Living inside concrete walls

Local man hopes to drum up business by living in city's first polystyrene-insulated house

Posted: Tuesday, March 07, 2000

Phil Benson is going to live his sales pitch.

Benson, a local housing contractor, is building a concrete house on Glacier Highway that he and his family plan on moving into in coming weeks.

``It's a several-fold proposition,'' he said. ``It is an example of my work, it is my home and it is a model home for the Polysteel system.''

As a marketing strategy, that's probably a first for Juneau, said contractor Alan Wilson, president of the Alaska State Home Builders Association. ``I don't know of anyone else who's done that. It's kind of putting your money where your mouth is.''

The house apparently will be the first one in Juneau using insulated concrete, marketed as Polysteel Forms, for the entire frame.

Steve Shows, chief building inspector for the city, said that concrete foundations have been used in Juneau. But Benson's 3,500-square-foot home, with a 625-square-foot attached apartment and 1,000-square-foot attached garage, ``is the first modern use of concrete that is insulated in such a way to provide creature comfort,'' Shows said.

Benson, who has been active in home construction in Juneau for seven years, is the Alaska distributor for American Polysteel Forms of Albuquerque, N.M. He said that rather than aggressively marketing the construction product through media advertising, he hopes that demand will build up on its own as a few of the homes are built.

While concrete in itself conducts outside temperature changes, the Polysteel forms have foam plastics that trap air, Shows said.

The company touts Polysteel structures as averaging a complete air exchange every 10 hours, compared to 2.5 hours for wood-frame homes.

Benson said his energy bill for January, including electricity, was a mere $131, despite the fact that the crew building the house was constantly coming and going through the outside doors.

``We fired up the heat in this house, and we've been in T-shirts ever since,'' he said.

Meanwhile, his current apartment, with about one-fifth the air space, racked up a $240 bill, he said.

The Polysteel difference in heating costs more than compensates for the slightly higher construction cost, he said. American Polysteel Forms contends that the houses cost 2 to 4 percent more, generally.

Benson describes Polysteel Forms as looking ``like giant hollow Lego blocks which stack together to form walls, which are then filled with concrete.''

The forms are 16 inches high, 48 inches long and are 6 or 8 inches in core width. They're quick to assemble, Benson said, although he has been working on his new home for a year and half, due to bad weather during the winter of 1998-99 and other construction work that has kept him busy in the meantime.

Polysteel Forms not only keep out water - contrary to concrete's reputation as being porous - but also bugs, which are killed by a built-in insecticide, Benson said.

Laboratory tests indicate that Polysteel is six times stronger than conventional building materials, Benson said. And it's a lot quieter inside, he said.

He also touts its ``unlimited design flexibility.''

``You can integrate this into virtually any kind of design,'' he said.

Benson hopes to do two more Polysteel houses this year.

``It would seem that a lot of building technologies in general take their time to work their way up here to Alaska,'' Benson said. ``People are slow to change.''

Wilson, the builders association president, said that Polysteel could gain acceptance as residents change their mindset about concrete.

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