Where Better Houses are Born Testing: Research center pushes new building products and techniques to their limits.

July 28, 1996|By Jana Sanchez-Klein | Jana Sanchez-Klein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Photographs in the Real Estate section in last Sunday's editions of The Sun were credited incorrectly. The photos were provided by the National Association of Home Builders Research Center.

The Sun regrets the error.

They torch bathtubs. They rough up cultured marble fixtures. They deliberately try to destroy many products for new homes. What may sound like a fun time for a gang of vandals is really a day's work for the scientists in the laboratories of the NAHB Research Center in Upper Marlboro.

The laboratories test almost every major brand of bathroom fixture, insulation and other products used in new homes.

Scientists put them through a battery of tests that take these products to their limits. If a product can't withstand the tests, it can't be certified.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Product testing isn't required by law, but products are harder to sell without certification. The process is cooperative, with the manufacturers paying a fee to the center for the testing and certification.

Product testing and certification is just one of many services performed by the center, a not-for-profit subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group whose 160,000 members build about 80 percent of homes in the United States.

The research center develops state-of-the-art technologies that improve quality, energy efficiency and affordability.

It also educates builders and manufacturers in order to get new techniques and other improvements into the mainstream.

"Our most important mission is balancing innovation, quality and affordability for builders and consumers," says Liza Bowles, president of the research center, whose $7.5 million budget is funded by the NAHB, government agencies and manufacturers.

Long before innovative systems and materials find their way into homes across the country, they are being tested in the research center's Research Home Park in Bowie. The center has built four test homes there and a series of townhomes, each designed around a central theme.

The Home Systems Research House was built to examine gas systems and appliances. The Lifestyle 2000 House employs newer types of concrete masonry products. The Accessible Fire-Safe House was built to develop modifications for people with disabilities. The Resource Conservation House was built to demonstrate construction materials that conserve national resources.

Tours of these houses are arranged for homebuilders and manufacturers of homebuilding products.

"When I was looking to get into the area of accessible housing, I went down there and toured their house and used it to educate myself," says Dwight S. Griffith, president of Griffith Brilhart Builders in Fallston.

The newest additions to Research Home Park are four 21st Century Townhouses, each of which is constructed with alternatives to lumber and plywood, including steel frames or concrete blocks so light they float in water. One townhouse was made from plastic foam blocks filled with concrete.

"You stack the blocks up like Lego blocks. The centers are hollow. When you pour the concrete inside the blocks, it makes the wall," says Albert van Overeem, a project engineer with the research center who served as project supervisor on the townhouses. Steel bars provide extra support, and the forms remain in place to serve as insulation.

Each of these townhouses is extremely energy efficient. One is equipped with solar panels. "On a good sunny day, you can actually see the meter running backward," Van Overeem says.

The townhouses are equipped with SMART HOUSE automation systems, a unified management system that controls and coordinates security, lighting, cable, telephone and other electrical systems in the house. SMART HOUSE was developed by the research center before it was spun off into a profit-making corporation.

The building materials used in all four houses have national code recognition but are not widely used.

"Homebuilding accounts for 5 percent of the GNP, but it is tremendously decentralized," says Ralph Lee Smith, communications director for the center.

With most homebuilders being small, independent business people rather than part of a major corporate structure, it is very difficult to insure uniform quality standards or improve techniques for homebuilding.

The research center provides help and referrals to builders through an 800 number staffed by civil engineers during business hours. Although the center is a subsidiary of the NAHB, the engineers there will take calls from any builder, not just NAHB members.

During these telephone discussions, the engineers are almost as likely to learn as they are to teach, Smith says. "It's very much a two-way street, since the best ideas come from other builders."

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