New building blocks Alternatives: High prices for lumber and low availability of craftsmen are driving up demand for new man-made building materials.

December 22, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Pity the poor termite.

With volatile lumber prices and a shortage of skilled craftsmen, builders are turning to new, easier-to-use man-made materials to construct today's homes.

Decks are being made of plastic. Frames are being made of steel. Walls are being made of concrete and polystyrene.

And the demand for alternative building materials is there.

"Buyers are wanting to be environmentally friendly as well as reducing the energy bill," says Ralph Lee Smith, spokesman for the NAHB Research Center, the research arm of the National Association of Home Builders.

Steel, plastics, engineered lumber, insulated concrete forms and aerated concrete blocks are among the new products being tested at the research center. So far, scientists have identified 22 alternative materials or systems suitable for home construction under most building codes.

Many of the new materials require less lumber and in most instances outperform standard wood products, builders say. And generally the cost is comparable, especially in a market which has seen lumber prices fluctuate from $350 to $550 per 1,000 board feet in recent years. (A 2,000-square-foot house requires approximately 15,000 board feet of lumber, according to the NAHB.)

"As lumber prices have increased and the quality of lumber has declined, we have been forced to look at new products," says Jay S. Van Deusen, president of Van Deusen Construction Inc., who is using many of the new materials.

At a $180,000 house in Bel Air, Van Deusen has built the porch floors of Trex, a product made from sawdust and plastic grocery bags. The boards, although three times more expensive than yellow pine, offer uniform straightness and a longer life expectancy, Van Deusen says.

On the same project, Van Deusen has used a product called oriented strand board instead of plywood for the house's sheathing. That material, made from the chips of small trees, costs 20 percent less than plywood but is much stronger.

The floor of the house is supported by 14-inch I-joists also made of wood chips and adhesives. The joists are so strong they can span 23 feet without support, compared with 18 feet for traditional lumber. The joists even come with pre-cut holes for wires and plumbing.

Rolf Wendt, a salesman for Trus Joist MacMillan, which makes the floor system, says the market for engineered wood is "exploding."

"It provides so many benefits for the homeowner," he says. The floor is virtually squeak-proof because the engineered lumber doesn't warp and bend like plywood.

Van Deusen says he has begun using the new products not only because they are superior to lumber, but also because they are easier to install -- an important feature because of what he sees as a shortage of construction workers.

He even has begun using man-made stones for fireplaces and chimneys because the stones made of concrete don't require stonemasons.

The partners at Advanced Building Structures in Monkton say their building system is not much more difficult to use than a child's Lego blocks.

"We can offer a job to people who wouldn't be able to have a job," says Greg Westra, vice president of operations for the company.

The company distributes an insulated concrete product called Blue Maxx. Light-weight, pre-cut polystyrene forms snap together and are filled with concrete to create the outer walls of a home or office building. The system eliminates the need for wood framing, plywood sheathing and insulation.

The walls cost about the same as lumber, but go up more quickly. Among the 100 advantages their system offers, they say, is superior protection from fire and tornadoes, reduced heating and air conditioning bills and less noise. And yes, it is termite-proof.

"It's not going to have an average life of 40 to 50 years like a wooden house. It's going to be around for hundreds of years," Westra says.

Westra says he had been building houses for about five years when he learned of the formed concrete system last year. The technique has been used in Europe for more than two decades, but is only starting to become popular in this country.

Advanced Building Structures began marketing the product about a year ago. Several homes are being built with the system in Virginia and others are planned in Maryland's Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

Another solution to the lumber dilemma is steel -- of which about 65 percent is made of recycled products such as old cars.

In January, the Council of American Building Officials will release its building code with the first prescriptive standards for steel framing. Those standards should make it easier for builders to win approval for steel-framed projects and increase the popularity of the method, according to the NAHB's Smith.

A few builders in Maryland already have tried steel.

Trafalgar House Residential of Maryland Inc. built five townhomes with steel frames four years ago. "Things went relatively smooth," said Michael Lance, the company's vice president.

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