Article No: 134

2006-05-02 14:18:46
Canadian Hybrid basks in Texas sun
By: Carole McMichael

Photography courtesy of E.S. Bussey & Associates Inc.

Many good things come to the United States across the Canadian border. One of them is the Royal Building System, manufactured by Royal Building Technologies, a multibillion-dollar company located in Toronto, Canada. Royal started out in vinyl forming and PVC products, making the creation of its concrete forming system a natural development.

The Royal Building System is a hybrid, combining the concrete forming concept and rigid polymer components into a vinyl forming system that remains in place after the pour. This creates a finished surface in a variety of colors, though the surface may also be covered in traditional finishing materials. The modular wall forms, which are prefabricated and cut to length, are extruded in 4-inch, 6-inch and 8-inch widths by the same depth. (Picture a square pipe standing upright: If a wall is 20 feet tall, that one piece will be that length.) Interlocking channels allow the pieces to slide together onsite to form a wall.

Each form has three vinyl layers, .25-inch thick, to which 2.125 inches of polyurethane, factory-applied foam insulation and concrete are added. There is vinyl on both sides of the foam, which is always against the exterior side of the wall, allowing the system to maximize the thermal characteristics of concrete. Once the concrete reaches its core temperature, it radiates heat.

"Structurally, this system far surpasses what many of the ICFs can do," said Jeff Bussey, president of E.S. Bussey and Associates Inc. and owner of Royal Custom Homes in San Antonio. "Because it has interior webbing combined with steel, it can provide a wind-load capacity in excess of 180 miles an hour."

E.S. Bussey and Associates Inc. has been a family-owned business since 1908. Known for high-end custom homes, the business has grown over the years to include a company dedicated to historical restoration, another dedicated to remodeling, and three years ago, one dedicated to building concrete homes.

"We got interested in concrete because we do so much historical restoration and repairs on homes that were full of rot and termite damage," said Bussey. "About one in three homes have termites. It is a severe problem that could be related to materials or techniques or environmental changes. Taking those factors into consideration, we were trying to find something to eliminate them and one, still maintain quality, and two, build something that would be affordable in the marketplace."

Bussey wanted a technology that was failsafe, but that didn't require a lot of high-tech, skilled crews to put up the homes. Every one of his criteria was met by Royal Buildings System - with a plus: Royal owns everything from oil wells to petrochemicals, so the volatility in world markets doesn't affect their pricing. They ship all across the country in sheer volume, passing those savings on to the customers.

"I haven't had a price increase in years," Bussey said. "I take advantage of their cost structure, so I can produce our homes below what other builders are selling theirs at. Compared to wood, we are about 10 percent cheaper. Part of the savings is that we can put a house together in a minimal amount of time. Royal has already worked out all the bugs. I give them my plans; they give them to their computer programmers, who digitize them and send them to the factory. All components are manufactured to the proper length. When Royal precuts the forms, each piece is numbered to match our job-site layout. Then the forms are trucked to us and unloaded by our crew. Once we have trained a crew to do one project, they know exactly what to expect just because of the simplicity of the system."

At the preplanning stage, Bussey finds it more cost-effective to include a plan designer and engineer. For the Fairway Bridge subdivision, which features middle-range pricing of $250,000 to $300,000, he works with seven plans that are designed to fit the architectural style in San Antonio and maximize the benefits of concrete technology.

"You can accommodate any style in concrete," Bussey said, "but when you get a lot of architectural details, the price creep can put you back in line with all the other methods. We want to be competitive, so we've designed plans that take advantage of the Royal System.

"We don't involve subs at this stage, but we do go out and train electricians, sheet rockers and plumbers. We have a lot of technical manuals from Royal to share with them. The contractors in San Antonio are willing to learn something new; our plumbing contractor took a real interest in it. We also sub out the shell to two companies that we trained onsite. Once their crews understand the numbering system, they can just take off. Out of all the systems, this requires the least amount of labor."

The Summer Glen House
The 4,758-square-foot, one-and-a-half-story Summer Glen house is one of Bussey's high-end custom projects using the Royal Building Systems. It involved extensive custom marble work, interior hand-tooling and plastering, and plenty of faux finishing and imported wallpaper. The residence includes a walk-in saferoom with 6-inch solid concrete walls, a plate-steel ceiling and a 4,000-pound steel door, counterbalanced so it can open and close with one finger. The interior walls are sheet-rocked; the exterior finish is stucco. The floor plan is very open and bright. Except for the thick windowsills, you could never tell it is was a concrete home.

