To demonstrate the viability of alternative materials, several bold custom builders assembled an unusual showcase of pricey homes. By Matthew Power
Omaha, Neb., seems an unlikely spot for a cutting-edge development--with massive homes constructed of steel, insulating concrete forms (ICFs), structural insulated panels (SIPs), and engineered lumber. But a handful of local builders had the will and the skill to work outside the stick-built safety net.
Called the Showcase for Better Built Homes, and organized by the Omaha-based home planning firm Design Basics, this unusual project allowed area builders to demonstrate the viability of six leading-edge construction technologies. The idea, according to director of business development, Paul Foresman, was "to let builders see the advanced building methods and products firsthand ... and to give them new ideas for bolstering their companies in their respective markets."
While the intent was noble, their timing could have been better. Just as the homes came to market last July, priced from about $400,000 to $600,000, the bottom fell out of the stock market. Many prospective buyers chose, instead, to hold on tight to their tattered portfolios.
"I don't think the market will ever come back as hot as it was in the '90s," says builder Jerry Kessler, whose 5,600-square-foot ICF showcase home had not sold at the time of this writing. "But, on the other hand, you really need a model like this to get people interested. What's happened is this house has generated leads for us for homes in the mid-$200,000 range." Design driven
"We receive thousands of inquiries a year regarding these methods of construction," says Foresman. Design Basics has delineated itself among home planning companies, with a special market niche for alternative construction. "We wanted to allow people to see them firsthand and compare the benefits themselves." Foresman adds, "The homes were built on $70,000, one-acre wooded lots in Heidi Hollo West, a subdivision 10 miles northwest of Omaha. Builders from around the country and as far away as the Bahamas came to see these leading-edge building methods and products."
In terms of visitors, the project has had great success. Foresman estimates traffic of more than 10,000 people when the showcase opened in mid-July.
Builder gauntlet What did builders gain by using these less mainstream systems? Short answer: labor savings and the ability to sell a new niche. But typically, these perks have to be discovered on the job--only after obstacles are addressed. Subcontractors (electrical and mechanical), for example, often put up resistance. But in virtually every home on this project, even the most stubborn subs learned to like aspects of the alternative systems.
Not every experiment worked perfectly, of course. Kessler, for instance, purchased custom windows with extremely wide jambs to fit in his ICF walls. Those wider walls are a common complaint among builders used to standard wall thicknesses. But the windows didn't work out.
"The windows were so big they tended to rack," he says. " We spent a lot of time on site trying to straighten them out. We might have been better off if we just built out the jambs on site." Other builders had to find entirely new ways of engineering. Builder Mike Nelson of Nelson Homes wanted to suspend a garage floor and leave a usable space underneath. His solution: prefabricated 2-foot-wide, 8-inch-thick concrete joists that support the weight of an automobile.
"They're called Flexcor, and they're made by Concrete Industries out of Lincoln, Neb.," he notes. "Those allowed us to double our garage space with upper and lower floors."
Like many alternative building projects, the Showcase for Better Built Homes delivers what it promises--an education. Builders have come away from it with new options to offer their clients, a realistic sense of the hidden costs, and a hands-on knowledge of how to install alternative materials.