Ginger Stephens and her husband had no intention of buying a concrete house when they built their new Texas home in 1999. They went to a builder showcase and she fell for a Mediterranean style home.
"I loved the look and the feel of the house," she says. "I didn't realize it was a concrete home."
When they met with the builder and found the home of their dreams was built with insulating concrete forms, or ICFs, they balked. "We were not going to do it," she says. The concrete house was about $20,000 more than comparable "bricks and sticks" houses. However, the builder "convinced us of the positives," and now, she says, "we are so glad we did."
Concrete construction has grown in popularity in parts of the country accustomed to severe weather, such as hurricane-risky southern Florida and the Midwest's tornado alley. In other areas, concrete homes are a lot harder to find, but this may be changing as buyers become aware of the concrete option.
"It's not cinder block any more," says Jenni Grover of the Portland Cement Association. The trade organization is working to get out the good word on concrete and highlight its benefits and versatility.
Grover explains that there are several different systems currently in use to build what can be called a "concrete" house. She says the most popular forms are concrete masonry and ICFs. The PCA describes ICF's as "basically forms for poured concrete walls that stay in place as a permanent part of the wall assembly."
The blocks that make up a masonry home come in a variety of shapes, and according to Grover, builders "can use pretty much any color a homeowner would like to see. For ICF houses, they can use any kind of surface attachment -- siding, fiber cement product, vinyl siding, stucco, brick work. It's really, really flexible." She says many of the homes "look like just any home on the street" and people would have "no idea" they were made of concrete.
Why build with concrete?
"There are different advantages, depending on where you're located in the country," says Grover. "In areas prone to severe weather," concrete houses offer "safety and security far above what a wood frame home can offer." Grover says concrete houses also are "much more quiet, much more energy efficient, they're very solid and they don't let in a lot of outdoor contaminants."
The disadvantage? Cost. The PCA estimates the typical concrete house costs three to five percent more than a similar home built with a wood frame. However, Grover says that as crews become more comfortable with the building method, the cost goes down. She says that while "some people get a little spooked" by the extra up-front cost, the construction can pay for itself over time in energy savings.
Grover says the PCA has found that awareness of concrete home building systems has "jumped pretty significantly over the last ten years," and with that "people are actually starting to demand concrete homes."
Ginger Stephens moved into her concrete house in suburban Houston in November of 1999 and says she "can't think of one thing" she doesn't like about it. In the "scorcher" of a summer they had last year, Stephens says the highest electric bill she had while her air conditioner was going full blast was $380. Her neighbors complained of bills of $600 and $700.
When it comes to quiet, she tells the story of the night her neighbor's house caught fire. She was alerted to the blaze by a phone call from her daughter. Stephens and her husband didn't hear the fire and police vehicles making a commotion right outside. The house is "very tight," she says. "You don't get a lot of wind noise, you don't hear wind whistle."
Another big plus for Stephens -- no insects. Stephens says "roaches love Texas," but she's had no bugs -- literally or figuratively -- in her concrete house.
Carol Ochs is a Washington-based reporter who covers new home trends.