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"One of the more promising products, being developed by Composite Building Structures, Ltd., Fort Myers, is a high-tech fiberglass composite that can be used to make the frame and shell of a house."

Wall Street Journal - Marketplace Section - 11/23/05  (See Article)

 

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Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

 

REAL ESTATE -- Living in the future

 

South Louisiana needs a lot of new houses--fast--and that has innovators saying the next evolution of home building is now.
By Seth Fox , Staff writer -- Posted 3/28/06 09:04am

 

Katrina and Rita left more than 200,000 houses in Louisiana in need of rebuilding, according to Louisiana Economic Development. The longer they wait, the more grave the impact on recovery.


The scale and speed required have many saying conventional stick-built home building--in which lumber is cut and fastened together largely on-site--is not up to the job.


"It's a fairly slow and inefficient process," says LED Assistant Secretary Don Pierson.

 

Stick-built houses typically take between three and 12 months, depending on size and complexity.


That has created an opening for entrepreneurs jockeying to present their production technology as the future of housing. Two dozen companies with innovative building materials or systems have approached LED with ideas for rebuilding South Louisiana.


If one of these new technologies can prove itself, producing houses that look like regular houses but are faster to build and cost-competitive, it could remake the industry. And if that happened, south Louisiana--including Baton Rouge--would become Ground Zero for the future of home building.


Enter "systems building," a blanket term that describes a number of technologies for mass-producing large parts of houses in a factory. On-site, the house is then assembled more than built. But the end result is a regular house, not a dressed-up doublewide.


"You can produce high quality in a factory environment," says Rodney Cobi, whose firm, Center for Landscape Interpretation, has been working to bring systems building to Louisiana for years.


Because systems-built houses favor framing in fiberglass, steel or concrete, they are also more resistant to wind and mold, not to mention termites.


Where less-traditional home building typically falls short, though, is price. Non-wood homes typically sell at 10% to 15% higher than stick-built, says LED's Director of Advanced Materials Jim Landry. But couple increased demand for wood with stricter building codes in high-risk areas, and wood may lose its price advantage.


"It's going to make other markets somewhat more competitive," Landry says.

 

Composites


James Antonic, president and CEO of Composite Building Structures, believes he has found the perfect material for systems building -- a resin-coated fiberglass he says can withstand 300 mph winds.
 

Antonic leads the post-Katrina systems building pack. He is finalizing plans for a plant along New Orleans' Industrial Canal and even eyeing an eventual Baton Rouge facility at Kansas City Southern's geodesic dome north of town.


At Antonic's plants, a house design -- any house design -- is fed into a computer, and then a series of machines produce fiberglass panels, cut them to size and label where each goes. It takes less than an hour. The panels are erected at the site using cranes in a matter of days. A builder then adds the interiors and facade.


On price, Antonic says research he's conducted in Louisiana, Vancouver and Florida shows he can already match the cost of wood.


Steel


Louisiana Steel Frame Homes' co-owner Frank Vautrot touts steel as the next wave. A steel frame can be assembled in about a week. The on-site building process doesn't differ much from traditional stick-built homes, but steel speeds up the process because much of the frame is factory pre-assembled before the slab is even poured.


Although most people think of steel as a commercial building material, the Church Point-based company has residential clients who want steel for its straighter, truer walls or its resistance to wind and insects.


But Vautrot admits, "For all the advantages [steel] has, initial price is not one of them."


That may be a temporary glitch. "For a long time steel was stable," he adds. "Generally, steel prices didn't fluctuate for 30 years."


And increased lumber costs may reduce the cost-gap.


Modular housing


Not all mass-production methods use new materials. Louisiana Manufactured Housing Association Executive Director Steve Duke says today's modular houses feature the same materials as a traditional on-site stick-built houses, but with added efficiency and speed of completion. Duke says a modular house can be up and habitable in about two months.


That's because, as with steel, much of the construction happens in a factory. Then the modular parts are delivered and assembled on-site. The line between stick-built and modular is already blurred. Some parts of stick-built houses, such as roof-trusses, arrive pre-assembled.


Duke is working hard to shake his industry's trailer-park connotation. Modular housing, he says, can meet the same safety requirements and building codes as other methods, and the end result can be customized depending on which modules are brought in.


Also, because modular housing be built outside the area, it can be insulated from local cost pressures cost on materials and labor.


Concrete


Scott Machardy's New Mexico-based concrete home-building company, Pumice-crete Building Systems, typically aims at a middle- to high-end custom buyer. But he believes his method would work in New Orleans.


"It's also applicable to affordable housing," he says.


Pumice-crete builds on-site, not in a factory, but the method is simple and fast. A house's walls are framed in plywood molds, then a lightweight, low-density concrete is poured in. Casting takes one day, and the 14-inch walls require no additional insulation or structural components.


Once the concrete is dry, the plywood is removed and reused.
 

Along with insect prevention, Machardy says concrete trumps stick built homes on sturdiness. "You're not relying on nail connections and screws into wood," he says.


Shipping containers


Others are thinking way outside the box -- and in containers. Shipping containers, to be specific, the kind that float by Baton Rouge on barges.


In architecture schools and magazines, recycled shipping containers are being offered as the next great solution for low-cost buildings.


The containers are found in ports, where the trade deficit has resulted in mountains of empties. Punch out windows and install wires, plumbing and insulation, et voila: instant modernist house. Projects have already popped up in the northeast, California, Australia and the U.K. in recent years.


The big selling point for the containers -- beyond their availability -- is they can be stacked without buckling or otherwise failing. And price is no obstacle. New Jersey architect Adam Kalkin's Quik House kit is a three bedroom, 2.5-bath house made from five containers, available finished at about $90 a square foot.
 

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