Gary Tramontina for The New York Times; right, Gordon M. Grant for The New York Times Lori and Jeff Cummings used foam-sided concrete forms to build a storm-proof house in Fort Deposit, Ala., top.

 

Gary Tramontina for The New York Times; right, Gordon M. Grant for The New York Times

Lori and Jeff Cummings used foam-sided concrete forms to build a storm-proof house in Fort Deposit, Ala., top.

New York Times - September 21, 2006 by Marcelle S. Fischler

 

WHEN Lori and Jeff Cummings and their two teenage sons move into their new house in Fort Deposit, Ala., next week, high winds, escalating energy prices and concerns about mold and termites will not be among their worries.

Gary Tramontina for The New York Times; right, Gordon M. Grant for The New York Times

Lori and Jeff Cummings used foam-sided concrete forms to build a storm-proof house in Fort Deposit, Ala., top.

Their 6,000-square-foot neo-Classical-style house was framed with insulating concrete forms, known as I.C.F.’s, an alternative to traditional wood-frame or stick construction that has become increasingly popular as a way to build a strong, energy-efficient house.

Two years ago Ms. Cummings, 43, a former consumer reporter for a PBS affiliate in Alabama, had just started researching eco-friendly houses when Hurricane Ivan tore through the state. Ms. Cummings’s house in Greenville only lost power for a week, but her sister-in-law’s house four miles away sustained $30,000 of damage, and nearby subdivisions were wiped out.

After that, she said, “I decided to look for not only energy efficiency but something that would withstand hurricane force winds.”

The Cummingses are among hundreds of thousands of Americans who have embraced the use of concrete in residential building in recent years. According to the Portland Cement Association, a trade group in Skokie, Ill., concrete homes made up 16.3 percent of the market for new construction in 2004, the last year for which data was available, compared with 3 percent in 1993.

The use of I.C.F.’s — interlocking blocks made of concrete sandwiched between rigid foam panels and reinforced with steel bars — has risen 73 percent over the past five years, said Joseph Lyman, the executive director of the Insulating Concrete Form Association, a national trade group based in Glenview, Ill.

If concrete houses do not seem to be transforming the landscape, it may be because it’s hard to tell they are there. Ms. Cummings’s house is finished in brick. “You could use stucco or acrylic finish, or you could use stone or brick; you could use vinyl siding, clapboard, almost anything you could use on a traditional system,” Mr. Lyman said.

I.C.F.’s, which like other new concrete building systems first became popular in Europe some 30 years ago but caught on in the United States in the 1990’s, offer significant protection from the elements.

They are fire resistant and capable of withstanding 180- to 200-mile-an-hour winds, said Thad Tobaben, general manager of Tritex I.C.F. Products in Omaha, the block manufacturer Ms. Cummings used. (They also reduce sound to a whisper when used to frame interior as well as exterior walls, as they were in the Cummingses’ house; Ms. Cummings said she was looking forward to no longer having to leave home when her husband plays the harmonica or when her sons practice drums and guitar.)

Another relatively new concrete technology, a process called shotcrete, creates walls, floors and roofs with concrete shot from a pressurized feeder over foam panels and wire mesh. Michael Stone, a writer in Water Mill, N.Y., built a Mediterranean-style villa there using shotcrete at the suggestion of his contractor, Nicholas Alimanestianu of the Southampton Building Corporation.

The idea of solid construction appealed to me,” said Mr. Stone, whose 4,000-square-foot fortress-like house was completed in June. “It has to do with the sense of permanence, and resistance against the weather.”

Concrete homes can also be built with a cast-in-place method using removable, temporary forms; precast or poured-on-site tilt-up concrete panels; or blocks of aerated concrete held together with mortar.

Mr. Alimanestianu, who has been building high-end wood-frame houses in the Hamptons for more than 20 years, started exploring concrete methods four years ago. “It’s a much better way to go if you want security against hurricanes, termites, rot, aging — all the things that go with wood construction,” he said.

The material has become more popular with people building homes in the Southeast and in coastal regions, including those rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

“Those who are staying want a home they can rely on, and a concrete home is clearly a choice that a lot of people are looking into,” said Jeremy Bertrand, the executive director of the Building Systems Councils for the National Association of Home Builders.