Barrier Island Retreat
By: Carole McMichael
Photography courtesy of Security Building Group
Topsail, one of the North Carolina Barrier Islands, beckons to those who love living with the sun rising over the ocean and setting over the Coastal Waterways. When this synergistic combination involves a condominium built of concrete, buyers have the perfect retreat—one that stands up to the Atlantic Coast’s biggest natural threats: hurricanes.
Dave Pfanmiller, managing partner of Security Building Group, which is located in Sneads Ferry, N.C., found the ideal spot for just such a retreat—a lot 200 feet from the ocean and 1,000 feet from the coastal waterway, with unobstructed views in both directions.
The Topsail concept was to build a cast-in-place concrete, two-unit condominium. Each unit is 1,530 square feet, with three bedrooms and two and one-half baths. It rests on 12-inch-by-24-inch concrete columns, set at a base flood elevation required by FEMA. The area under the condo provides the residents with carport space.
“The architectural style is North Carolina Beach, typical of homes on the water,” Pfanmiller says. “There are two floors above the flood level. Each side is one duplex, so that each unit has two floors. This means they have the height to have equal views of the water. Water is the key marketing draw. Each degree you are away from it affects the price of property significantly. Although the condo is built on what is considered a second row from the ocean, we also own the little area that goes to the water’s edge. It is too small to be build-able because of beach erosion, but we did put a little gazebo on it.”
The open first-level floor plan creates a sense of spaciousness. The L-shaped kitchen includes a freestanding island with seating. That flows into the dining room, which has a drop ceiling to outline the area for dining. Adjacent to that is the family room that runs the entire width of the unit—about 15 feet.
“It lives a lot bigger than it is,” Pfanmiller says. “You can easily entertain a group.”
Upstairs, there is a master bedroom with a three-quarters bath, a full hall bath and two other bedrooms. The two front bedrooms have doors to the front deck. There are four decks on each unit. The decks are usually 10 feet by 15 feet, and the upper-level decks protect the lower decks are protected from the weather.
Pfanmiller used a variety of finishing textures. Outside the finish is stucco. The inside face of the walls is drywall, skim-coated with an orange-peel texture; the ceilings contrast with a slick finish. The floor finishing take advantage of the concrete that was already there. To play up the beach feeling for light colors, the floors are covered with Miracoat, a white concrete product, then scribed with joints and stained.
Making the move
About five years ago, Pfanmiller and Kurt Fields, the principal owner of Tri-City Construction, a full-service foundation company started 15 years ago in Raleigh, N.C., decided to widen the scope of their profession by expanding cast-in-place construction to the above-grade housing market. Building in an area where one of the big issues is hurricane damage, they couldn’t have picked a better spot for breaking new ground. Currently, Pfanmiller has completed the concrete work on about 12 units, either under the banner of Security Building Group or that of Tri-City.
Pfanmiller had some previous experience with ICFs, but his basement background lends itself more to the removable-form system. Wall-Ties and Forms make the majority of his equipment. He and the company had made some inroads into the above-grade housing market at approximately the same time, so it was the most logical choice. Currently, Wall-Ties is the only system Security uses.
“We bought new forms for the above-grade use,” Pfanmiller says. “They are slightly different. The foundation forms are 3 feet wide typically. Our above-grade forms are 2 feet wide. The face sheet is thicker, and they are stiffer. Being stiffer gives us an architecturally truer wall on the inside. Because we use a skim-coat—a plaster-type finish on the inside—we have to have a really true wall.
“There is a huge investment in buying a set of forms; however, we get 4,000 pours out of our set of panels and can amortize the initial expense over the life of the panels. The beauty of removable forms for the builder is that we can do anything with them. There is no reason to change the system from one level to the next. When we come on the job, and it’s designed with our equipment, we can start at the bottom and go clear to the attic.”
The best arguments for building in concrete are the advantages to the buyers. The two biggest, according to Pfanmiller, are, first, the inherent strength of a concrete envelope, which ensures storm resistance, and second, energy efficiency.
“Cast-in-place allows us to form the walls and ceiling of a given level of the house at one time,” Pfanmiller says. “So, when we pour, it is a monolithic pour. We pour every thing at one time: the perimeter walls; the interior structure walls; and then the ceiling 6-inch structural slab. That gives you the inherent strength of a continuous joint between vertical walls and horizontal ceiling. Also, because the concrete goes in, in a plastic state, there are no voids, laps, cold joints or air infiltration. That is what produces the high energy efficiency.
