Rouge Business Report
REAL ESTATE --
Living in the future
South Louisiana needs a lot of new
houses--fast--and that has innovators saying the next evolution of home building
Seth Fox ,
Staff writer -- Posted 3/28/06 09:04am
Katrina and Rita left more than 200,000 houses in
Louisiana in need of rebuilding, according to Louisiana Economic Development.
The longer they wait, the more grave the impact on recovery.
The scale and speed required have many saying conventional stick-built home
building--in which lumber is cut and fastened together largely on-site--is not
up to the job.
"It's a fairly slow and inefficient process," says LED Assistant Secretary Don
Stick-built houses typically take between three and
12 months, depending on size and complexity.
That has created an opening for entrepreneurs jockeying to present their
production technology as the future of housing. Two dozen companies with
innovative building materials or systems have approached LED with ideas for
rebuilding South Louisiana.
If one of these new technologies can prove itself, producing houses that look
like regular houses but are faster to build and cost-competitive, it could
remake the industry. And if that happened, south Louisiana--including Baton
Rouge--would become Ground Zero for the future of home building.
Enter "systems building," a blanket term that describes a number of technologies
for mass-producing large parts of houses in a factory. On-site, the house is
then assembled more than built. But the end result is a regular house, not a
"You can produce high quality in a factory environment," says Rodney Cobi, whose
firm, Center for Landscape Interpretation, has been working to bring systems
building to Louisiana for years.
Because systems-built houses favor framing in fiberglass, steel or concrete,
they are also more resistant to wind and mold, not to mention termites.
Where less-traditional home building typically falls short, though, is price.
Non-wood homes typically sell at 10% to 15% higher than stick-built, says LED's
Director of Advanced Materials Jim Landry. But couple increased demand for wood
with stricter building codes in high-risk areas, and wood may lose its price
"It's going to make other markets somewhat more competitive," Landry says.
James Antonic, president and CEO of Composite Building Structures, believes he
has found the perfect material for systems building -- a resin-coated fiberglass
he says can withstand 300 mph winds.
Antonic leads the post-Katrina systems building
pack. He is finalizing plans for a plant along New Orleans' Industrial Canal and
even eyeing an eventual Baton Rouge facility at Kansas City Southern's geodesic
dome north of town.
At Antonic's plants, a house design -- any house design -- is fed into a
computer, and then a series of machines produce fiberglass panels, cut them to
size and label where each goes. It takes less than an hour. The panels are
erected at the site using cranes in a matter of days. A builder then adds the
interiors and facade.
On price, Antonic says research he's conducted in Louisiana, Vancouver and
Florida shows he can already match the cost of wood.
Louisiana Steel Frame Homes' co-owner Frank Vautrot touts steel as the next
wave. A steel frame can be assembled in about a week. The on-site building
process doesn't differ much from traditional stick-built homes, but steel speeds
up the process because much of the frame is factory pre-assembled before the
slab is even poured.
Although most people think of steel as a commercial building material, the
Church Point-based company has residential clients who want steel for its
straighter, truer walls or its resistance to wind and insects.
But Vautrot admits, "For all the advantages [steel] has, initial price is not
one of them."
That may be a temporary glitch. "For a long time steel was stable," he adds.
"Generally, steel prices didn't fluctuate for 30 years."
And increased lumber costs may reduce the cost-gap.
Not all mass-production methods use new materials. Louisiana Manufactured
Housing Association Executive Director Steve Duke says today's modular houses
feature the same materials as a traditional on-site stick-built houses, but with
added efficiency and speed of completion. Duke says a modular house can be up
and habitable in about two months.
That's because, as with steel, much of the construction happens in a factory.
Then the modular parts are delivered and assembled on-site. The line between
stick-built and modular is already blurred. Some parts of stick-built houses,
such as roof-trusses, arrive pre-assembled.
Duke is working hard to shake his industry's trailer-park connotation. Modular
housing, he says, can meet the same safety requirements and building codes as
other methods, and the end result can be customized depending on which modules
are brought in.
Also, because modular housing be built outside the area, it can be insulated
from local cost pressures cost on materials and labor.
Scott Machardy's New Mexico-based concrete home-building company, Pumice-crete
Building Systems, typically aims at a middle- to high-end custom buyer. But he
believes his method would work in New Orleans.
"It's also applicable to affordable housing," he says.
Pumice-crete builds on-site, not in a factory, but the method is simple and
fast. A house's walls are framed in plywood molds, then a lightweight,
low-density concrete is poured in. Casting takes one day, and the 14-inch walls
require no additional insulation or structural components.
Once the concrete is dry, the plywood is removed and reused.
Along with insect prevention, Machardy
says concrete trumps stick built homes on sturdiness. "You're not relying on
nail connections and screws into wood," he says.
Others are thinking way outside the box -- and in containers. Shipping
containers, to be specific, the kind that float by Baton Rouge on barges.
In architecture schools and magazines, recycled shipping containers are being
offered as the next great solution for low-cost buildings.
The containers are found in ports, where the trade deficit has resulted in
mountains of empties. Punch out windows and install wires, plumbing and
insulation, et voila: instant modernist house. Projects have already popped up
in the northeast, California, Australia and the U.K. in recent years.
The big selling point for the containers -- beyond their availability -- is they
can be stacked without buckling or otherwise failing. And price is no obstacle.
New Jersey architect Adam Kalkin's Quik House kit is a three bedroom, 2.5-bath
house made from five containers, available finished at about $90 a square foot.