By Shari Held
Precast concrete homes may not yet be mainstream, but every day more residential architects, builders and homeowners are discovering what precasters and their customers have long known – building with precast concrete offers advantages during all stages of the project and beyond.
Precast played a starring role in two custom-built homes that represent very different styles in markets thousands of miles apart. The common tie is how using precast simplified the process and created a beautiful and durable home.
Designing a dream home with precast
The time between a homeowner’s vision and the completed home is filled with hundreds of decisions and details. But it all begins with the design.
The Faichtygers, first-time homeowners, wanted their dream home to have an open, unobstructed feel but they were concerned about the home’s structural integrity and sound transmission. Architect John Pedersen of J. W. Pedersen Architect in Vineland, N.J., satisfied both concerns by designing the home with precast concrete supplied by Northeast Precast in Millville, N.J.
The precast floor planks, used on the first and second floors, cover a continuous 28 feet – the entire width of the home. That wouldn’t have been possible with wood floor joists.
“Normally in a home of this width, you’d have a center beam on every floor or walls that support the floors,” said Kenneth Baur, P.E, engineering consultant for Northeast Precast. “But prestressing this precast floor system enables you to create long spans with light section weights and not have problems with cracking. And since the planks are insulated, there’s very little sound transmission between levels.”
The precast floor system eliminated the need for typical load-bearing walls, making it easier for Pedersen to design the open concept, and its precision aided in the design process. Additionally, if the Faichtygers want to remodel in the future, the walls can be reconfigured to accommodate a new design.
“Precast is manufactured in the factory, as compared to cast-in-place concrete, so there’s high quality control,” Pedersen said.
High quality control and attention to detail helped Northeast Precast fabricate the most challenging piece – a gable wall with windows. Gabled walls are not typically made from precast, even in structures built primarily with precast. Northeast Precast had to build a custom form to accommodate the heavily reinforced wall.
“We make 1,000 linear feet of walls every day, but they don’t look like that,” said Tom Talalaj, general manager of the Superior Wall Division for Northeast. “It was a bit of a design challenge for us but we deliver a finished design product before we build anything. We work out the kinks to come up with something that’s workable within the parameters of the realities of precast.”
The gable wall was a pivotal structural piece since it had to resist strong New Jersey lateral wind loads. In the future, Baur anticipates windows will be installed during the fabrication phase, which would enable the contractor to close in the building as they erect the walls.
Faster construction and more
Within a matter of days, Northeast Precast fabricated the 11 floor planks – 28 feet long by an average of 8 feet wide – and 36 wall panels – ranging from 9 to 13 feet in height and 10 to 14 feet in width – to create the precast structure.
Precast’s many advantages, especially speed, took center stage on-site. It took workers only two days to build the precast shell. Within a week, the entire home was under one roof and weather tight – a feat that would have taken months if the home had a poured basement, wood framing and a wood floor system.
“With all the forethought put into the design during the design phase, prior to production, the installation went off without a hitch,” Talalaj said.
Using precast also helped reduce the number of on-site tradespeople during the construction phase – something the Faichtygers appreciated. That was especially evident in the decision to precast the gable wall.
But that was just the beginning of the advantages of using precast. The precast walls feature built-in chases in each galvanized metal stud, making them instantly ready for wiring and plumbing. In addition, each stud includes a facer so workers could easily and quickly attach drywall panels.
Less insulation is needed to meet code requirements in a total precast home as well. Expanded polystyrene foam is integrated into the precast floor system during the fabrication process and the wall system features uninterrupted, continuous insulation.
The vertical light broom finishing on the walls also helped fast track the application of the home’s stucco exterior. The wall finish served as an excellent substrate, making wall preparation unnecessary.
Precast for worry-free living
While a home constructed from precast typically costs more up front, the savings over time more than make up for it.
The Faichtyger’s precast home is virtually fireproof and moisture- and vermin-resistant. That means potentially lower insurance and no regularly scheduled pest control visits. In addition, continuous insulation on the wall and floor systems minimizes sound transmission and increases thermal efficiencies.
“The HVAC system can be downsized because the home is that much more air-tight and highly insulated,” Talalaj said. “The air condition system was reduced from two units to one unit on a split system.”
Finally, the home is built to last with minimal maintenance required over the years.
“That house will probably be around 200 years from now,” Pedersen said. “If you can build a home out of concrete and do it right – pay attention to the details – precast is the perfect material.”
Precast: A natural for tiny homes
Precast is making big inroads in the tiny home market as well – a niche product that’s attractive to people who favor a simpler, downsized lifestyle. Tiny homes are also popular with people who no longer want the house payments, insurance requirements, taxes and upkeep of a larger home. In addition, a tiny house can be used for other applications such as a side business, an in-law suite or a space for animals.
Todd Sternfeld, CEO of Superior Concrete Products, based in Euless, Texas, began watching the tiny home trend years ago. In 2016, after winning a Creative Use of Precast award from NPCA for its Cleburne Ranchette model, the company began marketing a line of tiny homes.
“Sometimes you just have to go for it,” Sternfeld said. “You have to learn as you go and make adjustments and changes and raise the bar as you go through the process. That’s what we’ve done.”
The phone has been ringing off the hook ever since.
A plethora of design options
The 600-square-foot, two-bedroom, full-bath Cleburne Ranchette, with two additional outdoor living spaces, is the company’s most popular model.
Superior fabricated the model using in-house design and labor and based it on existing products.
“It was an easy transformation,” Sternfeld said.
One of the biggest design advantages precast offers tiny homes is the large variety of available textures and colors. Superior offers wood, brick, stone and stucco patterns. This makes customizing the basic model easy.
“What we’re finding is that everybody wants something a little different,” Sternfeld said.
The steel-reinforced, modular precast wall panels provide a speedy and easy installation. It takes about two weeks to pour the foundation, anchor it with posts and erect the exterior walls, which serve as the frame for the home. The panels are already finished, so there’s no need to paint or apply siding.
Another advantage of a precast tiny house is the available foundation options. A precast tiny house can be built on a conventional foundation, constructed on a steel frame for periodic relocation or put on wheels for a mobile lifestyle.
Owners of precast tiny homes also enjoy all the advantages of regular-sized precast homes. Like a full-sized precast house, precast tiny homes are water- and vermin-resistant, require little maintenance, and are fireproof and practically soundproof. In the future, Superior is looking to use precast for more than the walls.
“We’re looking into building the tiny houses on a foundation in the factory setting and then bringing them to the site,” Sternfeld said.
The durability and stability of precast products are the strongest drivers for homeowners who want protection from extreme weather. Wood-framed homes can’t provide the same level of protection. And then there’s the chameleon-like quality precast possesses. It can emulate countless building materials and finishes that can be mixed and matched to create endless possibilities.
The benefits precast offers contractors, designers and homeowners are slowly becoming common knowledge. Each successful installation, happy contractor and pleased homeowner spreads the word and pushes the industry toward a tipping point when it will become common practice to see precast elements in residential construction.
Shari Held is an Indianapolis, Ind.-based freelance writer who has covered the construction industry for more than 10 years.