Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Athens News Matters: Athens Selected to Participate in the "Build with Strength" Coalition

It’s not easy to make concrete interesting, but on a chilly February morning, more than 100 people are standing on a muddy construction site for an event about concrete.

“Good morning, so grateful you could come for this great event. Our ‘pour down’ event,” Charles Smith vice president of operations Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, greets the crowd.

Behind Smith is the frame of a house. Gov. Brian Kemp, Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, and State Representative and Athens Area Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Spencer Frye have joined Smith in making remarks. This house is the first of its kind for Habitat in Georgia. It’s built with concrete and the frame is made from insulated concrete forms, or ICFs.

“They simply amount to grown up sized Legos manufactured out of Styrofoam,” says Jimmy Cotty, executive director of the Georgia Ready Mixed Concrete Association. “They’re stacked. There’s a void in between the two sides and that void is what’s going to be filled with concrete.”

This home is part of a broader initiative between Habitat for Humanity and the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association to, they say, solve challenging housing issues across the country.

The idea of a concrete home may bring up images of drab cinderblock buildings, however, Paul Farr, marketing director of Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, sets the record straight: “You think about one that has the concrete visible, but this home has insulated forms that the concrete is poured into with reinforced rebar, so it looks just like any other house. You can put any kind of siding on it that you want.”

A house built with ICFs offers a lot of benefits, not just for individual homeowners, but for entire communities—communities like Athens, where an affordable housing problem is in danger of becoming an affordable housing crisis.

There are three benefits of this type of home that make it a potential solution to affordable housing. “I think it’s a no brainer as far as it potentially being a solution or one of the solutions towards our housing issues,” says Spencer Frye.

First, because the price of lumber has risen drastically over the past two years, the cost of building with insulated concrete forms is now similar to the cost of building with lumber. And the price of concrete is more stable than lumber.

“Concrete is not in the futures market. It’s not traded as a commodity. And so, the concrete prices are more stable over time,” says Frye. “Whereas the lumber prices, especially during a time when they feel like they could, or were a lot more volatile, and they are a lot more volatile because it’s a futures market.”

Second, this house could save the homeowner on their electric bills. It’s up to 60% more efficient than wood framed homes, according to Frye. He says, the combination of concrete and Styrofoam ICFs provides good insulation, but this technique also eliminates most points of heat transfer, a common way buildings lose energy.

Finally, this home could save the homeowner money on insurance, as Cotty says, “the concrete will effectively make it a fortress”. In the event of bad weather, like a tornado, a home like this is less likely to be destroyed.

Frye, who is also a State Representative, is pushing legislation to reduce insurance costs. “Allow insurance companies to reduce the rates of specifically fortified residences or construction techniques. And certainly, the concrete comes under that,” he says. House Bill 1297 is in the early stages, but there’s been positive feedback so far.

Concrete houses are good for individual homeowners and because of the potential affordability, good for the community as a whole. And Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz is working on housing policies to increase the amount of affordable housing. “Places where there used to be grocery stores and are dormant or underutilized. And so, a site like this really gives us a functional opportunity to introduce a lower cost higher quality product into the mix,” says Girtz.

But of course, there are challenges with introducing a new construction technique. “I think the largest challenge that we would face as an industry is actually accepting a new product,” says Frye. “But once that is done, there is nothing that we have had to do on the job site that was any more difficult or any more challenging than anything else we’ve ever had to do on a construction site.”

Back at the construction site, the long-awaited concrete truck pulls up. Habitat for Humanity volunteers get in their positions and the concrete starts flowing.

While it is hard to make concrete interesting, Spencer Frye, Jimmy Cotty and dozens of other people on the construction site don’t care whether concrete is fascinating. They simply want it to be used for quality, affordable housing.