Concrete vs. Other Construction Materials
Posted On: 05/20/2019 | Posted by: DY Concrete Pumps
Construction materials for any building project need to be readily available, cost-effective and durable. For much of human history, the only feasible options have been wood or stone — and wood has been effective enough to remain a construction staple today. Steel has become a relatively common construction material, as well, thanks to several advantages over wood.
One material that hasn’t gotten enough credit is concrete. Long popular in Europe, concrete has traditionally been viewed as a utilitarian material suitable for use where aesthetic is at the bottom of the priority list. Most people associate concrete with parking structures, bunkers and other less-than-homey places, and don’t realize it makes an ideal material for homes as well as utility buildings.
With continual advancements in concrete formulations, more and more beautiful concrete buildings prove this material can compete with others on every level.
Advantages of Concrete as a Construction Material
Once you realize concrete house construction doesn’t have to sacrifice aesthetics, the benefits of this building material become immediately evident. The following seven examples provide substantial food for thought on concrete vs. other materials.
Most concrete buildings are designed to last at least 30 years in service, although many last longer before deteriorating to the point of repair or replacement. Concrete is so durable and long-lasting that buildings made from it are rarely demolished due to deterioration. Instead, they become obsolete and suitable for repurposing or demolition for new construction.
Concrete is highly resistant to damage and abrasion from high humidity and rain. It has hardly any organic content that can rust or rot, so moisture can only attack at joints. Annual joint maintenance ensures a concrete building remains impermeable to moisture.
Concrete makes the best material for house construction in areas susceptible to extreme weather. One particular home provides a shining example of concrete’s durability. The Sundbergs were a family determined to build their home in the hurricane-prone coast of Mississippi. After studying a variety of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps and building codes, they decided to build with concrete.
They designed their home with Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) walls and used concrete for beams, columns, roof and floors in the home. At only 85 percent of the completion of the house, Hurricane Katrina tore through the area. Aside from a good number of shattered windows, the home was completely intact. Concrete construction allowed the house to withstand 180 to 220 mph winds and 28-foot flood waters.
2. Fire Resistance
Water and wind aren’t the only elements concrete defies. Concrete is fireproof, and even if the interior of the home suffers fire damage, the concrete shell will escape unscathed. Home structure fires are an inherent hazard with most building materials. Each year, United States fire departments respond to more than 355,000 house fires that cause an average of $6.5 billion in property damage.
While fire is a risk in any geographic location, those who live in areas with notable wildfire risk should give even more consideration to concrete when building a home. The devastating Carr wildfire in Northern California destroyed 1564 homes and claimed several lives in the process. In the aftermath, many residents are considering how to fireproof new homes — and concrete makes an attractive option.
The up-front cost to build a new concrete home is higher than that of wood or steel frame homes. The difference in cost tends to fluctuate as the price of steel moves up and down, while the price of concrete stays relatively stable. At the national average, a concrete house will cost between 4 and 8 percent more than a steel or wood frame home.
When you’re already talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, that small percentage can add up to a significant price tag. However, concrete homeowners enjoy a substantial reduction in energy costs over time. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), concrete construction saves homeowners 20 and 25 percent monthly on their energy costs. In other words, the upgrade to concrete pays for itself.
Insurance costs for concrete homes are notably lower, as well, since the houses are significantly less susceptible to damage of all varieties.
4. Construction Speed
The speed of construction for a concrete building depends on the type of concrete, but it’s generally comparable to wood frame construction and markedly faster than structural steel. Because steel must be fabricated off-site and transported, the process takes longer than pouring and erecting a concrete slab.
When using a cast-in-place concrete plan, builders can implement a two-day cycle. This intensive cycle allows workers to complete up to 20,000 square feet of floor in 48 hours.
5. Energy Efficiency
Concrete is a good insulator, making it a great choice for regulating temperatures in both hot and cold environments. Since it has fewer spaces for air to move through, less energy is needed to keep a building warm or cool. This low permeability means that concrete can help maintain temperatures even during long periods without heat or power, so it’s often used for shelters.
With these qualities, many home and business owners can reduce their energy bills by building with concrete. Using ICFs can offer additional insulation for better performance. Producing concrete is also more energy-efficient than making other types of building materials, like steel and aluminum.
Concrete is highly malleable when mixed and can take on various additives, appearances, surface textures and shapes. We see new types of concrete being made every year, including blends with high-performing characteristics to suit specific applications. Concrete can be used in specialty projects and adapted to fit even the most unique projects. Plus, it doesn’t need special conditions to set, so it can harden at ambient temperatures.
Characteristics like moisture and high-temperature resistance make concrete a good fit for settings with these demands, like underwater construction and high-heat factories.
7. Low Maintenance
The maintenance costs of properly installed concrete are little to none, with many applications lasting for decades. While you might choose to coat or repaint concrete for aesthetic reasons, doing so isn’t required to maintain its structural performance.
