Friday, October 5, 2007
An À La Carte Menu Of Construction Choices
September 22, 2007
New Orleans Times Picayune
New Orleans recovery director Ed Blakely announced last week that his office is building a Recovery Village in City Park to showcase alternative construction methods. Things such as SIPS, concrete panels, steel frames and modular houses.
It's a language I've been studying for two years now. And, while I'm all for introducing New Orleanians to quick and cost-efficient methods of building, I'm not sure Blakely realizes how many locals already have jumped on that bandwagon.
In a city that touts its ties to the past, storm victims are showing a growing willingness to embrace building methods of the future. Especially if it means getting up a house in a hurry.
Modular homes are popping up all over town, and steel and concrete systems are more than curiosities these days. Slidell has a factory producing ICFs, or insulated concrete forms, and a couple of steel-frame manufacturers have set up shop in the area.
Now you can add SIPS -- a structured insulated panel system -- to the list. OceanSafe Housing, based in New York, plans to have a local factory turning out its lightweight, pre-engineered panels by the end of the year. Company officials say they hope to build as many as 5,000 houses in the area, and celebrated the second anniversary of Katrina by unveiling the first local OceanSafe home, in Lakeview.
"This is what rebuilding is all about -- making construction better than what it was," said CEO Vincent Basilice, an eye surgeon who became interested in hurricane-resistant housing after seeing Hurricane Andrew's devastation in Florida. "I saw that the only thing left standing were the refrigerated boxes at the hotels."
The concept behind SIPS construction is simple: Preconstructed, insulated steel panels are snapped together using a tongue-and-groove locking system, creating an airtight outer envelope that goes up in days. The interior is finished with traditional drywall, allowing flexibility in floor plans.
"It's a high-performance house," Basilice said. "The way the panels come together uses a cleating system, and we use the densest foam (for insulation) we can."
Windows have a 156-mph wind resistance, and the insulated panels cut energy usage by two-thirds. Because windows, skylights and doors are precut at the factory, there's no waste. Walls can be cut to virtually any height, and placed on either a traditional slab or a raised foundation. The Lakeview house is raised 8 feet, built over a parking area with breakaway walls in case of flooding.
Construction costs are competitive, says Basilice. "You can build a nicely equipped house for $110 to $115 a square foot." The CEO also says he has worked out a deal with AIG to insure and warrant his houses at national homeowners' policy rates.
So far, about 10 house designs, sold as kits, are available from the company, found online at www.oceansafehousing.com. Delivery of materials -- at least until a local factory is up and running -- takes about three months. A crew certified in steel SIPS building has to erect the house, which can be arranged through OceanSafe.
Basilice envisions multiple applications for the system, including schools, commercial buildings and special-use facilities.
"Within the next 10 years, this will be the way to build your next house," he said.
Maybe. Certainly, SIPS construction will be one of an evolving number of choices for future builders. Even traditional stick-building is taking advantage of technology, with new and better pressure treatments and recycled materials.
And all of it means that we're getting a touch more progressive here about construction choices. In a city where progress is measured in inches, that's good news.
A CONSTRUCTION PRIMER
"Alternative" construction refers to alternatives to traditional wood-frame housing. But even old-fashioned building methods are getting greener. Here's a look at some local building options.
Stick-built. The term refers to wood-frame construction, which offers a number of newly improved pressure-treated materials that resist termites and mold. With hurricane trusses and ties, wood-frame homes can be wind-resistant, too. Pros: Cost and design versatility. Cons: Takes longer. See National Association of Home Builders at www.nahb.org.
Modular. These are built at a factory in modular units, which are mounted onto a foundation on-site. They must meet the same building codes and pass the same inspections as stick-built. Pros: Cost and speed of construction. Cons: Lack of design versatility. See Modular Building Systems Association at www.modularhousing.com.
SIPS. Structural insulated panel systems sandwich a foam core between two steel skins. The panels interlock, forming an energy-efficient, weather-tight building envelope. Pros: High performance and speed of construction. Cons: So far, not many SIPS systems are widely available here, and construction crews aren't yet familiar with their installation. See Structural Insulated Panel Association at www.sips.org.
