Building knowledge and connections

Designing the Ultimate Outdoor Space with Western Red Cedar

May 30, 2022

A modernist reinterpretation of northern California ranch style, a farmhouse in wine country, student residences at Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned Fallingwater—these and many Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) residential projects are dominated by western red cedar (WRC).

“We use cedar a lot in our residential projects in particular,” says Greg Mottola, BCJ’s lead principal on both a Los Altos modern ranch project and a beautiful farmhouse in Calistoga. “We like cedar because it brings a warmth, a softness to what are otherwise pretty modern buildings, and we like making these homes more livable and comfortable to be in.”

We talked to BCJ and other experts about why they design western red cedar spaces for beautiful outdoor escapes.


Rot-resistance

Mottola says using WRC outdoors is helpful because it’s not just beautiful; it’s naturally rot-resistant.

WRC can be finished in a variety of ways, and you can add pigment if you want, which Mottola loves. “In some ways it’s almost like you’re pre-weathering it. But the other thing we really love about it is that when you leave it to weather naturally, it turns to a beautiful silver color.”


Hardiness

Ostensen says the species’ growth rates are likely to thrive as accelerated climate change occurs. Reports from the US Forest Service indicate that it tolerates shade very well, too, and is less susceptible to diseases than many other conifers. The trees can live for more than 1,000 years.


Lightweight & Versatile

WRC’s large, open cell structure makes the wood less dense than most other softwoods, so it’s also easier to move from place to place on the job. The versatility of WRC is one of the primary reasons it has been used for appearance and outdoor living applications for centuries.


Acoustics

Its open cell structure also helps to block noise. As an interior paneling or exterior siding, WRC’s low density makes it an acoustical barrier of much greater quality than many products marketed for those applications.


Sustainability

The sustainability benefits of using WRC are many, whether it’s the durability of siding or environmental impact of decking. WRC decking had the least environmental impact when compared with both virgin and recycled wood-plastic composite decking products, Ostensen says.


Biophilia

The Philadelphia area architecture firm works on projects all over North America and aims to bring a bit of the outside in across residential designs. Mottola says they’re pleased with the quality of cedar they get for projects like these, as it makes their jobs easier.


Color

But there’s also something special about WRC’s color. BCJ loves it so much they use it inside and out on their residential projects.

“It’s just really versatile,” Mottola says. Because of its rich color and the fact that it takes stain really well, Mottola says it’s a great solution for exterior siding.


Style

WRC bevel siding is the most widely used cedar siding type across projects. It is produced by resawing lumber at an angle to produce two pieces thicker on one edge than the other. The manufacturing process results in pieces with one smooth face. The other face is saw textured or smooth depending on the grade and customer preference.


Durability

Mottola says BCJ comes back to WRC again and again for its durability. Western red cedar heartwood is also highly impermeable to water, making it even more durable.

While WRC is prevalent on BCJ’s West Coast projects, Mottola says they are seeing it used more all over the US, including the East Coast, too. “We do projects all over the country and a lot of second homes for people in beautiful, remote locations. Cedar is a nice choice.”


Insulation

Using WRC can also minimize heating and cooling needs. Wood has very good insulating value compared to other materials. Lab tests at the National Research Council of Canada and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory show that light metal framing significantly reduces the effective thermal resistance, or R-value, of a wall assembly, resulting in increased energy use. Wood-frame construction is easy to insulate to high standards, Ostensen says, and several wood-frame assemblies have been designed for the Arctic.

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