Making hurricane-resistant products is a breeze for a precast concrete wall panel manufacturer.
Story and photos By Ron Hyink
With the possible exceptions of college football and rum-and-vodka cocktails, the mention of hurricanes in Florida arouses feelings of dread and grief among those who live there. Like the mark of Zorro, multiple major hurricanes slashed across the chest of Florida within a six-week period during the summer of 2004. Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne left behind tens of thousands of wrecked lives and shattered homes in their dark wakes.
For better or worse, these hurricanes have instilled some valuable lessons about how we build our homes. Indeed, the state of Florida upped the ante on its building codes since Hurricane Andrew smashed through the southern tip of the state in 1992, and more than a few home builders were scrambling to live up to those standards. Block construction seemed the logical alternative to timber, but nevertheless the devastating 2004 hurricane season left many contractors reeling under lawsuits and searching for a better way.
But not all builders are up against the litigation wall, because for them Quick Wall already had the answer to the question about hurricane-resistant construction. For five years now, Quick Wall, a manufacturer of precast concrete wall panels in Lakeland, Fla., has been providing products that can stand up to that tortuous level of wind and water penetration.
The damage done
“Hurricane Andrew came through and devastated southern Florida,” said John Blanchard, general manager at Quick Wall, adding that block construction has been used predominantly ever since at least as far north as Jacksonville, Fla. Then the 2004 hurricane season struck, damaging more than 330,000 homes. According to the American Red Cross, 27,476 homes were completely destroyed, and more than twice that many – 57,308 homes – sustained major damage, meaning the homes were uninhabitable until repairs could be made.
“There were a lot of problems with moisture and infiltration of water into block, because it’s a dry-cast, porous product,” said John.
“The winds were so strong, it blew the water through the stucco, through the block and into the house,” said Jeff Carboni, sales manager for Quick Wall. “It was a mystery at first, but then they realized that’s exactly what had happened.” Jeff explained that water penetration was only the beginning, as homeowners ultimately had to deal with mold and rot as well.
“With our product and the self-compacting concrete as dense as it is, there is no penetration of water,” said John. He is very comfortable with saying that, as he has the certification to back him up. Recently he hauled a sample of his wall panels over to Orlando, Fla., to be tested. “We went to a certified testing lab in Orlando, where not only do they fire 2 by 4s out of a cannon at the product, but they also test it for vacuum and compression to simulate the air pressures when a tornado comes through – because the tornados are what did all the structural damage in this state,” explained John.
But then something happened at the testing lab that hadn’t happened before: The 2 by 4s could not penetrate the wall, even when the cannon was cranked up to its most powerful setting of 296 miles per hour – zero failure. “Well, we hit that 296 and their machine couldn’t go any further,” said John, “so at this point we’re certified by the state as an actual hurricane-resistant product.” In addition, Quick Wall passed a four-day water permeation test. With three separate samples – four days of constant water pressure – the results showed zero water penetration. “We are the first wall system to achieve that combined rating, be it block or precast.”
When John took his wall panel to the lab, he figured he had a strong product, but he didn’t know exactly what to expect. “Initially, they really had no idea how the product would fare,” said Jim Blakely of Certified Testing Laboratories in Orlando, the largest independent family-owned testing operation in Florida. “And so part of our quest was through some research and development testing to find out just how strong their product was.” CTL performed uniform static loading, which duplicates a product in wind shear. “In addition to this, we did the large-missile impact (with) an 8-pound, 9-foot-long 2 by 4 at 50 feet per second shot from 16 feet at the product,” said Jim. Plus the lab performed uniform static cyclic loading, which duplicates the buffeting effects of a hurricane. The results were impressive: Jim said the precast panels fared far better than other products he had tested.
“Now we can market, because we don’t advertise anything that we can’t back up,” said John. “I don’t want to give a customer a product that’s not what we said it is. We want it physically to be tested to meet those requirements. So everything we have is certified and tested.” He has even sent his product to New York to be tested for R value, which resulted in an R-8 rating for a 5-inch panel.
