - but there are ways to get around it.

"You can even use stock columns on high-end jobs," she adds. "You design what you want and often find a stock column, and if it works with your design, there is no reason not to use it."

In Washington, DC, Milton Grenfell, NCARB, of Grenfell Architecture, uses stock columns quite often, especially in his traditional neighborhood development work, which is often in the more affordable price range.

Grenfell looks for materials that don't feel like plastic and that have a solid sound to them. "We use columns of fiberglass-reinforced polymers [FRP]," he says. "For optimal 'hand,' these typically have gypsum added to them for interior applications or marble dust for exterior applications. Each manufacturer has its own formula for these essential additives, so quality varies. It is imperative to feel the actual samples. One doesn't want columns that feel like a fiberglass bass boat."

The disadvantage of using stock columns, according to Grenfell, is that "a lot of companies make mistakes in the details. For instance, they make mistakes in the astragal and in the conge at the base. It is as if they are repeating the same sort of non-canonical builders' columns that have been around for 40 or 50 years. An application problem is that builders often erect the structure before they put the columns in, so they wind up cutting the columns as if they are some type of framing lumber, and they're not. Columns have precise proportions. If you use the right kind of stock column correctly, it can be used even on a high-end job."

At Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, PA, stock columns are specified for the full range of residential work. "The quality of stock columns has improved in the past 10 years, with more manufacturers offering a greater range of items in a variety of materials," says Donald Kaliszewski, AIA. "Ten years ago, for example, no manufacturer offered a stock tapered square Craftsman-style column. Today, they are available from several manufacturers. The development and availability of high-quality stock columns made of composite materials for exterior use have been major pluses for traditional architects, builders and homeowners."

The firm generally specifies composite materials for exterior use, typically FRP composites. "They are rot proof, insect proof, durable and economical," says Kaliszewski. "Wood is still the best choice for interior applications, if the budget allows for it."

Geoffrey Mouen of Geoffrey Mouen Architects in Celebration, FL, also uses stock columns. "I specify them when we have a builder or client who wants a maintenance-free condition and can't afford a custom column," he says. "We generally specify composite materials, such as a hard PVC or a hard kind of cast material and columns without seams. When you knock on them, they feel solid. I am wary of the ones that are seamed together because they seem hollow. There are lots of columns out there that are poorly proportioned, but there are many companies that have columns that are Classically correct. I still try to design using authentic materials, but these composite columns seem to be accepted; and they last a long time and are easily assembled."

One area of concern is that the columns are used properly. "Builders have been putting the columns underneath the beam, causing the appearance that the capital is supporting all of the weight of the beam above, and that looks very strange. The shaft of the column should appear to support the weight above, not the projecting detail," Mouen notes. "We need to address some of the issues of common construction in our environment today."

Gary Brewer, AIA, of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, New York, NY, agrees. "The important issue with columns is that they are used properly, not which materials are chosen," he says. "Architects and builders are becoming more fluent with columns," he adds. "Before the Second World War, they were very popular with architects, but after the war, they became less popular. Now, architects are once again learning about columns and understanding how to use them."

Brewer explains that the columns he uses are not stock in the sense that they are warehoused, but they are ordered from catalogs. "They are stock in one sense and custom in another," he says. "I tell them the height, the order, the necking diameter and the base diameter, and they work out the entasis and make the columns. I select what is architecturally appropriate and is appropriate for the budget. Stone columns are the top of the line; next tier down are cast-stone or concrete columns, then wood. I have also used GFRC columns. The least expensive columns are made of fiberglass."

Brewer says he used $100 fiberglass columns on a recent project and was generally happy with them. "We stuffed them with fiberglass insulation so they wouldn't sound hollow.

"Many times we specify columns from Hartmann Sanders or an equal," Brewer says. "We have gone so far as to have columns mocked up on-site, so the owner and builder can see the difference. Normally, the owner just sees the price. With the mock-ups and samples, they can see the quality and are more willing to spend the money."

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