New home offers storm safety, energy savings

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 29, 2006

When Lori Cummings was a child growing up in Galveston County, Texas, she heard stories of the devastating hurricane that struck Galveston at the turn of the last century.

&uot;My great-grandfather survived the 1900 storm that killed thousands by swimming from house-top to house-top with his three children on his back. They lost everything they had, but they stayed and rebuilt,&uot; Cummings recalls.

She experienced Hurricane Alicia, a Category 3 storm, first-hand when it hit Galveston in 1983.

&uot;I remember walking outside during the storm and seeing my neighbor’s home totally disarranged. The roof was on the bottom of the house, and the furniture was all over the yard. I can still smell the sea air and see the purple sky when I think about that moment.&uot;

A longtime Butler County resident, Cummings says she never thought she would seriously have to worry about hurricane damage when she moved to the Greenville area.

&uot;Hurricane Ivan proved me wrong. Then we saw Hurricanes Katrina and Rita do their damage…re-building is not something I would want to do. I want a home that will withstand a storm,&uot; Cummings stresses.

She found her solution in a seemingly unlikely place.

&uot;My husband Jeff says he’s building my ‘concrete castle’ for me,&uot; Cummings laughs.

That’s right. Cummings’s new 6,000 square-foot dream home, located ten miles north of Greenville on Highway 31, is being constructed from concrete.

A concrete castle?

As a consumer reporter for Alabama Public Television, Cummings was accustomed to researching ways for homeowners to make the most of their money.

&uot;I logged onto the Internet and looked for ways to make my new home more energy efficient. Three letters kept popping up – ICF, Insulated Cement Forms. I read every article I could find. I e-mailed every block manufacturer I could find,&uot; Cummings says.

In the end, Cummings became a &uot;true believer’ in building a home out of ICF, such a believer, in fact, Thad Tobaben, general sales manager of Omaha, Nebraska-based Tritex Corporation, says Cummings &uot;probably knows more and understands the product better than I do.&uot;

&uot;Lori’s been a champion of our cause. She knew what she wanted, she stayed with it, and she is seeing it get built,&uot; Tobaben says.

‘A big Lego block’

ICF looks &uot;a lot like a big Lego block made from foam insulation,&uot; Cummings explains.

While she found several different types of blocks on the market, the homeowner chose Tritex blocks &uot;because they more affordable and still offered the same features.&uot;

Tobaben describes the TriTex block as a &uot;cost-competitive, energy-efficient, storm-resistant material that is contractor friendly and beneficial to the consumer.&uot;

TriTex, a three-year-old offshoot of a sister ICF company, was created to target the residential market, Tobaben says.

&uot;We don’t have a tremendous amount of overhead…we are able to offer homeowners an ICF home for only about four to ten percent more than they would expect to pay for a traditional stick-built home.&uot;

Tobaben also describes ICF as a user-friendly product. &uot;If trained properly, any contractor can use this product quite easily.&uot;

While finding a builder in the area took some time and effort, it turned out

local contractor Randall Nicholas was interested in learning the ICF building process.

&uot;Randall had been asked to build ICF homes in the past but didn’t know how. Tritex had two fellows from Huntsville come down and stay in the area for two months, training Randall’s crew,&uot; Cummings says.

&uot;It made the building process take a little longer, but it certainly worked out to both our and Randall’s advantage.

He says ICF is the future (of home construction).&uot;

Standard home plans, such as the ones Greenville's Ward Thigpen had drawn up for Cummings, can be easily adapted for use in an ICF home, Cummings says.

Weathering the storm

After last year’s hurricane season, Cummings was certain she wanted more than energy efficiency. She also wanted the most storm-secure home possible within the family’s means. She believes she will have it with her new ICF home.

&uot;An ICF home is a safe house during a storm. With proper reinforcements, concrete construction cuts shifting and vibrations. It’s superior to wood frames when it comes to high force winds,&uot; Cummings said.

&uot; ICF homes can withstand up to 225 mile-per-hour winds. That’s a Category 5 hurricane or an F5 tornado. ICF is also expected to withstand earthquakes better than stick frame homes.&uot;

Of course, IFC homes are not entirely storm proof, Tobaben cautions.

&uot;You can still have some roof damage and subsequent water damage, but the bulk of the structure is still going to be there, with your exterior and interior walls still standing,&uot; the Tritex manager says.

Cement is fire and heat resistant, with some insurance companies giving discounts for owning a cement home.

ICF is also soundproof, perfect for a very musical family.

&uot;My oldest son Cory plays the electric guitar. His brother, Aaron, plays the drums. Even my husband plays the harmonica and sings. We put ICF walls around the new music studio over the garage…no more of me having to say, ‘Guys, that’s enough,’&uot; Cummings laughs.

Energy savings

Heating and cooling nearly 5,000 square feet of living space may sound like an expensive proposition. But Cummings is confident she will actually save money on energy costs compared to her previous home.

&uot;According to the Insulating Concrete Form Association, cement houses built with ICF blocks require 44 percent less energy to heat and 32 percent less energy to cool than a stick frame home,&uot; Cummings says.

ICF walls use polystyrene foam, which helps cut the conduction losses through the foundation and the above-grade walls by 50 percent. The six- to ten-inch cement center also takes up to six hours to change temperatures, so heating and cooling equipment doesn’t run as much as in a wood frame house.

&uot;A close friend of mine built a 4,500-square-foot ICF home and found that, in January, during the peak of winter, her electric bill was only $62,&uot; Cummings says.

The homeowner says she can already tell the difference ICF will make.

When a friend recently stepped inside Cummings’ new home, still under construction, Cummings says the visitor was startled at the dramatic difference in temperature.

&uot;She asked me if we had the air conditioner on…I swear, it felt about 30 degrees cooler in there than it did outside. I think in a few years we will definitely recoup the additional costs in building ICF through the energy savings.&uot;

When completed, the Mediterranean-style home will have a brick facade, providing further insulation benefits, Cummings says.

&uot;If you are considering building a new home, look into building with ICF. Your dream home will not only become a reality, it will be there for an eternity and you can afford your energy bills even after retirement.&uot;

And no matter how much huffing and puffing storm season may bring, it won’t likely blow this Butler County house down – or take away its power.

&uot;We’re having a built-in generator put in, too. No more going without electricity for a week as we did after Katrina,&uot; Cummings says with a smile.