Charred is the New Black
Shou sugi ban, an ancient Japanese wood-finishing technique, is catching fire in Maine.
TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
On a wooded ridge in Lincolnville, Josh Gerritsen’s contemporary Colonial reads so inky black it seems otherworldly. A cracked texture, like reptilian scales, pervades the pine clapboards, which, up close, range from coal black to heather gray. The result is a striking, shadow-on-a-hill home that appears at once primitive and modern. “You see this beautiful texture, sheen, and quality of material that’s familiar yet different,” says Matt O’Malia, principal of Belfast’s OPAL architecture firm, which offers Gerritsen’s house as part of its prefab GO Home line. The dark siding — an optional upgrade — was O’Malia’s first stab at shou sugi ban, a centuries-old Japanese technique for preserving and finishing wood by charring it with fire. “It moves the New England color palette forward, but I think it’s also very sympathetic to it,” he says, noting that black relates to the gray-Cape tradition and is a classic house color in Scandinavian design, which translates well in rural Maine.
"Using siding derived from oil, such as plastic-based siding, or that has no use afterwards and gets thrown into a landfill, was not something I ever considered."
Gerritsen chose the siding for his passive house — designed to meet strict German energy standards — for its durability, natural quality, and arresting look. “Using siding derived from oil, such as plastic-based siding, or that has no use afterwards and gets thrown into a landfill, was not something I ever considered,” says the filmmaker and photographer. “I love seeing this black house and then you walk inside and everything’s white. I think that’s a beautiful contrast.”
His ebony homage is at the forefront of an emerging local trend toward using, or approximating, a method that began as a practical means of protecting rural Japanese buildings from blazes. Shou sugi ban traditionally involves binding thin planks of Japanese cypress into a makeshift chimney that is set ablaze; the wood is then doused with water and wire brushed to remove surface char. If the burn is deep and uniform enough, the planks will resist rot, mold, fire, and pests for up to 80 years. During that time, the homeowner can periodically apply an oil stain to maintain the color or let the wood fade to an irregular gray that reveals “the imprint of a fire long ago,” says building designer and shou sugi ban consultant Anthony Esteves, who learned about the technique while studying in Japan and used it on a portion of his Spruce Head home.
For the sake of expediency, some homeowners have opted for prefab cypress shou sugi ban boards ($5–$13 per square foot) from mills like Nakamoto Forestry, based in “the other Portland.” Others have blowtorched local pine boards onsite, an approach that rankles purists like Esteves, who say it does not produce a deep-enough burn to achieve the color and longevity of true shou sugi ban. A home with blowtorched siding, for example, might look more caramel than raven black and require frequent staining because it lacks a thick, protective carbon layer.
On the other hand, Gerritsen’s siding received the controversial blowtorch treatment and, five years later, maintains its sable color and stability, perhaps owing to the “days and days” O’Malia’s crew spent scorching the boards after finding quicker burns just scraped off. “You’re talking about a pretty labor-intensive, expensive effort,” O’Malia says. But given his commitment to durable, ecofriendly materials, it’s one that, for now, he plans to keep in rotation. “Our going assumption is that it’s going to improve the lifespan of the siding,” he says. “But, you know, time will tell.”