- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2000

You have probably heard about the revolution in home construction. Materials such as concrete and steel are supposed to be replacing lumber, and soon homes made of wood will be just a memory.

But it hasn't happened quite that way. The "revolutions" have come and gone, but the vast majority of homes are still made of wood.

"Every time lumber prices go up, people start beating the drum about steel and concrete," says Dave Evans, an associate editor with Random Lengths, publisher of information about the lumber industry. "But right now, lumber prices are down, and builders are still buying it."

Some environmentalists, concerned about forest preservation, push for wood alternatives. They say steel and other materials are good for the environment.

"The wood industry responds to those folks by reminding everyone that wood is a renewable resource," Mr. Evans says. "Lumber companies plant more trees than they harvest, and wood is really becoming a crop like corn or anything else. By contrast, there is a limited amount of iron ore in the earth."

Besides, building homes with steel or concrete can cost more, and the labor force is much more familiar with wood construction. Finding skilled help can be difficult, particularly in Washington's tight labor market.

So what makes these materials so attractive to their champions? Steel framing is touted as fire-resistant, with studs and beams that won't warp or crack like wood can over time. And the strength of steel allows builders to be creative, building vast open spaces and huge windows that are sometimes impossible with wood construction.

Concrete homes can boast of their greater fire resistance, lower energy bills and superior performance during hurricanes and tornadoes.

"Concrete is very efficient, and it also makes for a very quiet home," says Bruce Davis, who is building town homes with concrete at Washington Square in La Plata, Md.

"The soundproofing is particularly helpful in town homes, where you used to hear your neighbors flush the toilet. But these homes we are building are ex-tremely quiet."

With a base price of $125,000, the 81 homes being built by Bruce Davis Inc. are priced competitively. So why is Mr. Davis one of a handful of builders using concrete?

For one thing, he used to work in commercial construction, where concrete is king. "And home builders are just slow to make changes," Mr. Davis says. "They have been successful building with wood, so they tend to stick with what they know."

Even though most builders still use wood to put homes together, they are using a wealth of high-tech products that make today's homes more energy-efficient and durable.

"A 2-by-4 is still a 2-by-4," says John Hiser, a custom builder in Maryland. "But any builder who puts his head in the sand thinking he'll use conventional lumber and nothing else is falling behind. When I learn about a new material, I ask a lot of questions and try it out. If I like it, I use it."

A great example of this is the latest in insulation. Similar to the bubble wrap used for mailing fragile items, double-bubble foil is made with two layers of bubbles sandwiched between foil layers.

Other innovations, like vinyl siding, have reduced the maintenance required on today's homes. Vinyl never has to be painted, and the color doesn't fade because it permeates the entire material.

"I used to swear I'd never use vinyl siding, but now I hardly use anything else," Mr. Hiser says. "It lasts longer than aluminum, and you don't have to paint it like wood."

Another new siding material is called Hardiplank. It is a fiber and cement board made of cellulose coated with concrete. Add a layer of acrylic paint, and you have a termite-proof, rot-proof siding or roofing material with a 50-year warranty.

"We've been using it for seven years and really like it," Mr. Davis says. "When you combine this with concrete wall construction, you have a home that is virtually noncombustible and very durable."

To trim this modern siding, modern materials are hard to beat. Builders today can use boards made of solid plastic to make gutter boards or molding.

"You can cut it, screw it, glue it and paint it but you won't ever have to replace it," Mr. Hiser says. "The only drawback I can think of is the sawdust isn't biodegradable like wood dust, so you have to clean it all up."

Plastics are also expanding their foothold in plumbing. PVC pipes have been used for years to take waste water out of the home, but builders like Mr. Hiser are now using PVC for water supply, as well. That's because PVC is very easy to work with, and it lasts longer than traditional copper pipes.

The only new materials Mr. Hiser seems to dislike are the new boards used to build decks. Plastic and plastic/paper composites such as Trex are all the rage these days. They eliminate the need for sealants and preservatives, and they don't warp or expand like wood does.

"Yeah, I know it's durable, maintenance-free and all," Mr. Hiser says. "But when it comes to building a deck, you just can't beat good, old-fashioned wood."

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