Standing strong against rigorous laboratory testing is the result of solid manufacturing techniques, an average 7,400 psi 28-day compressive strength and a 5-inch-thick insulated wall panel that comes with a 1-inch-per-hour fire rating. But what about the seams?
“We take extra care to make sure that they are completely sealed,” said Jeff. The installation crews, who are also Quick Wall employees, use a sealant between the panel and the slab – the same sealant used on underground utility and septic tanks. They then apply a spray foam on the inside and a caulk adhesive on the outside. “And then they do the mechanical expansion joint at each seam with stucco. So all those things combined seal it up watertight.”
Although some builders are complementing the precast concrete wall panels with steel roofs for ultimate durability, most are calling for anchored 2-by-6 planks to be cast into the tops of the panels. That allows them the convenience of anchoring the roof trusses at any break point they desire. Quick Wall will also cast truss straps into the product, and some savvy builders are using them to great advantage, but their plans have to be precisely engineered before submitting them to Quick Wall before pouring operations can begin.
Exodus in reverse
Despite the heavy toll the hurricanes exacted in lives and damage (see sidebar “Dark Cloud”), droves of people continue to move into Florida. “There is a statistic that says a thousand people are moving to Florida a day,” said Jeff, and that means more and more residential units will be in demand.
It also means that home builders, who typically require block masons to put up a house, will be struggling to keep pace. But you don’t need a drum roll to announce that a name like Quick Wall is all about making things quicker. “We set two houses today; normally it would take that guy two weeks to put up the walls, lintel pours and pass inspections just for one house,” said John, referring to the typical single-story family dwelling. “The time that we save the customers is time they can put toward building more houses.”
With the Quick Wall system, everyone could benefit. “Well now he just rolled that into more homes,” said John. “Now he’s making more money at the end of the year. The framers are making more money, the roofing guy, the tile and the cabinet guys – everybody’s making more money just because we’re saving them two weeks.”
Time truly is money, and the bigger the house the more the savings. “On a big $6 million house and above, we’ll save a guy 45 days right out the gate,” said John. “Just us – just the Quick Wall part.”
Earlier in 2006, one contractor was building as many as three standard-sized homes per week using the Quick Wall system. But no matter what a contractor’s timetable is, a sturdier wall system in a fraction of the time can be had, and that makes the total end cost much more attractive – not only for the contractor but for the homeowner as well.
And it isn’t just the wall system that makes Quick Wall appealing; the company also offers a shell package that integrates windows, doors, lumber, trim, trusses as well as the walls. That’s because Quick Wall is the offspring of Manning Building Supplies, a building materials provider whose territory embraces the entire state of Florida.
Having been in business since 1978, Manning had long since established a customer base, so the building industry is nothing new to the company. The company has grown to 10 building supplies, four truss plants, and seven window and door shops. Now with its Quick Wall division, it can offer a complete package and take on the entire construction project from start to finish – and with only one person with whom the contractor needs to communicate. “We basically give the contractor the key to the house. And he brings in the trades, such as electrical, plumbing and cabinets,” said John. “Providing the contractor with a shell package is our ultimate goal, and it’s our niche in the market.”
And it’s not only what the contractor gets with a shell package, it’s what he doesn’t get that carries a lot of appeal. “The primary benefits, for example, are the things that we eliminate: We eliminate the headaches of time, we eliminate the headaches of inspections – our product will eliminate anywhere from three to five inspections that he has to go through,” explained Jeff. “He has no headaches for lintel pours, and all of our windows and doors are cast in within 1/8 of an inch.” Jeff also points out that site cleanup is drastically reduced, because the masons and the backfill for the masonry cells is eliminated.
That makes Quick Wall and its mother company Manning well-equipped to deal with the masses. “The amount of growth coming into Florida is staggering,” said John, “and having a hurricane-resistant product tied in with a building supply company, it’s a perfect marriage.”