Competing building methods tout superior safety at varied cost

Published: Jun. 26, 2014 at 10:45 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 27, 2014 at 1:50 AM CDT
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A construction method based on the concept of reinforced concrete offers better protection...
A construction method based on the concept of reinforced concrete offers better protection against damaging winds. (Source: WAFF)

ATHENS, AL (WAFF) - Huntsville area prospective homebuyers may soon have a new option in home construction that offers potentially greater protection from severe storms but a major issue, cost, remains a question mark for the concept.

Athens homebuilder Tracey McMahan gave a zealous endorsement to the technique intended to make storm resistant concrete home construction faster and more affordable.

"There is a lot of scare and demand for shelter here in our weather, due to the severe weather that we have," he said. "This is a product that's going to help us. This is going to save lives."

McMahan teamed up with developer John Blue, who created Huntsville's The Ledges, to incorporate the new building approach into Blue's new Lendon Place project in Jones Valley.

"The product is basically a concrete formed house," Blue explained. "Who can argue with concrete, especially when you have rebar in it."

"The product" is a system developed in the Philippines and marketed under the name "Defender Technologies" on the Gulf Coast, where one model home has already been constructed in Gulf Shores.

The basic principle is not revolutionary; the houses are made of reinforced concrete. The system involves assembling large sheets of hardiplank concrete, one of them a sandwich incorporating foam insulation, held apart by plastic separators which become anchors for steel reinforcement rods.

Once the sheets are propped into place and fastened together and the rebar inside them positioned, they are then filled in with concrete to become a solid reinforced concrete wall with hard surfaces inside and out ready for paint, brick or siding.

Alabama Insurance Department Deputy Commissioner Charles Angel said he had been watching the development of Defender Technologies and that the system "looked very promising."

Likewise, the insurance industry's Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety issued a statement saying, "IBHS is glad to see builders and others looking at innovative construction techniques… We must break the cycle of destruction we tend to repeat following disasters by rebuilding in the same ways in the same places."

Watch a YouTube demonstration of fortified versus non-fortified homes in a wind-tunnel test.

Huntsville homebuilder Danesh Foroughi of Stonecraft Construction in Huntsville, a potential competitor, gave the idea careful praise.

"I think they're on the right track and, yes, more power to them," he said.

Foroughi questioned the four-inch thick concrete walls of the Defender Technologies houses as compared to the 6-8 inch walls of the insulated concrete form (ICF) technique he uses to build reinforced concrete homes. "It makes a difference," he said.

Foroughi also wondered whether such storm resistant concrete homes could be built affordably.

"What is unknown to me is the cost… if the cost is comparable to a stick built house, if the cost is comparable to an ICF house?  Don't know," Foroughi said.

Blue acknowledged the added cost of the concrete construction remained an unknown.  He estimated that it could add 10-12 percent to the price of a home, but predicted such questions would be answered with the construction of four prototype houses planned in Gurley this year.  That project, he said, would serve to establish the costs as well as to familiarize local builders with the process of working with the technology.

"We're going to do it ourselves," he said, "and make sure that what we tell the people is authentic, to be able to build these houses at a reasonable price."

He also predicted the extra cost could be partly offset with savings in the expense of heating and cooling the concrete structures, and discounts in homeowners insurance.   Homes deemed adequately fortified can receive sizeable discounts in their premiums for wind damage coverage, although those discounts are much greater on the Gulf Coast than they are farther inland.

"Extra $40,000," McMahan guessed, "probably less than that.  To save, to be able to stay in the comfort of your home knowing there's a severe storm in your path.  And not have to leave and have the comfort of knowing you're going to be safe, you can't put a dollar on it."

"This is going to be a little more expensive than your average home as far as stick-built," said McMahan. "But, like the three little pigs, what would you rather have, a house built of sticks or a house built of bricks?"

Blue was quick to clarify that "the house is tornado-resistant. It is not tornado proof," and Faroughi also said there will always be limits.

"If it's above ground, we can build the structures that can withstand the wind," he said. "But we cannot build anything that will withstand flying trucks in the air."

Foroughi said the extra expense of building a concrete house has indeed proved daunting for some of his customers too, with some abandoning the idea but others pressing ahead by economizing elsewhere in the construction, choosing cheaper lighting or plumbing fixtures, or deferring those granite countertops.  He said he welcomed any change that brought more concrete and fewer wood frame, or "stick built," homes.

"With all the storms that come around, people are recognizing that it's well worth it to make that sacrifice and get something that is stronger… versus just build a house like everybody else's and then all of a sudden the house is gone."

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