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Presenting the values and benefits of concrete to architects helps them influence owners. Shown here is a 29,000-sq.-ft. concrete home in Maryland.

Credit: BARTLEY CORP.

There are four groups involved in the construction of a custom concrete home: the owner, the architect (and perhaps the engineer), the builder, and the concrete contractor. For mid- and low-income housing projects, builders and developers take the prominent role in material decisions.

People in the concrete construction industry tend to believe the values and benefits of concrete make it the best for home construction. But structural concrete is a difficult concept to sell to owners, architects, and builders for many reasons:

  • Owners historically live in wood houses and know little about concrete. Also they don't like the additional engineering design costs for a concrete structure.
  • Architects and engineers are comfortable with the materials they typically design with, and don't want the risk associated with new or different technologies.
  • Builders understand wood construction technology and rely on loyal subcontractor relationships.
  • Concrete contractors like the idea of building concrete homes, but it's a new technology for them and, depending on the method of construction, there can be additional equipment and tool costs involved.

Marketing concrete homes raises the question, “Which of the above groups should valuable marketing dollars go toward?” It's not easy to answer because each group can specify concrete housing, though marketing to potential owners is very expensive.

But concrete contractors know their builders and that's a good place to start.

Changing times

Currently there are too many builders and too few home buyers. Builders are challenged to reinvent themselves, constructing homes that separate them from their competition. The codes for building homes also are changing. At the Portland Cement Association (PCA), Skokie, Ill., Donn Thompson, director of low-rise buildings, says increasing numbers of home buyers want houses that are either LEED or National Green Building Standard (NGBS) certified—a certification program of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). People want higher-quality homes to live in for a long time, houses they will resell as part of an investment strategy. Quality starts with the shell—the one part of the building that remains unchanged for the lifetime of the structure.

Thompson says, “Wood-frame construction is a 19th-century technology required to perform at a 21st-century level.” There are 21st-century changes in the energy codes making it increasingly difficult to get compliance using traditional building methods. It can still be done but project organization and planning, time to build, and additional materials increase cost and the level of difficulty.

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The owner of this new home wanted a concrete shell but the concrete contractor helped the builder sell his preferred building method.

Credit: BARTLEY CORP.

Energy Star, a program of the U.S. Department of Energy, is well known to the public because of its program to improve the energy efficiency of appliances. Their mission has expanded to include higher energy efficiencies and improved moisture vapor management for structures. As the energy efficiency of buildings improve, managing moisture movement becomes more technical, which is important because of mold growth issues. Higher performance requirements in these areas result in more complex and expensive wood-frame construction. However, concrete walls naturally have much higher energy efficiencies because they don't leak air and there are no wall cavities where moisture and mold can reside.

Although Energy Star representatives don't come to jobsites to do inspection work, their guidelines are being adopted by code bodies and are recognized by LEED and NGBS. These standards increase the cost of wood construction but not structural concrete.

Build higher quality for less

Constructing a concrete home is still more expensive than building one with wood. But there are ways to reduce costs because walls, decks, and ceilings frequently are overengineered. Brent Anderson, owner of BDA Associates, Fridley, Minn., says prospective owners don't expect building a concrete home will save them money in the short term. They consider operating costs over time and want other benefits, such as resistance to wind events, healthy indoor air quality, lower heating and cooling energy costs, fire and mold resistance, and protection from pests such as termites.

Including a structural engineer is a given when building a concrete home. During the design stage there are many things engineers can do to reduce the cost of a project. Below are some of Anderson's suggestions.