The house that Scott built

Concrete homes are energy efficient and built to last. So why are they such a hard sell?

When Scott Sundberg and his wife, Caroline, started building a new house in the Gulf Coast city of Pass Christian, Miss., eight years ago, they got a lot of strange looks. “People thought we were crazy,” he recalls. That's because the Sundbergs were building themselves a concrete house. Their new neighbours' bewilderment was probably akin to what Noah encountered when he was constructing his ark. Sundberg, a structural engineer by trade, decided that any house he built would have to stand up to the worst weather the area could dish out. “It seemed to me the only answer to hurricanes was to build with concrete,” he says.

Because he couldn't find a local contractor to take on his unusual project, Sundberg decided to build his hurricane-proof house himself, on weekends. Unfortunately, that meant it was only 85% complete when Hurricane Katrina ripped through Pass Christian and the rest of the Mississippi coast on Aug. 29, 2005. The Sundbergs were living in a rented house nearby that was definitely not hurricane-proof. “I wished to heck we'd been in our safe house,” Scott Sundberg says today. Instead, the couple tried to sit out the storm in a traditional wood-frame rental–until it began to disintegrate. Then they swam out the kitchen window and spent five hours clinging to an upturned sailboat until the storm passed.

A week later, they were finally able to venture back to the coast to see if their concrete house had survived. “We had to climb this 30-foot pile of debris to get back to our neighbourhood,” says Sundberg, still emotional from the ordeal. “The level of destruction was amazing. But our house was there and it was still standing.” Theirs was the only house left. “I used to have a two-storey condo development across the street from me,” says Sundberg. “Now I've got quite a view.”

The building material that Sundberg used for his indestructible house is called Insulated Concrete Forms, or ICF. Invented 40 years ago, the ICF house is very much a Canadian innovation. Ontario is North America's biggest market for ICF homes, and Canada is home to many of the continent's most important manufacturers of ICF products. As Sundberg can attest, concrete houses are windproof, insect-proof, bulletproof and far more energy efficient and durable than the garden-variety wood-frame house most Canadians live in.

But while the image of Sundberg's house standing alone in a field of destruction has become an icon for the ICF industry, selling concrete houses to North Americans faces some much stiffer challenges than mere 200-kilometre-per-hour winds and an eight-metre tidal surge.

IN 1966, Werner Gregori, a German immigrant to Canada, obtained the world's first patent for an ICF panel. His novel idea was to use two connected pieces of polystyrene as forms for poured concrete. Rather than standard wooden or metal forms that are removed after concrete sets, these panels would be left in place–vastly improving the insulation value. A professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., later helped Gregori refine his initial brainstorm. Today, ICF panels are easier to install, and they are far stronger, safer and more airtight than conventional wood-frame construction.

“The most airtight homes we see are ICF,” says Lenard Hart, director of business development at EnerQuality Corp., which runs the federal government's R-2000 energy efficiency program for Ontario. “To meet the R-2000 standards with a wood-frame house requires a lot of redundancy,” he notes. “You need vapour barriers, insulation and exterior wrapping all around the house. That is unnecessary with an ICF house.”

The extra labour required to install the ICF panels means a concrete house usually costs 7% to 10% more than a conventional wood-frame home. But according to research by the Cement Association of Canada, ICF cuts heating costs by some 44% and cooling costs by about 32%. That means savings of several hundred dollars per year for the average home owner. And there are other benefits.

Mike Heller has lived in his ICF home for almost five years. Part-owner of C&H Fire Suppression Systems of Kitchener, Ont., which installs sprinklers around the province, Heller knows a thing or two about construction. “I have seldom found a wood-frame house with pink insulation that didn't have black mould in the walls,” he says. “You don't get that with ICF. It is also extremely soundproof and fire safe. I can't understand why anyone would live in a stick-frame house anymore.”

Since Gregori's initial enterprise, Foam Form of Canada, many of the largest players in the North American ICF market today have also sprung from Canadian roots. Among them are three Ontario firms–Nudura Corp. in Barrie, Phil-Insul Corp. in Kingston and Arxx Building Products Inc. in Cobourg. The original Gregori design is now owned by American PolySteel LLC of New Mexico.

Despite all the benefits of building with concrete, however, ICF has barely made a dent in the domination of traditional wood-frame construction. U.S. figures suggest that ICF homes represent less than 5% of annual new home construction. No one compiles such data in Canada, but Murray Snider, part-owner of Nudura, estimates that it's no more than 5% here as well. Ontario tops the list in terms of residential square footage per year, followed by other cold-weather locales such as Minnesota, Quebec, Iowa and New York. While there has been a substantial increase over the past five years, particularly in the commercial building sector, the ICF home is still very much a novelty.

Paul Rawlings has been building ICF homes in London, Ont., since 1995. But most people in his business are reluctant to take a chance on something new. “Builders are risk-averse and under-capitalized,” he says. “Anything out of our comfort zone makes us nervous.” Rawlings specializes in high-end custom homes and relies on word of mouth to make his sales. He says it is very difficult to get other builders–especially tract builders–to adopt ICF, particularly when the industry is booming. The wooden house framed with two-by-fours is ingrained in the North American landscape.

To shift these perceptions, Rawlings thinks the industry needs to alter its marketing focus. “When we show home buyers the difference, we make sales,” he says. “I think this industry needs to become more consumer-driven.” Others in the business think the secret to greater acceptance lies in building a distribution network and courting liberal-minded builders rather than targeting home buyers. “As an industry, we need to stop focusing on the consumer and focus on professional contractors,” argues Nudura's Snider. While ICF makers puzzle over whether to target buyers, builders or distributors, one of the most dramatic and lucrative construction opportunities of the decade may be passing them by.

According to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, an estimated 275,000 homes will need to be replaced courtesy of Hurricane Katrina. And while similar rebuilding efforts in Florida after the 2004 hurricanes led to a greater acceptance of concrete building in that state, ICF makers appear to have their work cut out for them in the Deep South.

Concrete sounds good to Toni Wendel, president of the Greater New Orleans Home Builders Association. But she's so starved for information on ICF houses that she asks a Canadian reporter to give a presentation to her members. “I remember someone came down about five years ago to give us a seminar on concrete construction, but it never took off,” she says. “Louisiana is a stick-built state.”

Across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, Wayne Berggren is the municipal building inspector for the community of Mandeville, La. He also asks the reporter for a copy of the specifications for concrete residential construction. “I have the wood-frame specs but nothing for concrete,” says Berggren. “We also don't have any builders or sub-contractors that are familiar with these techniques. No one has any experience with it down here.”

That kind of talk exasperates Murray Snider. “We worked through the chamber of commerce in New Orleans to offer free training for any contractor who wanted to use ICF,” he says. “So far, nobody has taken us up on our offer.”

A host of factors have lined up in favour of ICF post-Katrina. Louisiana recently introduced a strict new building code that could reduce the price difference between wood and concrete. Some U.S. insurers offer discounts for homes that meet tougher building standards, which ICF houses have little trouble doing. Even Scott Sundberg has quit his day job to become an advocate for ICF construction. But whether Canada's ICF industry can take advantage of it all remains uncertain. “It will take time,” says Snider. “Right now, the people of New Orleans aren't thinking about the best way to rebuild. They're just thinking about how to survive.”

A concrete home might withstand hurricanes, save you a bundle on your energy bill and last for a hundred years. But it's not going to sell itself.