These are not the best of times for developers, builders, or concrete contractors serving the residential housing industry. Everyone connected with housing is trying to find ways to increase their revenue at a time when residential construction is in decline. When work is plentiful, companies stick to traditional wood-building methods because they are familiar with it and have relationships with the trades who build that way. During slow times, companies get more creative—either by expanding into new areas or offering products they regard as better or different from the competition. This is bringing about a higher level of interest in concrete home developments.
When compared to standard wood construction, concrete homes represent greater value to homeowners—prices often being a little higher as well. They save on heating and cooling costs, are resistant to hurricanes, tornadoes, and other weather events, are fire resistant or fireproof, are quiet even when surrounded by noise, eliminate food sources for termites and mold, are low maintenance, and are green and sustainable. There is a developing interest to build “zero-energy” homes and concrete makes it even easier to do. But concrete homes represent a niche market (with the exception of Florida), with tradition in the United States favoring wood-built houses. In the feverish home construction market we have just come through, homeowners, builders, and developers have valued tradition for tradition's sake.
Today, with fewer customers in the marketplace and less loan money available for housing, home buyers are looking at value more than tradition. Joe Carter, a realtor and owner of Carter Construction in Columbia, S.C., says their prospective clients are looking beyond the decorative molding and the other bells and whistles that once lured them, to the building's exterior. “You only have one shot to build a good envelope,” says Carter. “It's the most important part of the package.”
There are many concrete home building systems. And new developments are springing up across the nation, using different systems to achieve an affordable concrete home. While many of the reasons to switch from a wood frame construction to structural concrete have always been there, here is “how” and “why” some developments are building them now.
Building With Hand Set Forms
Florida builds more concrete homes than any other state because they can easily meet the 130 to 140 mph wind speed requirements that communities in hurricane paths now require. In addition, concrete isn't affected by termites, rot, and mold—problems commonly faced in Florida. In better times, some companies used crane-set gang form systems to build concrete home developments to increase productivity. That was when several hundred homes were built in a development at one time and workers went from one site to the next. In the current down-sized market, hand set forming methods are proving to be more efficient.
As slow as the Florida housing market is at present, Mercedes Homes, Melbourne, Fla., continues to build at a rate that other companies would envy. Their corporate vice president of operations, Stuart McDonald, says that they decided to build safer, stronger homes more than 10 years ago. Today, they market “solid wall” construction—homes with 6-inch-thick exterior concrete walls, their own engineered roof trusses, direct path tie down systems, improved ways for attaching windows and doors, and waterproofing that performs under hurricane conditions. He says their homes can easily withstand 200 mph wind events. In the Florida market, their primary concern is to remain competitive with masonry block construction—wood-built homes aren't built commonly in the Melbourne, Orlando, Sarasota, and Naples areas. The cost of the concrete homes' materials is greater, compared to other systems, but they tend to make up for this in productivity. Most of their homes are single story but McDonald says they are experimenting with cost-efficient methods for building two-story units, adding that they are close to marketing homes with concrete roofs, too.
Mercedes uses hand set aluminum forms made by Precise Forms, Kansas City, Mo. These forms are light, easy to move and assemble, and versatile—making smaller developments possible. Using the same forms, they also can build a range of homes, from single-family residences to townhomes and multi-unit developments.