"Our foundations are engineered slab on grade," Bussey said, "and have a little bit more steel than a non-concrete wall system. Some areas have a lot of clay, but most of our homes are built on rock. After the foundation is in, we put in vertical dowels 20 inches out of slab. They are drilled and epoxied between 6 to 9 inches into the concrete. The engineer tells us where to put them in. Then we take the first corner piece and slide it over the dowel. At the bottom, we have the two-by-two guides attached to the slab temporarily. For corners, I have some prefab steel angles that hold a true 90-degree angle. Then we continue to install the vertical forms - put the steel in, true it, plumb it and then pour the wall.

"Once a component is in place, we slide the next component into the interlocking channel from the top. You can do this with a crane, but we find it easier to do by hand. We have trained other ICF users in this system, and they can't believe how fast it goes together. The foam is not going to get damaged, as can happen to styrofoam pieces on some ICFs. It is hard vinyl, so there is nothing that can go wrong on a component when being put together. You don't have to worry about the wind blowing it around or it getting rained on or stepped on and breaking.

"You don't need any outside bracing; it is all internal within the channel. Our engineer sets rebar about every 20 to 30 inches, depending on loading capacity of the roof. The webbing gives a tremendous amount of resistance to the concrete. Also, the way it is designed, you can pour a 40-foot wall. As the concrete falls, it truncates, folding in on itself, and forces the air out laterally, so the concrete doesn't separate from the aggregate and the wall maintains its structural integrity from top to bottom. The webs are cored, helping to provide a truer, continuous pour, eliminating blowouts. Once we pour, we take rubber mallets and tap on the wall. That tells us very quickly if we have any problem areas.

"All the framer has to do is the roof and partition walls. Everything is all plumb and squared. The framers and sheet rockers love this system. They can put a nail anywhere in the wall."

There is a bare channel inside the form designed to hold the wiring. When the client wants to change the wiring later for telecommunications or television, new wiring can easily be put in place. Bussey runs many copper lines in the slab, but if the plumbing has to run in the concrete wall, he installs a sleeve for it. Whatever the homeowner dictates will work in this system, according to Bussey.

In San Antonio, it can be 32 degrees in the morning and scorching hot in the afternoon. "The best type roof in San Antonio is a combo metal roof and cool-plied deck of Oriented Strand Board with foil facing," said Bussey. "That will keep the attic about 15 degrees cooler, and the metal roof will radiate the sun's heat out into the atmosphere. The OSB is placed outside of the rafters, with the foil facing the attic interior. I've been in the attic; it is not a marketing ploy. We also have continuous soffit vents all the way around the house and ridge vents in the attic, also. Add this together with concrete walls, and you have one energy-efficient home. Once you see the impact it makes, you're reluctant to build with anything else."

The house is heated with gas and some radiant floor heating, which is not needed everywhere because concrete keeps the internal temperature fairly steady. It is shut off in the evenings so there won't be a heat buildup. When the project was in process, before the heating was working, it only took the heat from light bulbs to make the 58-degree work space comfortable. The Royal system not only keeps the structure tight, but with the vinyl facing, it provides a barrier totally impermeable to moisture and produces no off-gassing. Still, the downside of the tightness of concrete homes is that it could create air-quality problems. To address this potential problem, Bussey included two air exchangers to bring in fresh air.

The take on marketing
Bussey's business philosophy is that his company doesn't build concrete homes, but rather homes that happen to be concrete. Consequently, he doesn't market his houses as concrete homes.

"What distinguishes us is our interior finishes," Bussey said. "They look crisper and cleaner. It is pure aesthetics."

Although building with a concrete forming system is not a selling point to Bussey's clients, it is to him. Besides being able to build a better product, he relies on it as a form of insurance against termite, mold and rot problems. That cuts down on after-sale maintenance and warranty work.
Bussey also noted that if a builder plans to build concrete homes, he needs to be passionate about it and ready to educate the subs, insurance companies and the lending community for mortgage underwriting. "Anytime you introduce something new, you have to educate," he said.

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