ICF. Insulating concrete forms are foam insulation molds into which concrete is poured on-site. The forms then stay as part of the wall. Pros: High performance and durability. Cons: As with SIPS, ICF systems are not widely available here yet and crews aren't always familiar with them. See Insulating Concrete Forms Association at www.forms.org.
This Lakeview home built with SIPS panels combines hurricane resistance with energy efficiency. The builder, Oceansafe Housing, will be among those offering alternative construction choices to consumers at The Gulf Coast Building and Remodeling Expo, being held Friday through Sept. 30 at the Morial Convention Center.
Before Buying a Prefab
SEARCHING for a vacation home to complement nearly 50 acres in Pope Valley, Calif., Dan Edmonds-Waters studied home designs online, visited a factory and even traveled to Missouri to tour a house. All this in his quest to find the perfect prefabricated home.
Some designs didn’t have his desired upgrades and finishes, he said, while many floor plans that looked spacious online felt cramped when he saw the actual houses.
“The rooms were too small,” Mr. Edmonds-Waters said. “There is no substitute for seeing a house in person. It’s like test-driving a car.”
He and his partner eventually decided on a four-bedroom plan with a modernist look from the architect Rocio Romero, whose Perryille, Mo., company designs and makes prefab homes. The house fit their budget and was built in about 10 months at a cost of $300 a square foot, including installation and finishes. This, he said, was much less than a custom-designed modernist home, which would have “cost a fortune” because the architecture fees alone could have topped 17 percent of the overall costs.
Makers and designers of prefab houses promote the magic combination of less construction time and, often, lower building costs, because most of the work is done in a factory. They also appeal to second-home owners who want to avoid constant visits to the construction site. But as the prefab field grows, you need to do your legwork.
Prefab is an umbrella term that covers any home partly built in a factory. It includes everything from modulars that arrive in just a few sections — complete with attached walls, flooring and even finishes — to what are called panelized homes, which are delivered in smaller pieces. Manufacturers range from those focused on more modern designs to makers of Cape Cods and center-hall colonial styles.
With any designer, ask how many homes the firm has built and how many are in the pipeline, and arrange to visit a finished house. The growing prefab field has led many designers to jump in, but not all them actually have designs that have been built.
“There are a lot of designers doing computer renderings, but the number who have actually built homes is very small,” said Steve Glenn, chief executive and founder of LivingHomes in Santa Monica, Calif., which sells houses by two designers.
Finding the right design is about not just visual appeal, but also such practical issues as finding one that can actually be built on the site. After all, the house has to be delivered on a flatbed truck. And it can be nearly impossible to deliver a modular house to a site that is off a windy, narrow road or one off a route with low overpasses.
Prefab design firms also offer levels of hand holding that take owners through not only the design phase, but also the permit process and the final construction. In some cases, the owner is responsible for hiring a general contractor, while some firms, like Marmol Radziner Prefab in Los Angeles, where designs start at $235,500 for a 660-square-foot, metal-sided one-bedroom house with a deck (not including delivery or the cost of the foundation) take a comprehensive approach.
“We offer a full suite of services,” said Leo Marmol, one of the firm’s partners. “We not only design the house but we own our own factory, and we are a licensed general contractor.”
Also ask what changes can be made to plans and how complete the house is when it arrives from the factory, a variable that can affect construction time. Some modular houses arrive 90 percent finished, with light fixtures in place; others need considerably more work from a contractor.
Hive Modular, a Minneapolis firm selling homes that typically range from $140 to $200 a square foot (including delivery but not inclusive of certain changes to plans, like changing the exterior finish) teamed up with 10 factories to produce its designs. Not all of those factories are able, for example, to install the type of Italian bath fixtures that the company uses.
“The finish level can vary dramatically,” said Paul Stankey, a partner at Hive. “From our factory in Nebraska, houses arrive 95 percent completed. The tile is in, but not grouted. The cabinets are there and the flooring is down. Even the walls are painted.”