The future for the homebuilding industry

Precast concrete products have long been used in commercial and infrastructure applications. However, when we think of residential applications, precast concrete is not the first material to come to mind. Why is this? Precast concrete products offer design flexibility, excellent quality assurance and many other benefits that make it a wise choice, so it seems its widespread use into the residential market should be a natural fit.

It is important to explain and market to our customers all the advantages and benefits of precast concrete products and to do so in all residential applications. However, for this $300 billion a year residential market, there are multiple customers on multiple levels, and each is concerned with different things. Therefore, marketing approaches will vary depending on which component of the market we are targeting. Ultimately, it will take a multitiered approach to truly penetrate this lucrative residential market.

From the ground up
Here are five advantages of precast concrete in residential construction that can be highlighted when marketing precast to developers. Starting with the base of every house – the foundation – whether you are building a basement, crawlspace or slab foundation, precast concrete offers a strong, proven foundation system to build upon. Precast concrete offers all the advantages of concrete while eliminating many of the difficulties associated with on-site casting such as job site impacts, weather considerations and extended duration of the construction period.

Precast concrete foundations are cast and cured off site and delivered when needed; therefore, on-site storage space is not required. There are no scaffolds or forms needed, which also reduces space requirements and overall construction time.

Installations of precast concrete foundation systems are typically done with a small crane. A minimal amount of labor is necessary, typically three or four people. On average, a precast concrete foundation system can be installed in about 10 percent of the time relative to traditional methods, depending on size and complexity. In fact, some installations are completed in just a half day. Once the installation is complete, the construction of the project may continue immediately since precast concrete already has its strength at the time of delivery.

Weather does not dramatically impact the installation process nor do precast foundations need to be protected from elements such as temperature changes, rain, snow and sunlight.

Another benefit of precast concrete foundations is that they have expansion and contraction joints to reduce the potential for cracking, which also reduces the potential for water intrusion.

The structure itself
The majority of the homes built in the United States today use wood as the primary building material. With the changes in energy and building codes, cementitous products are becoming the building material of choice in many locations, and precast concrete products offer superb benefits over other cementitous systems. Precast concrete panels can serve as the structural frame and provide a great aesthetic finish while reducing long-term costs.

Precasters and designers have developed many systems and approaches to using precast as the structural frame and finish system. Here are some examples:

Solid precast walls – Traditional 5- to 8-inch-thick precast concrete panels have been used as load-bearing exterior walls. These are typically connected together to form the structural frame, thereby supporting floor and roof loads. The panels are strong enough to resist shear and wind loads as well. Furring material can be used to attach gypsum board for the interior finish. Conduit and mechanicals may be cast into the panels or installed in the furring system and interior walls. These types of systems usually have insulation installed in the furring system.

Composite precast walls – These systems are similar to the solid walls, except they have insulation sandwiched between two wythes (or layers) of concrete. Some applications use the smooth concrete surface as the finished interior, while others add a furring system for gypsum board. Utilities may be cast in or integrated into the furring system.

Thin-wall systems – These relatively new systems are based on stud and cavity design. A thin-wall or shell of concrete, typically 1.5 to 3 inches thick, is attached to a structural stud frame. The frame can be made of concrete or metal studs and may be separated from the shell by a layer of insulation. The frame system typically provides holes for utilities to be installed.

The future
Precast concrete can be the building material of the future for residential construction. Here are some things that the industry can do to increase the use of precast products in residential applications:

Supply. Precast producers have to offer these products in their locality. Since the average residential project is not very expensive relative to commercial work, shipping costs must be minimized and the products must be readily available like traditional building materials are today. For example, every city in America has a lumber yard where builders and homeowners can easily purchase lumber seven days a week. Most builders want products that are readily available and within a reasonably short distance.

Acceptance and Research. Codes and standards need to be changed to incorporate precast concrete. NPCA and the Foundation subcommittee have led this effort by making submissions to the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC) for precast concrete foundation systems. Some of these have been approved and will be included in the 2007 IRC Supplementary Code Edition that will eventually become part of the 2009 IRC. These changes will make it easier for precast concrete foundations to be specified and implemented. Similar development is necessary for precast wall and floor systems.

Code changes are becoming more stringent as well. Due to recent disasters, many localities are considering revising codes to be more selective in building criteria and using materials that can resist hurricanes, flooding and fire. This is a good thing for precast since it performs very well in these environments.

Marketing. The new-construction, residential market is a $300 billion-plus industry. It includes single-family homes and multifamily housing such as apartments and condominiums. While precast is gaining momentum in the multifamily markets, the lower costs of a single-family home make it more difficult to justify to a builder. Precasters should market the advantages of precast products to builders and owners as well as through home and garden shows, builders associations and other groups.

Perception. The value of precast must be conveyed to the owners so that their influence on the market is realized. Large-production builders likely will not use precast extensively until the market demands it. Therefore, part of the strategic plan should involve getting information to prospective new home buyers.

Education. All stakeholders need to be educated on the value and benefits of precast concrete products. Builders most likely will be interested in initial costs, time savings, construction methods, reduced job site impact and planning. Owners most likely will be more interested in long-term value, design flexibility, life cycle costs, safety and initial costs.

Modularity and Flexibility. Develop systems that are adaptable using modularity and repetitiveness to keep costs down. Systems can be developed that allow for basic shapes to be combined in multiple ways that allow precast systems to be pre-built.

Costs. While costs are always an issue, the slightly higher initial costs of precast can be offset by the long-term benefits. For example, life cycle costs, which include utility usage, maintenance costs and insurance costs, can be reduced by using precast concrete products. Selling precast to the owner, the person interested in these long-term costs, may be the best approach. Many insurance companies will offer incentives and discounts for precast concrete homes.

Gaining widespread acceptance will require precasters to unite and work on several different fronts to create change. Overall, this is a great opportunity since it is a very large, essential market that precast has a very minimal share in right now. Precast is the natural next step in residential construction.