New home construction is healthy in most markets across the world. So, too, is the development of commercial properties. Plus, available federal funding in the U.S. for highway and transportation construction will continue to move this sector forward in the coming years. This is the good news. A healthy real estate market equates to a healthy global economy. The potential bad news is with consumption predicted to rise and dependence on foreign imports rising, will cement production, the key ingredient in concrete, be able to keep pace with demand?

"U.S. consumption of cement will climb by five percent this year, hitting a third consecutive annual record and heading for a 3.3 percent increase in 2006," wrote the Portland Cement Association in its quarterly forecast report. "At 19 metric tons per new single-family home this upward adjustment in starts translates into a potential addition of two million metric tons in 2005 cement demand -- over previously projected residential cement consumption."

Cement shortages have the most visible effect on smaller companies, builders, or contractors due to delays or postponement of their projects. To better cope with consumption disruption, savvy builders are looking elsewhere for alternatives to cement and concrete in framing homes.

One such construction method gaining in popularity is steel framing. The price of steel has gone down over the past three decades due to higher productivity, improvements in steel mills and the start-up of mini-mills. According to data collected by the Steel Framing Alliance (SFA), nearly 10 percent of all residential structures built in the last year used steel studs for framing interior walls.

SFA, an association of more than 350 companies and organizations with the mission of enabling the widespread use of steel framing in residential and commercial construction, reports that steel framing has a 1.5 percent of the total residential market in the U.S. and two percent of the Canadian residential market. In certain geographic regions, the SFA noted, steel framing has gained significant participation, such as in California, 8 percent; Florida, 7 percent (including 47 percent of homes in South Florida) and Hawaii, 40 percent (including 72 percent of homes on Oahu).

Steel framing is also gaining in popularity in the nonresidential market. For example, SFA reports that by application and type of structure steel framing was completed in a myriad of buildings, including Office and Bank Buildings (53 percent); Laboratories (45 percent); Dormitories (49 percent); Hospital and Health Treatment (53 percent); Public Buildings (53 percent), and Apartments/Assisted Living facilities, (52 percent).

Another alternative to cement, especially for builders in colder climates, is Frost Protected Shallow Foundations (FPSF). Instead of placing footings below the frost line, the FPSF use insulation and drainage techniques to raise the frost line to just below the surface creating a win-win situation for the builder and homeowner. Shallow foundation ditches are easier to work around and result in less concrete being used (FPSF uses less concrete than a 4-foot deep stem wall).

Lastly, with Mother Nature wreaking havoc across our land, one option that may show the greatest promise is Tridipanel. Tridipanel, which was used to build 14 homes in one day for the Jimmy Carter Foundation, is an option that uses prefabricated polystyrene wire mesh panels that combine the strength of steel and other composites with concrete to form wall panels. Tridipanel becomes a structural wall when concrete, gunnite, Portland cement, plaster, and stucco are shotcreted into place. Tridipanels have been tested to withstand extreme temperatures; they are earthquake tested and use recycled green products.

As a whole, the cement industry is a relatively small but significant component of the U.S. economy, with annual shipments valued at around $8.6 billion. Worldwide, the United States ranks third in cement production, behind China -- the world's leading producer -- and India.

If China's and India's demand for cement continues to outpace supply, permitting new concrete facilities and plant expansions domestically maintains its red-tape, slow pace and Mother Nature stays angry at the Earth, alternatives to concrete will see increased market share and that could be good news for both builders and homeowners.

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