From: Hubble Smith, Las Vegas Review-Journal
Published February 25, 2005 12:00 AM

'Green Building' Trend Grows

Las Vegas home builders are putting in low-energy appliances, heat-resistant windows and desert landscaping in an effort to conserve natural resources, part of the "green building" trend in residential construction.

They're on the right track, but they need to start with the building's "skin" to really save energy, said Ray Wickstrom, a Las Vegas sales representative for Phoenix Systems and Components.

The problem is that too many builders are stuck in a wooden frame of mind, he said. Instead of using lumber to frame walls, windows and roofs, they should be using insulated concrete forms, a building method that's been around for about 40 years.

"It's like an Oreo cookie," Wickstrom said. "The outside of the form is expanded polystyrene and the inside is concrete."

Expanded polystyrene is the same material used for disposable coffee cups, where one-eighth inch of insulation protects you from 180-degree coffee, he noted.


If you looked at an infrared thermal image of a conventionally built home, you'd see heat loss across the entire wall, Wickstrom said. The windows would be white-hot. The same image of a home built with insulated concrete forms shows minimal heat loss, resulting in lower energy bills.

Building a home with the concrete forms costs about the same as building it with two-by-four wood framing, anywhere from $150 to $200 a square foot. The result is a "zero-energy" home that can create more energy than it needs, which can be sold back to the electrical power grid. By the Department of Energy's definition, a "zero energy" home is one that saves 50 percent in energy use, Wickstrom said.

Phoenix Systems claims homeowners will pay 72 percent less on heating and cooling bills than a similar wood-frame home built to the standards of a typical American home.

Homes built by companies such as Pardee Homes are certified as "Energy Star" by the U.S. Department of Energy and EPA for construction technology that results in a 33 percent reduction of energy use. The components that go into an "Energy Star" home rating deal with the walls, roof, windows and heating and air conditioning.

Debra March, director of the Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said energy-efficient construction can be achieved by using different insulation and building materials.

"You have Pardee Homes. They pride themselves on being a green builder and I'm sure there's some work on the commercial side, too," she said. "The cost of doing business has become so expensive, so developers are looking at ways to save money in the design."

Lied Institute is presenting a course March 5 on energy-efficient construction, taught by Neil Opfer of the UNLV Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Wickstrom said he pitched Phoenix Systems' technology to Pulte and KB Home, two of the top builders in Las Vegas. He said Pulte did a study on it and KB was concerned about finding qualified workers who could install the system.

"They're all stuck in the old paradigm of a wooden frame structure," he said. "Even if it's not my material, I'd support anyone who uses the system."

One advantage of Phoenix Systems is the web that holds the polystyrene forms together, preventing a "blowout" when the concrete is poured, Wickstrom said. The ties are placed 8 inches apart with thick flanges embedded just below the interior and exterior wall surfaces that provide the same nailing surface as a two-by-four stud, he said.

American PolySteel Forms, another polystyrene insulation product, was used to build the Salvation Army apartments on Owens Avenue in 1996.

"Overall, if there's a better way to build, I haven't found it yet," Richard Baines, distributor of APS Building Systems in Las Vegas, said at the time.

In addition to being incredibly energy efficient, insulated concrete form homes are strong and quiet and resistant to fire, insects and mold, Wickstrom said. "What we're building here," he said, "is a 300-year home, not a 30-year home."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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