Building stronger and faster

It's not unusual for people seeking to build new homes in the post-Katrina era to have a few basic requirements: The house needs to be built fast, and it needs to be built strong.

Since the 1960s and '70s, American homes have primarily been "stick-built" -- that is, constructed on site, on a foundation and from "sticks," meaning a wood frame.

However, alternative building materials -- such as steel, concrete or their hybrids -- can offer a greater level of hurricane resistance, insulation and moisture protection than conventional methods. And alternative building methods -- such as prefab and modular construction -- can offer the benefit of speed as well as security. Here's a look at a few of the prevailing choices.

SOLID WITH CONCRETE

Concrete homes have been around since the 1950s, but have never attained the kind of ubiquity enjoyed by stick-built homes. Concrete doesn't exactly connote flexibility, but many modern concrete products are highly adaptable. Autoclaved aerated concrete, for example, has the workability of wood -- it can be cut with a handsaw -- but offers the durability of concrete.

In contrast to traditional building's layers of studs, wallboard, wraps and insulation, concrete provides a uniform wall system, making it more energy-efficient, sound-resistant and easier to install.

"It eliminates layers and processes of traditional building systems," said Steve Gervasio, speaking for TruStone America at the recent city-sponsored Housing Solutions Summit.

Gervasio also cites fire resistance, termite resistance, mold resistance and decreased cost of maintenance as additional benefits of concrete homes.

Other concrete building systems include concrete blocks, "shotcrete," which is sprayed on to a surface, and insulated concrete forms, or ICFs.

ICFs are interlocking blocks or panels of rigid foam insulation into which concrete is poured. Buildings made from them require 44 percent less energy to heat and 33 percent less energy to cool, according to the Portland Cement Association. Although they cost slightly more than traditional homes, ICF fans say the houses make up for it in durability and energy savings.

"People in the building profession are used to a bottom-line mindset," Gervasio said. "But Katrina changed the way we look at construction. It's time to change the way we build and the materials we build with."

The market is beginning to agree. Mike Weber, a spokesman for the Portland Cement Association, reported that concrete homes now occupy 16.3 percent of the national market share. With increased awareness about energy-efficiency and sustainable building, concrete builders expect those numbers to "significantly increase," he said.

"In a market like the Gulf region . . . it just makes perfect sense," Weber said.

WALLS OF STEEL

Since the early 1990s, steel framing has been slowly but steadily rising in popularity. Steel-framed buildings currently hold a greater market share in the commercial sector, but organizations such as the Steel Framing Alliance see potential for growth in the residential market.

Most steel-framing methods provide hurricane resistance, withstanding winds of up to 190 mph, and offer greater protection from mold and fire than wood-frame houses.

One other selling point for steel is its green-friendly status as the world's most recycled material. According to reports by the Steel Recycling Institute, more than 70 million tons of steel were recycled in 2002. This reusability translates into a minimum 25 percent of recycled content in every steel-framed home and a 2 percent level of job site waste (compared with 20 percent for wood framing).

New Orleanian Russ Young, director of his self-named construction company, invested in steel in the mid-1990s. With the support of then-Mayor Marc Morial, Young started a steel factory that manufactured components for steel-framed homes.

One of these steel-frame homes, at the corner of Terpsichore Street and Simon Bolivar Avenue, was completed in 1997 and has been occupied ever since. Young says the home sustained no damage from Hurricane Katrina and was ready for re-entry after "just washing it off."

Young's steel manufacturing factory, however, did not fare as well. The factory closed several years ago, due to low demand for steel homes.

"We couldn't get the volume of stuff to maintain it," Young said. "We were just ahead of our time." However, he believes the speed of construction, energy-efficiency and strength of steel make it a tremendous resource for Gulf Coast residents who want to build smarter.

"We need steel homes more than ever," Young said. "The time is right."

INSULATED PANELS

Manufacturers are also harnessing the power of steel through structural insulated panels, also known as SIPs.

Two sheets of laminated steel form the exterior of the panel, which can hold any insulation material inside. Besides allowing for quicker construction, SIPs can have five times the insulation power of fiberglass batts alone.

There is even a panel structure that uses both concrete and steel: structural concrete insulated panels, or SCIPs. Green Sandwich Technology is a new SCIP product that features two thin shells of concrete surrounding a mixture of steel caging and rigid foam.

Green Sandwich advocates say it can stop a bullet from an AK-47 rifle, contains 40 percent recycled materials, is fire resistant and resists winds of up to 200 mph. Unlike insulated concrete forms, which can only be used to make walls, Green Sandwich can make an entire building envelope. The company recently opened a factory in eastern New Orleans and is building a model house onsite; residential construction should start in February.

"The mission is to do things properly," said Mehrdad Dabbagh, a local representative for Green Sandwich. "Construction has the potential to make a big difference, because it consumes and wastes most of the energy in the country."

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Contributing writer Molly Reid can be reached at .

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WHERE TO READ ALL ABOUT IT

-- For more on concrete homes, including a bimonthly e-mail newsletter on the latest innovations, contact the Portland Cement Association at or call (847) 966-6200. For more information about concrete homebuilding in Louisiana, contact the Concrete and Aggregates Association of Louisiana at (225) 293-5735, or visit .

-- For more on steel-frame homes, contact the Steel Framing Alliance at or (800) 797-8335.

-- For more on steel insulated panels, contact Green Sandwich Technologies at , or, locally, (504) 208-4370.

-- For more on the contemporary home kit designed by architect Rocio Romero, go to , or call (573) 547-9078.

-- For an overview of building strategies geared to our climate and environment, check out the Louisiana House, an actual residence built at the southeast corner of the LSU campus in Baton Rouge (next to the golf course) as a project of the LSU AgCenter. All of these technologies and many others pertaining to hurricane resistance, flood control, energy efficiency and other regional concerns are showcased in the residence, which is open for public tours every Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For directions and more information go to , or call (225) 281-4609. Call ahead for group reservations.

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