Article No: 58

2006-05-01 10:36:01
By: Carole McMichael

One of the advantages of building high-end custom homes is that the builders often get to try out the latest "bells and whistles" in the building trade. Jon Rufty, of Rufty Homes Inc., located in Cary, N.C., went even further by teaming up with the insurance industry's Institute for Business and Housing Safety (IBHS) and the American Lung Association.


As part of a luxury estate community, Rufty's 10,000 square-foot building project in Cary, N.C., was designed to meet a new standard. "The IBHS called this standard: Fortified for Safer Living," Rufty said. "We are the first major custom home in the country to meet that standard. Looking at where insurance claims come from, IBHS is trying to determine what design features will produce a more disaster-resistant structure — one that addresses the dangers of wind, hail, fire and water.

Just as building on the ocean is not the same as building in the mountains, different regions of the country will face different hazards; so they will have a different standard to meet."  

One of the key design features that meet the standard is Wall-Ties and Forms concrete systems. Rufty has been in residential building for 15 years, always looking for better, higher quality ways of doing things. He became intrigued with concrete about four years ago. Since that time, he has been working with a local concrete contractor, exploring different concrete form systems and techniques; finally settling on the Wall-Ties removable forms.

"We are more comfortable with Wall-Ties," Rufty said. "We like that everything is monolithically poured. You get your floors and walls poured together and everything is steel reinforced. The forms were used to build the floors, as well. With most other concrete form systems, you pour the walls but attach a floor system to it.

"The first pour provides the foundation and walls of the lower level (a walk-out basement). The second pour is for the floor (lower level ceiling) and walls of the main level. The third pour is for the floor (main level ceiling) and walls of the third level. The lower- and main-level walls are 10.5 feet in height and the second-level walls are 9.5 feet. Both interior and exterior walls are four inches thick.

The house as a whole took 1,000 tons of concrete. The roof is built of wooden trusses, but we are using concrete tiles, something we have done on a lot of projects. We use a structural engineer to design rafters so they will support the extra weight.

"Instead of fiber glass insulation in the roof, we used a closed-cell foam. The advantage of closed cell is that it adds structural integrity to the roof system over and above what we usually get, is denser and provides a moisture humidity barrier. It is the type of foam used in SIPS (Structural Insulated Panels). Because we are insulating the roof rafters, the attic space is part of your heated square footage. If you keep furniture or clothing there, it is in a totally conditioned environment."

This $2.5 million home has a strong European design. There is a four-car garage and an elevator that goes to all floors except the attic (part of the universal design for handicap accessibility). There are six bedrooms with baths, and two half baths. Special amenities include: a home theater; a wine cellar and wine-tasting room; an exercise room; and a game room with a pool table, ping pong table, video games and a bar. There is also a covered terrace and sun porch, both of which employ concrete rather than wood decking.

As might be expected, the Cary house is electronically on the cutting edge. It is wired for total home automation and lighting control. According to Rufty, this system allows you to do things such as call into the house to check and adjust the temperature from anywhere; control any and all lighting switches in any room; and see views from cameras throughout the house. All controls are integrated into the home's sophisticated security system. On the entertainment side, the system allows you can watch programs on the TVs from any sources, such as DVDs, cable or satellite. Also, a variety of music options are available from any room.

In spite of all its high-tech capabilities, the Cary house exceeds the requirements for the EPA's Energy Star rating for energy efficiency. Builders familiar with the part concrete systems play in reducing fuel bills won't be surprised, but documenting results is always important to back up anecdotal claims. For this reason, Rufty, working with the local N.C. Power and Light Co., has arranged for a study that will monitor the house's daily energy use.

A healthy house
"We put in radiant floor heating on the lower level and main level," Rufty said. "On the lower level, the floor finishes will include stained concrete, as well as carpet and tile. On the main level, most floors will be covered with 2-foot by 2-foot limestone tiles. On the third level, there is no radiant heat in the floors, which are covered with hardwood, tile and carpet. Because the floors and walls were all poured at the same time, the heat from the floor will be working throughout the entire structure of the home."

Right now, the site orientation of the Cary house will only receive minimal passive solar benefits. Rufty has taken passive solar into consideration and worked with the North Carolina Solar Center to look at different ways it can improve its solar benefits. He may do something with solar panels that will heat the water for the radiant floor heating system. (At press time, the house is 75 percent finished.) As a backup to this system, he will have a generator installed that runs on natural gas.

A lot of homes are taking advantage of radiant floor heating, but according to Rufty, he hasn't come across one that also uses radiant cooling, which conveniently is not as expensive as an air-conditioning system. — In the winter, warm water is circulated through the tubing and heats the room below and in the summer, cool water is circulated and cools the room below. As with the heating system, he included a backup by building in ducts that can be used to add regular air-conditioning if needed.

"On this house, we are working with the American Lung Association" Rufty said. "We will be meeting and exceeding all their indoor air quality standards. One of the systems we are using to accomplish this is a high-efficiency commercial dehumidification unit to move air around. Because the house is so tight, we are introducing outdoor air and filtering it for pollen and dust, as well as humidity. This house will be used as a part of a promotional charity event for the Lung Association. One hundred percent of proceeds go to the Association to support their education relating to indoor air quality."

Crews and codes
Because the concrete subcontractor provided an experienced crew, there was no need to educate them in the Wall-Ties system. But Rufty found that there was definitely a learning curve with the other subcontractors because things are done a little differently.

For example, the insulation is on the outside of the house, so for the inside concrete walls, instead of putting on sheet rock, he plastered. For that, he had to work with the dry wall contractor to get him comfortable with the different techniques. The same was true for the interior trim workers who had to install windows using screws and other fasteners instead of nails.

"The code inspectors were not familiar with the Wall-Ties system at all," Rufty said. "We sat down with the different inspectors prior to each phase to make sure they understood what we were trying to achieve; and we addressed any concerns they had. We always have those discussions on the front-end since all inspections have to be done before the pour. The inspectors have accommodated us in several ways, coming in to do
extra inspections and increasing their knowledge. We are having no problems getting their sign offs."
Looking forward
"Because we only build eight to 10 homes a years, a lot of business comes from word of mouth," Rufty said. "However, we have a high-end Web site ( that we've had for a couple years. We use it not only to get business, but also, in a private area of the site, we do a lot of communicating with the clients during the building process. A lot of people see our Web page, but I don't think it is the ultimate decision-maker, but just one of the ways they use to get comfortable with us. The use of Web sites for builders has made a big change as recently as four years ago.

"Concrete building systems are very good if you truly want to build a superior quality house. It does take a level of dedication to do it properly. That means change. Some long-time builders are not interested in doing things differently. The new builders, however, are more likely to use concrete systems for a couple reasons: the new generation is more computer-savvy and more used to working in an environment where a lot of things change."