Residential construction using concrete masonry is commonly associated with areas in the American Southwest and Florida, where tradition and innovation have realized the benefits of using concrete masonry (CM). This geographic isolation of building methods is slowly beginning to change, as the use of CM products begins to creep north. CM products have been in use in all parts of the country for commercial applications, and their inherent properties of strength and versatility have long been recognized. The question is, why has it taken so long for other geographic areas to recognize the significant attributes of concrete masonry for residential construction, and—if it exists—why the resistance to using it?
True, there is a somewhat higher cost factor, anywhere between three and five percent over the cost of wood-frame construction in areas where soft woods are inexpensive and in plentiful supply. The higher cost factor may scare off some builders and new homeowners, but this initial cost does not reflect energy-cost savings to the homeowner, whose satisfaction is ultimately passed along to the builder in the form of a better reputation for delivering a superior product.
There are as many misconceptions about building masonry homes as there are positive attributes. The popular association with CM residential design is perhaps most closely aligned with the dismal, functional, low-end houses of mid-20th-century Florida. We are a world away from that in both structural and aesthetic design, with CM homes providing safe, clean, comfortable homes that are more energy efficient and environmentally responsible.
The Carolinas Concrete Masonry Association (CCMA) is looking to change that old perception along with Greg Messer, custom homebuilder and President of Palladium Homes, based in Raleigh, North Carolina. CCMA is the trade association representing the majority of concrete-block manufacturers and associate members allied to the industry in the Carolinas and Southern Virginia. The association is widely considered the center for information on concrete masonry in the Carolinas, promoting the use of concrete masonry materials in commercial and residential markets. CCMA also interacts with design professionals and building officials, monitors building codes and supports vocational masonry training programs throughout these states.
Greg Messer, through his company, is bravely swimming against the tide in the tri-city region of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. He is a builder on a mission, and his own experience in making the crossover from wood frame to concrete masonry is instructive for the residential building community as a whole.
Paul LaVene, President of CCMA, sees Messer’s steadfastness as sorely needed, and admires his advocacy. “Greg Messer has a unique philosophy about promoting masonry-framed homes. He realizes that he cannot build them all and wants to help the industry expand the marketplace by assisting in home and garden shows plus building and showcasing masonry-framed homes in events such as parade homes,” says LaVene. “He wants to encourage more builders to build this way, which further validates the use of the system from the consumer’s perspective.”
Messer is nothing if not enthusiastic about his commitment to building CM homes. He is nearly alone in the Raleigh market in offering CM homes and, odd as it may seem given the competitive standards of the industry, Messer wants CM homes to become more popular and is trying to recruit more builders. “It’s going to take more than one builder to change people’s perceptions—it’s going to take 20,” says Messer. His own business has moved to 100 percent masonry construction in the past year. Messer’s company started building traditional wood-frame homes in 1992 while Greg was still in college earning two degrees in Civil Engineering (he also has an MBA). A trip to Florida after Hurricane Andrew hit made him consider that “there has to be a better way to build a house.”
Messer returned to Florida in 2001 and saw a contractor building a block house when the idea struck: “Wow, that’s the way to do it!” He returned to North Carolina wondering how the idea would take hold. Messer built his first CM home in 2002 and is pleased with his measured success. “Other builders say you’re nuts,” Messer says, “but customers have never seen anything like this. These are pretty eye-catching houses.”
Palladium’s Homes are fully integrated masonry structures, with vertical steel rebar at 4-foot centers, anchored to the poured concrete footings, tying the structure to the footing. Eight-inch CMUs are laid for the foundation walls and the exterior walls. Bar-reinforced and grouted cells are placed at all point loads and apertures and at 4-foot centers around the perimeter walls. A bond beam (a U-shaped reinforced concrete block) supports floor assemblies to which a pressure-treated wood band is laminated to support framing by way of metal hangers. The first floor rests on the 4-inch foundation wall shelf. Roof rafters attach to a top bond beam used as a rafter plate. It is difficult to imagine a more solidly built structure.
Messer’s Palladium Homes are anything but shy in their proportions. His smallest home recently weighed in at 5,300 square feet. “Can you get a better built house for less money?” Messer questions. “No. This is a more desirable house and requires a different mindset. Most of the second-generation builders here are not risk-takers. They tend to keep it safe and traditional. We have to change people’s perceptions. I don’t want to be seen as a niche builder—I want to be mainstream.” Messer’s homes are complete masonry structures and perform differently than wood-frame houses in many significant ways.
First, there is a marked difference in the compressive and lateral strength of masonry over wood. In areas where hurricanes and high winds are a risk factor, concrete masonry homes offer the added security of a fully integrated structural system that is tied from foundation to roof. By comparison, a masonry shear wall may have more than 10 times the lateral load-carrying strength compared to a similarly wood-framed wall.
Second, the insulation properties and the thermal mass of masonry allow it to provide a more stable and less fluctuating environment in terms of heating and cooling. Third, the risk of fire is considerably less, as is the risk of termites and mold. Fourth, the amount of sound insulation achieved through masonry is incomparable with that of other materials. With the cost of heating and power soaring over the past winter, it is the ability of block to insulate and provide thermal mass that will really make the difference in homebuilding in the future. This may be the most urgent reason for designers and builders to begin a serious reconsideration of building methods. Economically, the cost increase in building a masonry home is offset and ultimately made negligible by the cost savings provided by energy efficiency. Even at the highest estimate of cost over wood construction of 8 percent, the long-term energy cost savings of as much as 50 to 55 percent annually makes any higher upfront cost of construction insignificant.
Messer also participates in the U.S. EPA’s Energy Star Program, administered with the Department of Energy, which since 1996 has qualified new homes and reconstruction as part of its labeling process. The guidelines are stringent, demanding that qualified homes be at least 30 percent more energy efficient than the 1993 National Model Energy Code or 15 percent more energy efficient than the state energy code, whichever is more rigorous. It is difficult to imagine a product more efficient than CM to adhere to these specifications.
In another unusual measure, Messer’s Palladium Homes participated in building an energy efficient 1,100-square-foot house for Habitat for Humanity. This was quite a departure from the large and lavish homes Palladium is accustomed to building, but the exercise proved an instructive lesson: Smaller, affordable housing is perhaps in more need of energy efficient construction. Messer is optimistic about the future of CM residential building. “The market is changing,” he says. “Once we get the ball rolling here, things will snowball pretty quickly. Raleigh will go from 1 percent to 10 percent masonry. You just need to bring it into the mainstream.”
Regarding the reluctance of the market to change, CCMA’s LaVene says, “As for challenges, yes, it is a little different than your traditional wood frame, but with a little education, it is not a complicated system. For the average builder, there is a general reluctance to change. That is why the industry in the Carolinas is starting to promote more to the customer—to drive the builder.”
Article and photography reprinted with permission from the National Concrete Masonry Association.