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Originally published June 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 30, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Concrete houses | They cost more to buy, but owners will see savings in monthly bills

You usually can't spot a concrete house when you're standing outside or even inside one. Laura and David Owen didn't know that the two-story...

McClatchy Newspapers

Concrete construction


Insulating concrete forms: Commonly called ICF, they look like foam building blocks. The concrete is sandwiched between layers of polystyrene.

Removable forms: Concrete is poured into reusable metal forms. The basement, walls, floors, stairs and crown molding can be poured in place. The system is more popular in other countries, such as Mexico, than it is in the United States.

Concrete homes


For more information about concrete, contact the Portland Cement Association, Skokie, Ill., 847-966-6200, cement.org.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. —

You usually can't spot a concrete house when you're standing outside or even inside one.

Laura and David Owen didn't know that the two-story house they wanted to buy in Olathe, Kan., featured 18-inch-thick walls made of concrete reinforced with steel. When the builders made a big deal about the concrete construction, they shrugged.

"We made the decision to buy the house based on its looks," says Laura Owen, whose Old World-style home backs up to Cedar Creek golf course. "We just fell in love with it."

But after living in the house eight years, the Owens have experienced big differences compared with their previous home, a conventional wood-frame house in Overland Park, Kan. For starters, utility bills have been half as much in the concrete house, which is also twice the size.

The concrete house also is quiet. Inside the house on a recent afternoon, you couldn't hear the wind, passing cars, singing birds or the loud buzz of a string trimmer being used next door.

"It's so nice to come home to that peaceful quiet after a chaotic day of work," says Laura Owen, who owns a security-surveillance company with her husband. If they move in the future, she says, they would want another concrete home.

More concrete houses and apartments have been built following hurricanes in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Christy Martin, director of the Concrete Promotional Group in Overland Park, Mo., gets calls after tornadoes hit, including the recent one that destroyed much of Greensburg, Kan.

"People have been slow in shedding that mindset that a concrete house has to look like a boxy bomb shelter," Martin says. "A concrete house can look like any other house on the block" with vinyl or aluminum siding, stone, stucco or wood exteriors. The interiors are typically drywalled, so they also look similar to a wood-frame house.

Not only are potential homebuyers impressed by what they see, so are other builders, said Snohomish County builder Vladan "Milo" Milosavljevic, who said he has sold six such homes and has five more going up.

"Everybody was surprised to see a quality insulation factor [R-54] and the strength of the homes," he said.

Higher price, lower costs

Concrete houses cost 4 to 8 percent more nationally than traditional frame houses, depending on the floor plan and finishes.

A 2,000-square-foot home in the U.S. that is built of concrete will save about $200 in heating costs and $65 in air-conditioning each year, according to a study by the Illinois-based Portland Cement Association, the national concrete industry's trade group.

Homeowners insurance costs up to 25 percent less for concrete houses because they are more resistant to fire, high winds and pests.

More money can be saved on building a concrete house by using smaller heating and cooling equipment and by building a reverse story-and-a-half floor plan that incorporates living space on a lower level rather than adding a second story, says builder Steve Stewart of Independence, Mo.

"Just a few years ago, building a concrete house cost about 25 percent more than a stick frame," says Stewart, owner of Perfect Concrete, whose average home costs $350,000. "Now, after building more, they can cost about the same."

Building a concrete home is also less taxing on the environment, says Steve Thompson, the construction director for Heartland Habitat for Humanity in the Kansas City area. An abundant supply of natural and recycled materials goes into concrete, whereas more than three dozen trees are used on an average wood-frame home in the United States, he says.

"There's hardly any waste with concrete," says Thompson, who has been building homes for 30 years. "I firmly believe that 20 years from now, the majority of houses built will be from ICF."

Challenges

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the concrete-home industry is the lack of experienced builders. Some potential homebuilders face waiting lists for experienced builders. But that situation is shifting as the housing market has slowed.

"Builders are looking for ways to differentiate themselves, and some are turning to concrete," Martin says.

"They're more difficult to build," says Thompson. "Forms haven't been perfected to the point where they haven't blown out [collapsed]."

Last year, the concrete house Jack and Barbie Hylton built in Leawood, Kan., took less time than a typical wood-frame home. But the home did take more planning for the wiring, plumbing, windows and doors.

"You can't change your mind quickly," he says. "It's difficult to cut it all up and burrow into the foam [insulation]."

Once the couple and their three sons moved in, the biggest hitch they encountered was poor cellphone reception due to the thick concrete walls. The problem was solved by installing a booster amplifier.

"We researched a lot," Hylton says. "I would only own a house like this now."

Seattle Times business desk editor

Bill Kossen contributed to this report.

(Portland cement is an ingredient in concrete, named after a region in England where it was first manufactured.)

To see more concrete homes, go to concretehomesmagazine.com.

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