A family loses its Louisiana home, but finds new hope and a new home in New York.
By Carol Brzozowski
Photos Courtesy Oldcastle Precast Inc.
When Mary and Andres Luz, their 11-year-old daughter Yacary and 13-year-old son Andres Jr. rang in the new year, their celebration was reminiscent of that of the Pilgrims during their first holiday. But instead of Plymouth, Mass., they feasted in their new home in Yonkers, N.Y.
The Luz family was driven away from their former home in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
The Luz family had just relocated from New York to Louisiana in the beginning of summer, seeking a better life, when “Hurricane Katrina sent us back,” Mary Luz says.
Like so many others, their lives were temporarily torn apart. Their apartment was reduced to a “couple of sticks” with their furniture and other possessions hopelessly destroyed.
They left for New York, where their lives – as well as that of five other families – are now on solid ground thanks to the efforts of several precast concrete companies and Habitat for Humanity of Westchester, N.Y. Together they built three duplexes using carbon fiber reinforced concrete (CFRC), a relatively new technology.
This Habitat project consisted of three 1,200-square-foot, two-story duplexes – each with three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms and a basement. It is the first single-family residential construction project in the country using CFRC.
“We had never manufactured a 100-percent precast home before with the foundation, floors, walls and the roof,” says Harold Messenger, vice president of product development for Oldcastle Precast of Rehoboth, Mass., the company that introduced CFRC and spearheaded the Habitat project.
CFRC, a lightweight precast concrete panel, integrates C-Grid – CFRP thin grids – as a secondary reinforcement, replacing steel mesh and shear trusses in precise concrete products.
According to the AltusGroup – a partnership of five precast concrete industry leaders – Oldcastle’s CFRC components reinforced with C-GRID are thinner and up to 66 percent lighter, which reduces foundation, structural and seismic connection loads and lowers shipping and erection costs.
CFRC also has seven times the tensile strength of steel reinforcing and is more corrosion-resistant, minimizing shrinkage cracks up to 50 percent more effectively than steel mesh.
CFRC energy efficiencies are realized through 100 percent of the R-value of insulation delivered through the panels, with higher values achieved in thinner wall sections. Additionally, cold spots created by solid concrete or steel reinforcing are eliminated.
Michael Smith, president of Equus Design Group in Belmont, Mass., which was part of the Habitat for Humanity Yonkers construction effort, says carbon fiber reinforced concrete offers several advantages over conventional concrete.
While his firm “loves” cast-in-place concrete, “it has not proven to be cost-effective for most building enclosures,” he says.
“On the other hand, precast concrete offers higher manufacturing tolerances, greater speed of construction and a controlled production environment. Panelized precast concrete also offers fewer joints than other building products such as masonry or wood, meaning less concern over water and air infiltration,” among other attributes, he says.
Smith says that while precast concrete is the “most underutilized product in the housing industry,” it was chosen for the Habitat project for these reasons and more.
“It is one of the most sustainable building products available. It is resource-efficient, energy-efficient and resistant to mold, it is extremely durable – it can withstand fires, hurricanes and floods – and it is beautiful. Some of the world’s most beautiful buildings are concrete,” he says.
In order to pull off the Habitat for Humanity project successfully, those involved say convincing the New York City building inspection department to approve the technology was the biggest challenge.
“However, the manufacturers met the larger challenges in the project,” Smith says. “As the first project with floors, roofs and walls was built using new, thin, lightweight members, significant educational development and retooling was required in the plants.”
Messenger says that New York City officials became so enamored by the technology as to request another 25 homes constructed with CFRC to replace homes being demolished in one of the state’s oldest housing projects. He also notes that the AltusGroup has worked intensely to modify the products and technology for reconstruction efforts in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf coast region of Louisiana.
Jim Killoran, Habitat for Humanity Westchester director, advocates CFRC in Habitat for Humanity’s Gulf coast reconstruction efforts. Habitat for Humanity International plans to build and repair 250 of its own houses – as well as others – in that region. Killoran believes that the reconstruction effort should include precast concrete.
Killoran is a strong advocate for precast concrete playing a major role in the rebuilding effort. “After Hurricane Katrina, we think this will have a profound impact on the housing industry in areas like the Gulf Coast,” he says.
“I’ve talked to Habitat International about that,” Killoran says. “We’re the first ones to introduce it up here, and we want to make sure that gets to the table.”
The Yonkers effort began when Oldcastle and the AltusGroup approached Habitat for Humanity to assess the organization’s interest in having homes built utilizing CFRC.
Oldcastle Precast started working on the technology in April 1998. After two years, Messenger’s company determined it would take up to $3 million to bring the technology front and center, so it developed a consortium with four other precast concrete industry leaders to develop and market the technology.
Testing 30,000 cycles of a panel to replicate 100 years of hurricane loads was one of the many analytical trials the product underwent prior to going to market.
