The Southampton Press - January 2007 by Grant Tse
Concrete is one of the world’s most used building materials for good reason. The material is durable, resistant to weather, fire and pests, and can be used to form almost any shape. Concrete has long been relegated to the background, as material for foundations and sidewalks. But today, some enterprising contractors have decided to bring concrete to the forefront of construction—building houses in which concrete makes up most of the house, floors, walls, and ceilings.
Nicholas Alimanestianu, the president of Southampton Building Corporation, a construction company that has been operating for almost two decades, has built several houses made primarily of concrete. He started concrete construction on a whim about 10 years ago, when a business associate decided to build a concrete addition to his house. He’s been experimenting with the material ever since—and even built his entire office on White Street in Southampton out of concrete. The company has done two other houses, on Wyandanch Lane and Deerfield Road. “It eliminates so many of the problems that you have with houses,” Mr. Alimanestianu said. “It doesn’t rot, it never needs to be repainted, there’s no termites to worry about, it’s much more hurricane resistant. There’s just less maintenance.”
Southampton Building uses a panelbased system to build concrete houses. Reinforced, insulated panels are put into place along with some framing, and the panels are then sprayed with shotcrete, which is concrete that is sprayed with compressed air. All the necessary piping and wiring is set inside beforehand, in a small section in the middle of the slab, along with insulation and a mesh wire support grid. The system actually first was used for earthquake-resistant houses, Mr. Alimanestianu said.
There are, of course, a few drawbacks. Concrete construction makes additions a little more complicated and can cost more than a basic wood house, Mr. Alimanestianu said. But other construction factors remain relatively equal. Building times are more or less the same, depending on labor and weather conditions, he said.
Concrete’s material strengths have long been apparent, but its aesthetic strengths have been the focus of Southampton Building’s concrete construction efforts. After first doing the experimental concrete addition for his business associate, Mr. Alimanestianu was captivated by the ease of the construction, along with the maintenance reducing aspects of concrete, but also with the look of it.
“I like the idea of that old-world stucco look on the houses on the Mediterranean,” Mr. Alimanestianu said. It’s no surprise that Mr. Alimanestianu built his own office to showcase just what can be done with concrete. He has spent time experimenting with his own concrete mixes, varying the cement and water mixture, and adding dyes and even small stones.
“We’re developing our own techniques, hands-on,” Mr. Alimanestianu said. “It’s pretty much unlimited in the way you can design it; if you want to put wood shingles on a house, or do wood paneling or wood floors, you can.”
Even when concrete is kept to more traditional roles in construction, there are budding approaches to applying it. Thomas J. McCarthy, of McCarthy Real Estate and McCarthy Management, said his company has started using modular foundations—essentially pre-fabricated slabs of concrete—and was pleased with the results.
“High-grade concrete has a groomed finish, and it’s already waterproof,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It speeds up the building process. It’s a versatile material.” Mr. McCarthy said the fact that the concrete is mixed and dried in factory settings helps with the final quality of the concrete, because factors like humidity and temperature can ruin otherwise good concrete as it dries.
“It definitely has its benefits. There will be a percentage of the population that never changes over from poured concrete, but I think this has its applications,” Mr. McCarthy said.
While Mr. Alimanestianu stresses the versatility of the material—that any kind of siding, trim or paneling that can be done with another material can be done with concrete, he says—if his own office is any metric, he is more interested in what concrete can do on its own.
When he gives visitors a tour of his office he’ll point out the color of the walls—which emit a sense of saturation—and note that because the color is a dye mixed into the concrete, no matter how many scratches and dents the wall endures, the color will remain. He’ll gesture to the tints that cover both the walls and floors, which in their variation display far more character than plain paint, the stones planted in the concrete and then ground down to achieve a terrazzo-esque effect, and even the metal lining that traces some of his floors.
There is an aesthetic aura his office emanates that is apparent immediately upon entering the building. The concrete interiors of his office evoke the same sense of solidity that more refined materials like marble do.
“It gives a sense of enclosure, a sense of protection,” said Mr. Alimanestianu’s sister, Joanna, an architect and an urban planner who has designed some of the concrete homes Southampton Building has worked on. “It’s really growing out of the land. There’s a sense of permanence. Whether you can see it or not, you can feel it. There is something quite wonderful about it.”
From a design perspective, Ms. Alimanestianu also touts the material’s agility, style-wise, but like her brother, she tends to highlight concrete’s unique charms.
“When you use this type of material, aging is a virtue instead of a deterrent,” Ms. Alimanestianu said. “It’s not just low maintenance, it ages in elegant ways. Cracks and changes in color are positive rather than negative. There’s something romantic about it.”
On the East End especially, that sense of permanence could be especially striking, as watching houses demolished and rebuilt is a daily occurrence, as people are constantly looking for the new look, when perhaps what they need is an old one.
“There’s something magical about old buildings,” Ms. Alimanestianu said. “How many go to Tuscany just to look at the architecture?”