By Matthew Power. When Allan Anderson, a Petersburg, Ill., builder heard that a local family had contacted the University of Illinois looking for affordable housing help, he became a man with a mission.

"Here was someone in a rural area who has a child that's handicapped. They needed a house with high wind resistance and a good fire rating, where the whole house is accessible," says Anderson.

The builder had just learned about a new program created by the Portland Cement Association called Team Concrete. The program links builders with nonprofits to encourage the construction of affordable housing using above-grade concrete.

To meet the family's needs, yet still keep the home affordable, a class of graduate students in the university's architecture program held an in-house design competition--to create the right home at the right cost. They put forward six models.

Once the best-suited model had been selected, Anderson, as team captain, spoke to a local community college with a construction class eager to learn about building with insulated concrete forms (ICFs). That cut labor costs dramatically.

One of the things Anderson found was that these construction programs with junior colleges are very well supervised. Plus, students are happy to participate because they gain some real world education.

Habitat for Humanity also became involved in the project, selling the family interior doors and flooring at deep discounts. For interior framing, Anderson approached a nearby prison, which he knew had a construction program in place. He arranged for them to supply built-to-spec, pre-fabricated wall sections for the house.

"My big push all along has been to keep the support for this project at the local level," says Anderson. A lot of communities have a local housing authority with a nonprofit chapter attached. They understand how to make these things work.

Manufacturers also were willing to kick in to keep costs down. ICF maker AMVIC further shaved costs by reducing pricing on its forms for the project. And National Wheel-O-Vator offered a reduced price on a residential elevator to make the second floor part of the accessible plan.

Above-grade concrete walls, such as the ones shown here in a Habitat for Humanity home, can be poured in a day. Why concrete?

According to Anderson, poured-in-place concrete homes--especially those with insulated forms--make perfect sense for affordable housing, because they address not just initial cost but maintenance costs and lifestyle issues for the buyers.

"In Lubbock, Texas, city officials decided to reconstruct substandard housing. They looked at every system available and chose insulated concrete," Anderson recalls. "Now they're saving those people $40 a month on utilities, which is a substantial savings when you're in the low-income bracket.

"The thinking goes like this," he continues, "using an insulated concrete system may add $4 a month to the mortgage (over a similar-sized conventionally framed home), but that energy performance more than makes up the difference. An affordable house isn't necessarily one that is affordable to build. That's a common mistake. It's one that is affordable to live in and maintain."

Another benefit of concrete systems: extreme soundproofing. "A lot of times Habitat properties and low-income homes are built in less desirable areas," says Anderson, "near airports or highways, for example. What this does is allows them to have a quality of life (when inside) that they couldn't otherwise have."

Good foundations

Jim Niehoff, who represents the Portland Cement Association, says the Team Concrete program, which just rolled out in September 2002, has caught the imagination of a lot of people such as Anderson, looking for a way to help their communities--at the same time showcasing the labor savings, durability, and energy advantages of concrete construction.

At the recent International Builders' Show, Niehoff points out, an affordable Habitat for Humanity concrete home was erected near the convention center, then dismantled and shipped to Henderson, Nev., and re-assembled for a Habitat family.

Anderson says that the more local contractors and subs work with concrete forming, the faster they can get homes built--a major factor in keeping costs down. "In virtually every market, the demand for residential ICF construction far exceeds availability of a labor force to construct the homes. And it's not just for affordable housing. Once you know the system, you can translate it into market-rate and commercial projects.

"What we're trying to do is to sit down with the individual who says 'I really want to build this way, but I need help,'" Anderson explains. "With programs like this, we can work with the nonprofits, at the same time bringing the learning curve down (on concrete construction) in our local area. But it's not like you're on your own when you get into one of these projects. There's always somebody like myself who will be involved all the way through. And as we go, we'll learn quicker, more efficient ways to do it."