By: CAROLE MCMICHAEL
Daedalus Construction is a well-chosen name for Phil McKeone’s company. Just as Daedalus, the mythical designer, had a passion for flying, McKeone has a passion for building concrete homes in Omaha. For the past 25 years he has focused on commercial concrete construction, building structural slabs and roads, but now he is excited about new residential possibilities.
“Doing floors is my skill,” McKeone said. “I do not like wood floors and I’m obsessed with the idea of putting up a multi-generation structure. The concrete floor makes the whole structure so much stronger. My walls are three inches of concrete, three inches of foam and three inches of concrete, but it is all tied to six inches of concrete floor. My gut feeling is I’ve got a really well-built piece of work because the floor ties all the walls together. It’s a fabulous structure.
“It was at World of Concrete that I discovered Western Forms. I saw that they used the forms not just to build walls, but also to pour the floor. So I thought, ‘Why not just pour the floor and keep going.’ A whole house could provide 300 or 400 hours for the crew and then we could find a contractor to take the structure from there; or a home builder could give us a set of plans and ask for a bid. We would be the shell contractor and the general contractor would come after us and finish the house cheap or fancy to the home builder’s specifications, just as we do with industrial projects.”
McKeone is located in Omaha’s inner city, which has a number of empty lots in the older parts of the city. He knew he could build houses on these lots so, with the guarantee that he would put houses on them, he got the city to give him three lots. He did the first one in concrete tilt-wall, 40 feet by 40 feet, using 10-foot by 28-foot panels. It was this project that made a second connection with Western Forms. Ron Ward, then a vice president of the company, saw an article by a Jesuit Brother about McKeone and Gesu, a non-profit housing company started by the Jesuits, which arranged to buy and finish McKeone’s concrete houses.
The second house was done with Western Forms’ Aluminum Precast Forming Systems, which is a set of aluminum panels that assemble into a mold with poured concrete sandwiching foam insulation panels. The standard full panel is 3 feet by 8 feet. According to Western Forms, the panels can be easily carried and set by just one person and offer “infinite precast configurations,” using just one system. PinLock, a self-contained, spring-loaded, attached hardware system, works with the forms to eliminate the cost of lost pins and wedges.
Also, according to Western, the aluminum forms generally last 10 years or 2,000 uses or more. They have been used on concrete homes in 41 countries besides the United States, producing more than 250,000 concrete homes. Although the smoothness of the wall expanse is considered one of the advantages of this system, they offer textured alternatives, such as the Vertex Brick pattern. Form liners can be customized quickly to produce other exterior finishes.
There are two keys to success with taking on a new system: training and convenient access to expert support. If a contractor wants it, Western offers a field advisory service that reinforces the intensive two-to-five-day onsite training that comes with the purchase of the Western Forms system. This includes a hands-on demonstration of additional capabilities or products and answers to specific questions. Company experts will help evaluate the crew, equipment and overall operations, using a combination of photos, video and time-study techniques.
For McKeone and his crew, there was not a high learning curve. “We had the knowledge,” McKeone said. “Western Forms sent a tech rep onsite. There was a small difference in language, but we have crews that were experienced with plywood forms so that helped get them familiar with the new forms. The crew liked the forms and liked the idea of concrete above ground. At some future World of Concrete, it would be fun to see two crews competing to erect a house with these forms. The convention runs one week — long enough to complete a house.”
The Western Forms House
“The area has some lead contaminants, so I didn’t put in a basement, McKeone said. “What I did was pour the first four walls and the second floor in one pour. The house was 22 feet wide and 40 feet long and had an attached garage that is 12 feet by 24 feet — 1,600 square feet in two stories with a patio over the garage. First we did layout, plumbing and underground electrical, then poured the footings, the floor and garage and then the walls and second floor and the second story. Bracing was done every five feet, though the system almost self supports.”
Block outs and drains were put in for the plumbing when the floors were poured, just as for a commercial building. The electrical and cable were run in conduit and fastened onto the Western forms. The conduits were premade and put wherever the plan indicates. The heating and cooling were run above a drop ceiling. McKeone used 9-foot forms with an 8-foot ceiling.
“We used a brick texture that is stained after the forms are removed,” McKeone said. “Staining takes about a day. We use a high-end concrete which allows us to strip the forms the next day. Of the textures that Western Forms makes, I like the stucco, particularly stained in two tones. Once the forms are removed, they must be cleaned. The cleanup process uses an oil-like, form-release agent. It is standard in industry. You oil before you use the forms and then reoil them as they are stripped so they are ready to go.”
McKeone’s vision is to bring his training down from the big commercial buildings to residential. “We want to build houses as cheaply as possible with the quality advantages of concrete; there is no wind problem, no fire problem, and no bullet problem. With the thermal mass, there is a 50 percent savings in energy. I don’t have to use dry wall and that could be a $5,000 savings. There are further savings because the forms are so mobile. I can just pick up and go across town to another project in no time. I’m trying to build houses for $35,000 or $40,000, producing a house a week. I think people are smart. If I can offer a concrete home for a couple thousand dollars more than stick-built, they will choose the concrete.”
According to McKeone, the size doesn’t really matter that much. It is almost identical in time to pour a floor that is 1,000 square feet as one that is 2,000 square feet. He can pour about 55 cubic yards in about four hours, pouring an entire wall at a time.
For all McKeone’s enthusiasm for his own plans, he thinks that the below grade construction businesses in the Omaha area that are only doing basements are the ones positioned to make a major concrete housing breakthrough, but seem to have no idea how much business they could have.
“They have all these beautiful forms and equipment,” McKeone said. “It is only like another half day to run forms across the top and pour the floor. They do all that work and load up and go to another job. Guys, why not just stay here and do the next floor and do it all. There is less mobilization. If it takes off here, they can find all kinds of skilled crews around here. If they start doing this, they could run me out of the market.”