Stylish houses in concrete smash cinder-block stereotype

A SOLID ALTERNATIVE

July 12, 1992|By Ellen James Martin | Ellen James Martin,Staff Writer

Bowie -- The siding is concrete. The walls are concrete. The floor joists are concrete. The ceilings are concrete. Even the roofing is done with concrete shingles.

Virtually everything in this 2,300-square-foot home model home here is made of concrete. And the concrete bears very little resemblance to old "cinder block" construction that has long implied dampness, cheapness or the mass production of industrial buildings.

To show the public and the building industry what can be done with today's concrete building materials, the National Concrete Masonry Association will formally open its "Lifestyle 2000" house in Bowie Thursday.

The demonstration home -- expected to be sold in the $250,000- $350,000 range -- is designed to show that concrete siding and walls can be as aesthetically appealing as those of brick or wood, says Jorge Pardo, the home's architect and a consultant to the concrete manufacturers' trade group.

Rather than using standard gray concrete blocks, Mr. Pardo designed the Lifestyle 2000 house making extensive use of concrete cubes that are colored with a speckled pigment and have a bricklike texture and look.

The concrete house -- one of four demonstration homes in the National Research Home Park, operated in Bowie by the National Association of Homebuilders -- has a colonial exterior and a contemporary interior with a living room featuring 17-foot ceilings. The house also features a hybrid natural gas and passive solar heating and cooling system.

"I think wood is beautiful and a perfect material for decorative use," Mr. Pardo says. But the architect, a native of Colombia, where concrete houses predominate, says concrete has many advantages over wood as a building material. It's more durable, fire-resistant and soundproof, he says. Furthermore, the owners of concrete homes rarely have a problem with termites and have few maintenance worries, he says.

Although mass production of concrete products is needed to bring down construction costs, a concrete home should eventually be 10 percent to 15 percent cheaper than a comparable wood home, Mr. Pardo says.

Still, several barriers are blocking the acceptance of concrete homes.

For U.S. builders, such as the Ryland Group based in Columbia, which builds about 7,000 homes a year and spends more than $30 million on lumber, the use of concrete has been restricted to poured foundations or slabs.

Ryland's extensive use of wood is tied less to the company's preference than to consumer choice, says Roger W. Schipke, Ryland's chairman of the board. "Consumers are the key to the whole game. If the concrete lobby can convince the American public that it's the best way to build, we'll be building in concrete."

"Buyers' acceptance is the big factor," agrees Earl Armiger, head of Orchard Development, an Ellicott City-based residential development firm. Although history and tradition favor the use of wood, he says, concrete homes could become more popular if attractive concrete products are introduced and if tradespeople learn to work with concrete.

Proponents of concrete housing say it should become more appealing in the future as the cost of wood rises.

"We've seen the end of an era of cheap housing made of wood. The price of wood is going to continue to escalate in the next few years. The myth that wood is a renewable resource is being exposed for what it is," Mr. Pardo says.

Most of the world already uses concrete as a primary building material for single-family homes and town houses, according to the architect. "Only the U.S., Canada, Japan and Scandinavia use wood. Everybody else uses concrete," he says.

Concrete is not without its down side as a building material -- apart from the obvious fact that it's heavy to transport and move around a building site.

"Concrete holds heat from the sun and, in the middle of the summer, it's very difficult to cool," says Mr. Schipke, the Ryland chairman.

But concrete manufacturers are developing methods to cope with the disadvantages of concrete and several of these adaptations are incorporated in the demonstration home, says Ralph Lee Smith, director of publications for the National Association of Home Builders. Some examples:

* To keep moisture from seeping into concrete blocks and creating dampness, the demonstration home uses foundation walls made of two halves of block held together by spacers, into which board insulation is inserted and concrete is poured.

* To allow for plumbing and electrical wires, the house's basement subfloor is built with blocks that have openings on all four sides.

* To provide light in the basement area, concrete masonry "light wells" bring daylight into the area.

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