“There are some other benefits some people do not think about, [such a noise reduction]. The condos are very quiet inside, from floor to floor and side to side. Also, most of the units we have built are near highways, so it is great for residents not to hear that noise. Another residual benefit is the comfort level because the temperature doesn’t spike. Our temperature curve is much flatter than in a stick house. You are not losing air through the walls and the walls are actually radiating coolness or warmth. You can feel the difference. The temperature is the same from room to room, and the floors and stairs don’t squeak or pop from temperature expansion.”
There was a ton of preplanning, according to Pfanmiller. He had to have all the electrical, plumbing and HVAC layouts worked out and transferred to schematics. Prototype energy studies and equipment diagnostics were the basis for selecting a 2 1/2-ton unit to handle the duplex requirements. Next, he made provisions for ductwork, return air grills, supples and integrated them into the design. Because of the solid walls and ceilings, and 6-inch concrete floors, there was no place to conceal ductwork or plumbing, so he incorporated them in tray ceiling, soffits, or drop ceilings in some cases.
“We create what I call ‘the book,’” Pfanmiller says. “We draw the interior elevation of each concrete wall; and on that elevation, we mark the window, door locations, electrical openings and heights—pinpointing everything that goes into the wall. That is what the crew foreman works from. He lays it out and I basically oversee him. We are a two-man show. Our system is sophisticated enough now that I can just hand him the book. We put as many eyes on it as possible and make it as fail-safe as possible. We try to anticipate any problems and add a few extra openings as options if the plan doesn’t come together perfectly.”
Pfanmiller had no problem getting the plans signed—he had engineer stamps on everything. He also had most of his structural inspections done by his structural engineer because the work is very time sensitive. When he needs to pour, he’s got to schedule the concrete pump, concrete supplier and the labor, and can’t afford to be hung up with an inspector that can’t be there for two days. The engineer comes when he’s needed.
Working with others
“For the Topsail condo,” Pfanmiller says, “we used our foundation company crew. It involved basically the same process, except there was a lot more detail. We put in all the window, door, plumbing blockouts and empty conduits for the electrician. There was a lot of work like that that had to happen while the forms were being set up. In the course of the five years that we have been building with this system, we have done it differently nearly every time. Sometimes you take two steps forward and one step back, but you learn from it. You implement the good and discard the bad and keep going. You have to be adaptable, use your head and be creative. We found that we are better off to come up with our own solutions.”
As most builders who introduce a different construction system, Pfanmiller encountered some difficulty in finding the right utility subcontractors. “I really had to get a feel of the guy’s attitude,” Pfanmiller says. “If he bought in on the idea, it was reflected in his price. If he wanted to be part of what we were doing, his price was competitive. If he had never been around concrete, he would charge high; and he is not the guy you want on the job anyway.”
Building so close to the ocean required pilings ranging from 20 to 28 feet to achieve the correct bearing capacity. On top of the pilings, at grade level, Pfanmiller’s crew poured a heavy-grade beam that is about 18 inches square with reinforcing steel over the top of each piling. On top of the beam, they poured a 10-foot column. Then, they poured an 8-inch elevated slab or false deck that is held up by conventional shoring. On top of that, the forms were set. The majority of the work was done from the inside. The foreman went by and marked the placement of the inserts. The crew took a hot knife and installed all the bucks and utility components. Finally, the next two lifts of walls and ceilings were poured, going up to the attic floor, which was also poured concrete.
“After pouring the slab, we can walk on it and set forms for the next level,” says Pfanmiller. “However, we won’t put weight on it for 10 days, which is when we do the next pour. We use an earlier yielding concrete for the housing lifts, so we can pour them five days apart. We strip the forms the next day, but the shoring system, which is integrated into the forming system, is left so the screw jacks keep everything in place. The shoring is left until the job is finished. The building required a little over 250 cubic yards of concrete, which equates to about 1 million pounds dead weight. That is why it won’t blow over in a hurricane-force wind.”
“We plan to continue to build housing units with the cast-in-place system,” Pfanmiller says. “We get a lot of hits off the Internet and stay active in associations. We do open houses and have gotten press, but word of mouth is also important to our marketing.
“When people come to me about building a house, they typically come looking for a concrete alternative. They’ve seen them or read about them on the internet and can see the advantages of concrete. In this market, the majority are buying second homes. They are looking in a vulnerable environment, so they want to a house built to last, which is what will protect their investment.
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