Why Stucco Is So Popular in the Desert

Many Arizona residents wonder why most houses in the state are covered with stucco. Sometimes it looks like an unending sea of stucco.

There is a reason a significant number of homes in the southwest are covered with stucco. Stucco does a great job of protecting our homes. It also adds to the romantic and beautiful style of desert architecture.

What is stucco?

Today’s stucco is a mixture of sand, Portland cement, lime and water, but can also include fiber and acrylic additives. Stucco is a strong coating that will stand the test of time and the Arizona sun, if applied properly, painted regularly, and repaired whenever there are cracks or other damage to its surface.

Houses aren’t made of stucco, they’re “covered” in stucco following the lumber framing, installation of wood sheeting and an application of a vapor barrier. Next, a layer of expanded styrene foam is applied; then a layer of wire mesh is stretched over the exterior walls and two coats of stucco are troweled on.

For variety, different patterns of troweling can be used on stucco walls. The most common is “Spanish lace” that can be spread on any one of a variety of patterns. Stucco can also have a rougher, heavier texture — in large “pancakes” or “cat’s faces” with little patches of raised areas here and there. A smooth “sand finish” is not as common. Rough finishes can be hard to keep clean and need frequent washing to get rid of the dust. Sand finishes are popular in Santa Barbara and Santa Fe.

While cement stucco is still common today, an alternative is also available in a synthetic-based product. Acrylic stucco does not need to be hosed down or go through a 28-day curing process as cement-based stucco requires to bring the pH level to 7. Because synthetic stucco does not need to be pH tested, it can be painted after 48 hours in most climates.

Many stucco repair jobs are due to the stucco not being applied properly in the first place. A good stucco contractor will completely recoat a house with new stucco when a homeowner decides to change the texture of the home’s exterior or if there is a major remodel going on.

Four ways to change the look of your stucco house.

1. Install panels of manufactured stone or real stone as accents on walls.

2. Add on “pop-out” accents to give the structure a different look. You can add new details and framing around doors and windows.

3. Repaint using more than one color on different parts of the house. A pop-out can be an accent color, for example.

4. Install panels of siding on different sections of the house.

Caring for stucco.

Stucco is not waterproof. Generally speaking, it should be repainted with exterior acrylic paint every five to seven years to keep your home waterproof. Some of the new paint products and professional prepping and application methods can get you up to 10 years. Yet most homeowners wait nearly twice that long before repainting. Putting off the painting can lead to leaks and water damage on the inside of the stucco.

Paint your stucco exterior with a good heavy knap roller and work the paint into every nook, cranny and pin hole of the stucco. Don’t scrimp on the amount of paint you apply. Keep your roller wet with paint and apply it liberally. You’ll see professional painters spray-painting homes, but that’s not a technique for amateurs. Besides, it still requires a back rolling protocol. Back rolling involves the use a paint roller to press the paint that was previously applied by sprayer firmly and evenly into the surface of the wall, filling small cracks, holes or crevices with paint.

Note: Use elastomeric caulk, not paint, to fill in small cracks in your stucco walls. Elastomeric caulk is a better remedy because it has greater elasticity, so it will move with cracks if they widen, and it will help prevent water from seeping through the cracks. Elastomeric patching compounds are available in sanded and unsanded.

IMPORTANT – It is not recommended to power wash a stucco wall on a regular basis. However, if you are getting ready to repaint it can be helpful to power wash with these considerations in mind:

1. Cover nearby furniture and plants before spraying. Avoid spraying windows.

2. Set the pressure washer to 1000 psi or less and use a 40-degree fan tip nozzle.

3. Hold the wand 15 to 18 inches from the surface. Holding the wand closer is NOT better!

4. Test the pressure on a small area of the house that’s hidden behind a bush or other feature.

5. Watch closely as you test. If you see flying chunks of plaster or mortar, STOP! Reset the pressure to lower setting and increase the distance between your wand and the wall.

6. To avoid streaking, wash the wall from the bottom up, not from the top down.

7. In most cases detergent is not necessary. If there is some kind of buildup, like sap from a tree, then detergent may be helpful.

Tip: Watch the extended weather forecast before power washing. Your time, energy, and water will be wasted if a storm blows through. Plus, keep your power washer under wraps, otherwise, you may find yourself as your neighbor’s new best friend!

Keeping the stucco well maintained, will keep it performing as intended, plus improve your home’s curb appeal.

For more do-it-yourself tips, go to rosieonthehouse.com. An Arizona home building and remodeling industry expert for 35 years, Rosie Romero is the host of the Rosie on the House radio program from 8 to 11 a.m. Saturdays on KTAR-FM (92.3) in Phoenix; KGVY 1080AM 100.7FM; 10 to 11 a.m. on KNST-AM (790) in Tucson.


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