After the companies financed the effort, a vigorous testing program was initiated with three universities and private laboratories. Presently, the AltusGroup is nearly three-quarters complete with the testing, working with American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) to get approvals.
In the meantime, some 5 million square feet of the material is now in place throughout the country in multifamily residential, commercial and industrial applications, with another 7 million backlogged.
Traditionally, Habitat for Humanity builds with wood frame construction.
“I love the feel of wood,” Killoran says. “But is very parochial in terms of thinking a house should be made out of wood.”
Killoran was attracted to the qualities that CFRC had to offer.
“We thought it would help to be fireproof, termite-proof, even bulletproof (one family in his district lost a child to a shooter), go up quicker, soundproof in more urban areas, and there would be fewer maintenance costs for our families in the long run in terms of replacing siding,” he says.
Derrick Williams with Construction Technologies in New Rochelle, N.Y., a company that does a great deal of high-end construction and was involved in the Yonkers project, says working with the CFRC saves his company an estimated 15 percent in labor compared with steel.
“It’s a lighter product, easier to move around than steel,” he says. “Other than that, it’s still a lot of form-oriented work to put the precast together.”
The foundation for the project was dug May 26, with all families expected to move in by the new year.
“Like all great construction projects, we’ve had some lengthy delays,” Killoran says. But none of the delays were caused by the choice of building materials.
While the first house for Habitat for Humanity took two days to put up, it could have been done in one day, but the location with high buildings on either side presented challenges for the crane, Messenger says.
In addition to Oldcastle, those of the AltusGroup who joined in on the effort include High Concrete Group of Denver, Pa., and Chase Precast of North Brookfield, Mass.
Killoran is happy with the results. He calls the construction of the CFRC homes “volunteer friendly.”
“We think they’re excellent and very strong,” Killoran says of the homes. “They will help put us on the map in various ways. We’re very excited that we’re the first in the country to utilize carbon fiber reinforced technology.”
Messenger notes Habitat for Humanity has a difficult time getting volunteers to frame homes. Those who live in the city instead of the suburbs are less likely to have experience in home construction and repair activities. Though they may have a background in doing interior work on their homes, they’re less likely to know how to do such tasks as framing, he adds.
“So when we come in with a shell that’s not finished – there’s no windows in it, for instance – and say we’re going to put it up, that’s music to their ears in the city,” he says.
Another reason why CFRC is being embraced is that in older cities, “the fire problem is enormous because the homes’ wood is dried out — they are really a kindling box,” Messenger says. “They are much more readily acceptable of this technology.”
At every turn, the AltusGroup has tried to replicate the traditional look to which people in a particular market are accustomed, whether it’s brick, clapboard or stucco.
Another factor that attracts people to the technology is that the inside is soft, so it can be worked with in traditional ways, “meaning they can put up sheetrock or paneling, so if there are changes that need to be made later – add a closet or an Internet connection – you can do that. You’re not giving them a solid concrete panel that’s impossible to alter,” Messenger says.
Messenger says there’s no question the technology is ready to take off in the homebuilding marketplace. “The market we are going after is the multifamily market,” he says. “As the pre-cast industry, we need to have replication, we need to be able to make the same parts over and over again to become efficient and make money.
In the Habitat case and the case of the Gulf Coast, we’ve proposed they make their changes with color and other optional accessories and decorations rather than change the precast.”
The AltusGroup is proposing a plant to be constructed in the Gulf Coast area, giving regional residents jobs by training them in making the CFRC panels.
“You’re making 500 panels alike. After you’ve made the first 10, the rest are the same, so it’s easy for us to train relatively unskilled people to do the job,” Messenger says.
Construction Technologies’ Williams says that although he prefers steel for now, should CFRC stand the test of time with respect to corrosion and stress, he would favor it over steel. He says he had fun working on the CFRC-constructed houses and would like to see the technology take off. “It definitely could be a plus for the industry, in the turnaround time of building houses, especially in the right environment,” he says.
Smith says after working on what is the first housing project in the nation to use carbon fiber reinforced concrete for walls, floors and roofs, he is more inclined to continue this route in future design projects. “There is no turning back now; carbon fiber reinforced concrete building products are here to stay,” he says. “It has taken awhile, but the concrete industry has finally joined other industries such as aircraft, space, automotive and sporting equipment manufacturers in the embrace of advanced lightweight reinforcement technology. We are at the threshold of a new age in building design.”
As for the Luz family, their story has a happy ending. They’ve enjoyed working on their new house – and their 11-year-old son pitched in on the sheetrock work.
“It feels wonderful,” says Mary Luz. “I’m excited it’s actually happening. With so much that we’ve gone through, having our own place is even better. It’s like a dream come true.”
Project: Habitat for Humanity Housing – Willow
Owner: Andres and Mary Luz family
Engineer: Equus Design Group
Contractor: Construction Technologies
Precast Manufacturers: Oldcastle Precast Inc. of Rehoboth, Mass., High Concrete Group of Denver, Pa., and Chase Precast of North Brookfield, Mass.