Article No: 15

2006-04-28 07:53:30
Home on the Hill

Sometimes great ideas come out of the blue and other times they grow out of very different dreams. Mary Sorenson, president of Cedar Hill Design Center Inc., has been in the interior design business for about 20 years. What started out as a search for more room for her firm has ended with Home on the Hill — a model house dedicated to educating professionals and consumers about energy-efficient products for building homes.

Home on the Hill is open to the public from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Cedar Hill Design Center.

"I've been in love with timberframe housing for a number of years," Sorenson said. "The concept for the model built off of that love. As I began to explore timberframing, I realized there was a real void in customer's knowledge about some of the products on the market.

"Typically, what was meant by custom design was maybe the clients selected their own floorplan, wallpaper, flooring and countertops, but they really weren't involved in the decisions, such as energy efficiency, that would have the greatest impact on their pocketbooks for years to come. After all, eventually mortgages stop, but utility bills never do. It makes sense as an investment to pay a little more to build an energy-efficient home during your earning years, so utility bills can be lower when you are no longer working."

Another pocketbook issue that is often overlooked when customizing is discussed is maintenance, which will affect everyday quality of life. When you reach retirement years, you don't want to put in long hours making repairs and trying to forestall the deterioration of a major investment — your house. At a time when your income is no longer going up to compensate for inflation, maintenance costs (in time and money) are likely to increase.

A third pocketbook issue is longevity. When people get serious about having a custom home built, they are often planning on a dream home where they can live for most of the rest of their lives, until they can no longer live independently.

Photo courtesy of Cedar Hill Design Center

"The further I went into energy-efficient issues," Sorenson said, "the more I realized that an ICF house was probably the best bargain going." She discovered ICFs when pursuing a basement for the new design center. Because she wouldn't give up on having a basement (even though "you can't build a basement in Texas"), builders directed her to Norman Williams of Vista Custom Homes. He turned out to be an Amvic Building System dealer who had been in the concrete form business for many years, using many of the different forms.

"He gave me a complete education on the pluses and minuses on each brand, what provided quality and ease of maintenance, as well as the long-term issues," Sorenson said. "He had a number of ICFs all set up and logically pointed out the strong and weak points of each. So once again, my thinking about what clients need to be exposed to evolved."
The mission

The mission of the Home on the Hill model is to educate architects, builders and their clients about energy-efficient, low maintenance, environmentally friendly building materials. When selecting materials for Home on the Hill, Sorenson would test them against those criteria. The fourth test question was, "is it beautiful?" she noted that you can build an energy efficient home that is really ugly. It may serve an excellent purpose, but be out of place. She is trying to teach people that you can incorporate energy-efficient and environmentally friendly aspects into a home and still have it situated in the middle of a metropolitan area, and meet all the masonry requirements, codes and community covenants.

"I'm not a flaming, hug-a-tree, environmentalist," Sorenson said, "but I believe in wise stewardship of the planet and wise stewardship of money to be able to live on. I would rather spend my money taking my grandchildren to Disney World than on heating and cooling and being a slave to the house l live in. As an interior designer, I want my home to be beautiful but also functional, to flow and be liveable space, and I want it to work for me.

"The problem is that there hasn't been a place to educate builders and clients about the energy-efficient products and building systems. So I thought I would put together a place that would equip them to implement these things."

In Home on the Hill, there are three areas that focus on education:

    1. The Home Theater, which is equipped with vendors' videos about products and installation methods. The theater has a 110-inch TV screen, which visitors, builders and architects can enjoy in the comfort of massage chairs.

    2. The Product Story area, which is like an ongoing home and garden show, except only one vendor's products per category are showcased. Sorenson chose products she thought were the best based on her own in-depth research;

    3. The Seminars, which are teaching classes that are about a day long. Some are for a general or potential client audience so they can figure out what is right for them based on a broad exposure to what is possible. They can also go to a builder or architect and ask the right questions. Other seminars covering technical issues are restricted to building professionals. There are plans for offering CEUs toward licensing.

Above ground, Home on the Hill uses SIPs (structural insulated panels.) This worked particularly well with the different timberframe features, which are showcased on the first and second floors. SIPs are also used for the roof. The model's approximate 4,750 square feet of walk-out basement is built of Amvic ICFs.

Photo courtesy of Cedar Hill Design Center

Sorenson is unabashedly promoting the Amvic ICF. Williams, now U.S. sales coordinator for Amvic US, had his first ICF experience when he built a walkout basement on his own home. Having noticed ads for ICFs, he decided to try them. The 8-foot walls were set up in two days and poured in 2 1/2 hours.

"Amvic is one of the better forms out there," Williams said. "It has high quality manufacturing and is very user-friendly. The ties are six inches on center, making the block much stronger. It also produces less waste because almost any piece of foam you cut off can be used somewhere else in the wall. I helped train the crews, most of whom love the ICFs once they start using them. It is just a better way to build."

The Amvic Building System uses two expanded polystyrene blocks connected by high density plastic webs, providing a 1 1/2 inch fastening surface every 6 inches on center for attachment of exterior or interior finishes. The 90-degree and 45-degree corner blocks have preformed interlocking mechanisms on top, bottom and end edges to prevent movement of the forms and concrete leakage. According to Amvic, the ICF can reduce heating and cooling bills by 70 percent and has a continuous wind-bearing load rating of up to 200 mph.

The ICFs are visible in the model's safe room. Part of the drywall is pulled back off one corner. The safe room doubles as the model's concrete promotion room, showing various uses of concrete available for home building and decoration.

"We have gotten a lot of compliments on the stained and scored concrete on the lower level," Sorenson said. "We worked with cultured stone, did three different concrete fireplaces and the outdoor patio. We used Art-Crete as a hardener that is applied at the time the concrete is poured to give a raised and colored surface. We also used concrete countertops and floors (3,000 square feet in the model), which incorporate a hydronic heating system. The model includes as well, concrete pavers, trim tiles, decorative trim and a cementatious wall system by Nichiha for the exterior — specifically sandstone and vintage brick."

"The brick-style system was installed using the clip apparatus," said Jerome Saito, sales manager for Nichiha USA Inc., "and screwed to the ICFs on the walkout basement; the sandstone-style system was screwed to the sheathing on the upper levels. Nichiha, a Japan-based company began manufacturing fiber cement systems in 1974 and expanded to the United States in 1998. The panels are about 80 percent Portland Cement, 15 percent wood fiber (old newspaper and recycled wood) and 5 percent bonding agent. The panels are painted three times with an acrylic paint and sealed with a clear coat much like a car finish. They come with a 50-year warranty."

According to Nichiha, the construction of the wall system creates a pocket of air between the panels and substrate. This works especially well in humid climates because it reduces the normal moisture buildup. Panels are 1 1/2 feet x 6 feet x 1 inch or slightly less depending on the system. They can be cut with a carbide tip skill saw making them easy to work with.
"It is wonderful to install and saves quite a bit of money," Sorenson said, because it doesn't require a brick ledge. This means you don't have to build your foundation as big, so you have a long-term savings from lower taxes and insurance."

As is often the case with forward-looking projects, Portland Cement Association is helping with promotion. PCA and its affiliate the Cement & Concrete Promotion Council of Texas (CCPC) are sponsoring a submeter to collect data for a PCA study on heating and air conditioning costs. The CCPC also partnered on the promotion for the model's grand opening.

Home on the Hill has been open only a short time, but the education opportunities have already been paying off. "You would be shocked at the number of people who are thrilled to learn about ICFs," Sorenson said.