A Chinese twist in prefab homes

Builder develops energy-efficient foam concrete panels for quick construction

February 20, 2007|By Evelyn Iritani | Evelyn Iritani,Los Angeles Times

BEIJING -- In a dusty field on the outskirts of China's capital, Fan Zhi has built the American dream. The two-bedroom cottage comes with a front porch. The rocking chair is not included.

By capturing the attention of Americans weary of high heating bills and soaring construction costs, Fan hopes to turn this prefab home into the McBungalow of the homebuilding world. He claims his energy-efficient product, which can be assembled in less than three hours, can withstand hurricane-strength winds and wildfires.

Fan shouldn't have to go overseas to seek his fortune. Burdened with some of the world's most polluted cities and a skyrocketing bill for imported fuel, the Chinese government has launched a multibillion-dollar energy conservation campaign that includes tough restrictions on new construction.

But Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of construction, recently acknowledged that the government's efforts were failing because local officials weren't enforcing the laws. A survey by the Construction Ministry found that only 53 percent of new buildings were in compliance with the new energy-efficiency regulations, according to the local media.

Qiu ordered the developers of all new buildings to reduce their energy consumption for heating, lighting and air conditioning by 50 percent or risk losing their business licenses.

Fan, the founder of Beijing Taikong Panel Industry Corp., isn't optimistic that the government will win this battle. He estimated that it would be at least "five to 10 years" before there was a large market in China for his product, which costs about 20 percent more than those using traditional building materials. Since launching his home division last year, he has sold only a couple of dozen units.

"Look at all those homes," he said, pointing to a skyline filled with high-rise buildings and construction building cranes. "If you moved them to the United States or Britain, none of them would meet energy-efficiency standards."

That's why Fan is looking to America, where soaring energy costs and growing environmental awareness have spurred interest in eco-friendly architecture. Employment costs are also high, increasing the attractiveness of prefabricated homes, which can be built quickly using minimal labor.

"Our major aim is to build a few world-class brands, just like BMW or Mercedes-Benz," said Fan, who has been playing host to a steady stream of foreign visitors since the state-run China Daily published an article about his company several weeks ago.

During a recent visit by a delegation from Mississippi and Florida, a crew of nine, blue-jacketed workers at Fan's factory built a 680-square-foot home in less than three hours. A giant crane was used to swing the steel-framed panels into place and bolt them onto a concrete foundation.

Fan faces huge hurdles, including securing foreign government approvals for his unusual product. In the United States, for example, homes must adhere to dozens of federal, state and local building codes.

Fan's homes are produced using a patented technology that layers foam concrete and fiberglass netting to create a strong but relatively lightweight material. Fan started out in commercial construction in 1993 but shrinking profits prompted him to move into homebuilding last year.

Residential real estate prices in China are exploding in spite of the government's efforts to slow the market by raising property taxes, placing restrictions on foreign homebuyers and other measures. The average price of a single-family home in the capital last year topped $600,000, according to Beijing news reports.

Fan's finished homes aren't the cheapest on the market, selling for $37 to $49 a square foot in China (excluding land). He estimates that the price will double in the United States after taking into account shipping and some assembly costs.

But he pointed out that his building material offers substantial energy savings: a 7-inch- thick panel provides the same insulating capabilities as a 6-foot-thick brick wall. At an agricultural trade show in Beijing last summer, he built a zero-energy demonstration home using solar and wind power.

Homes built of concrete are gaining popularity in America, accounting for 17.9 percent of the overall market, an increase from 3 percent, said Jim Niehoff, an official with the Portland Cement Association, a trade group based in Skokie, Ill. But precast concrete panels make up less than 1 percent of the total.

Niehoff said concrete homes might cost 3 percent to 5 percent more than conventionally built houses, but homeowners can save a significant amount in energy bills and insurance. In some areas, however, it can be difficult to find contractors skilled in this type of building, he added.

Evelyn Iritani writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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