Concrete masonry receives a WARM EMBRACE
By: Leslie Lichtenberg
One might not expect to find trend-setting designs in new home construction in a town described in one travel guide as "Chicago meets Mayberry."
Yet, thanks to the vision and expertise of one local homebuilder, Grand Rapids, Mich., is fast becoming a hub of construction activity and homebuyer interest in concrete masonry development. With five concrete homes currently under construction, several in the planning stages, and still more planned for development in spring 2003, Zeeland-based homebuilders Nickoles Inc. have begun to carve a niche for themselves in a market that, until recently, was dominated by conventional wood-frame houses. These numbers, added to the handful of concrete homes recently completed by Nickoles, are making a statement in the small community of Zeeland (population 5,500), as well as nearby Holland and Grand Rapids.
"Realtors and potential homebuyers were somewhat skittish when we put our first masonry home up for sale," admits Darrick Nickoles, president of Nickoles Inc., the sole builder of concrete masonry homes in west Michigan. "However, within a month we had our first buyer, and our clientele has been growing steadily ever since."
One local concrete products manufacturer attests to the growing popularity of concrete masonry homes: "When the market slowed, and everyone was crying about the lack of work, he (Nickoles) was giving work away."
Nickoles, a mason contractor who began building masonry homes five years ago "as a fill in," now devotes all of his time and resources to concrete masonry construction. Two recently completed Nickoles projects, located on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, received an enthusiastic reception at the Grand Rapids Homebuilders Association's Parade of Homes showcase. One of them, a 3,800-square-foot model built on a concrete slab, featured interior block walls with a freestyle texture, and a split-face block/brick combination on the exterior, with additional brick accents to add visual interest. Split-face block, which offers the dual advantage of durability and texture, is a popular choice for exterior finish on Nickoles homes.
"As a building material, split-face block gives the biggest bang for the buck," says Grand Rapids architect Terry Avink of Archidea Design & Architecture. "As an exterior finish, it offers style and architectural appeal, particularly when used in concert with other finishes, such as brick and cultured stone."
Like homebuyer trepidation, climate is another potential obstacle to introducing concrete masonry to a new market. In the Great Lakes state of Michigan, where a phenomenon known as "lake-effect" snow creates heavy snow squalls and average winter temperatures that rarely top 32ºF, climate presents its own set of challenges.
"One of our main concerns when building these concrete homes is making sure the exterior is applied correctly," Avink explains. "Because Michigan climate produces a lot of freeze and thaw conditions, proper application of the exterior is essential. In this regard, concrete masonry gives us a much longer life than wooden materials," he said.
Cold temperatures, high winds, heavy precipitation and other climate-related concerns are mitigated with concrete masonry construction due to several factors, not the least of which are concrete masonry's inherent durability and moisture protection properties. Nickoles homes are insulated through a process that includes installation of Z-track steel, with 11/2-inch foam board on the interior to which the drywall is attached. Further insulation is created with the use of "foam fill," an expanding foam insulation that is sprayed into the cores of the concrete block.
"The pumped-in foam creates a solid, sound-deadening, well-insulated wall that helps to keep cold air out in the winter and cool air in during the summer," Nickoles said.
Avink said the spray foam insulation adds quite a bit of R-value, while simultaneously producing a solid air filtration barrier.
Tracking national trends
The surging interest in concrete masonry homebuilding in Grand Rapids and its surrounding communities is a reflection of nationwide trends. According to a Portland Cement Association 2000 market research study, more than 120,000 new home buyers in the United States chose concrete in 1999, most of whom were willing to pay 2 percent to 5 percent more than wood framing for the quality of a concrete home. Still, the concrete masonry homes being built in west Michigan, which include very little, if any, wood materials, are actually being built for less money than traditional wood-frame homes. Even in the high-end subdivisions of Catamount and Bluewater Pines, where Nickoles is building several concrete masonry homes, prices are competitive, if not lower, than other homes on the market. Although block is pricier than wood, less expensive finishes and the elimination of labor-intensive prep work typically offset these higher material costs.
"A stucco over block finish generally costs $6 per square foot — half the cost of stucco over wood," Nickoles said.
Add to this cost advantage the long-term economy of a concrete home — owing to its solidness, airtight walls and increased R-value due to high insulation — and it is easy to see why consumer interest in concrete masonry is rapidly increasing. Built to withstand a range of potentially disastrous environmental elements, from hurricanes to wild fires to snowstorms, strong, durable, low-maintenance concrete masonry homes are a solid, long-term - investment.
Architect Avink, who refers to the concrete masonry homes as "little commercial buildings," considers the mass of masonry alone to be a primary factor in keeping the homes temperate, quiet and safe. He praises Nickoles' efficiency and attention to quality and detail as the engine behind his success.
"West Michigan is a fairly conservative market," Avink said. "Until now, concrete masonry was considered a commercial material, except in some cases, where it has been used in multifamily residential development. The new concrete masonry homes being built here today are generating a positive response among homebuyers, builders, realtors and designers."
Nickoles himself attests to the benefits of concrete masonry construction. Not long ago, he built his own 3,600-square-foot concrete masonry home. Using 8-inch block as an exterior support wall, which was furred out with 11/2-inch foam board, he added an additional 4-inch block to create an airtight, 14-inch wall that is nearly four inches thicker than the standard.
Textured with a stucco exterior, Nickoles' three-bedroom, 31/2 bath home stands as a vivid example of the advantages of owning and living in a concrete home. In fact, the most common, if only, complaint he hears: "It's too quiet!"
Leslie Lichtenberg is a freelance writer. The article is courtesy of the National Concrete Masonry Association, and is reprinted with permission from Concrete Masonry Designs magazine.