Building owners may find that concrete construction lowers maintenance demands due to reduced risks for poor air quality, moisture damage, fading or wear from sunlight, pests and structural problems. As a result, homeowners and building managers may need to spend less on replacing components, setting up costly ventilation systems or spraying for vermin.
Concrete Construction Process
Construction of concrete buildings differs in many ways from the traditional process, and there are multiple ways to go about it. The two most common types of concrete structures for residential and office buildings are tilt-up and ICF. Before beginning, both construction methods require workers to excavate the site and prep the subgrade. Once the site is ready, the two methods diverge.
1. Tilt-Up Construction Process
Tilt-up construction is almost self-explanatory. Once large slabs of concrete are dry, machinery tilts them up and into place. The process goes as follows:
- Workers first create footings for the slab panels. These wood bars define the size and shape of the panels. All doorways and windows are included in the initial form, so there’s no room for error in following the design.
- The workers incorporate the rebar lattices into the forms. They also create inserts where the crane will hold and lift the slab, as well as embeds where the panels will attach to floors, the roof and other panels.
- Once the forms are completely clean and dry, workers pour the concrete in and wait for the panels to dry.
- Workers remove the forms and attach cables to the crane.
- The crane lifts and tilts the slab until it hovers vertically above the ground, at which point workers push the slab into the right position.
- The crane carefully lowers the slab down. Workers brace the panel and connect it to the footing.
Once the crane disconnects from the finished panel, the crew is ready to rinse and repeat as many times as they can for the day.
2. ICF Construction Process
Insulated concrete forms come in a few different types, but they all function on the same design principle. Each block consists of two insulating faces, usually made of polystyrene. The two faces are connected by metal connectors, plastic or more polystyrene with empty space in the middle. The construction process is simple, but requires precision:
- After preparing the site, workers create a footer that will work with a particular ICF system.
- Workers stack the ICF units in layers. Many ICF blocks have interlocking grooves at the top and bottom to make stacking blocks fast and easy.
- Workers heavily brace walls to ensure they remain straight and install rebar in the blocks according to manufacturer specifications.
- Workers re-check bracing, and once they confirm the wall is still straight, it’s time to pour the concrete. A concrete pouring truck is traditional, but builders can simplify and speed up the process with the use of a concrete boom pump.
- Once the concrete dries and cures — usually within three to five days — the bracing comes off. The building is now ready for wiring through the foam surface, as well as for interior and exterior finishing.
Obstacles in the Concrete Construction Process
Building with concrete (especially ICF) is no more complicated than building with traditional materials. However, some unique issues can plague novice concrete builders. Here are a few tips to help things go smoothly for a beginner:
- Use Enough Fasteners: Attaching the recommended number of fasteners during ICF construction is time-consuming, and some builders will cut corners by ignoring the recommendations. This practice is dangerous and degrades the durability of the completed building.
- Triple-Check Your Plans: The main disadvantage of concrete vs. other materials is the lack of flexibility for last-minute changes. If you find a flaw or mistake in your building plan, you won’t be able to alter it after the concrete starts flowing. Putting a window in the wrong place may not be a deal-breaker, but it’s critical to be more safe than sorry with concrete.
- Don’t Risk Blowouts: Experienced builders know how much pouring ICF blocks can handle at a time. Pushing that limit risks a “blowout,” where rapidly-poured concrete breaks through the polystyrene blocks. When this happens, the cost of wasted concrete and the effort of cleanup may cause profound delays.
As with any construction project, having an experienced professional in the loop makes costly mistakes less likely.
Common Applications of Concrete Construction
Now that the convenience and cost benefits of concrete house construction are clear, it’s worth exploring three of the more specific reasons people and companies choose concrete.
1. To Stay Up to Code
Most states and jurisdictions in the United States adopt some form of the codes set forth by the International Code Council (ICC). The ICC evaluates and updates building codes every three years, but there is no obligation for states and communities to actually follow those codes.
In 2016, Louisiana experienced catastrophic flooding after prolonged rainfall — 31 inches of rain in 15 hours led to mass power outages and flood damage to at least 40,000 homes. Yet despite the overwhelming destruction, Louisiana decided it wasn’t necessary to add into the building code the ICC mandate requiring the bottoms of buildings to rise one foot above base flood elevations.
Many builders of homes or other constructions have good reason to want their building to exceed the minimum codes in their community. Reinforced concrete passes muster for any building code, and often far exceeds the minimum requirements for ICC compliance. In areas prone to extreme weather events or temperatures, concrete is undoubtedly the best material for house construction.
2. To Cut Down on Noise
Concrete affords comfort in addition to safety. Noisy neighbors and loud music from the other room cause far less discord than they would in a traditionally-framed home because concrete is excellent at sound dampening.
In comparison to a wood-frame wall, only an eighth to a quarter as much sound will penetrate a wall made from ICF blocks. This property makes concrete an ideal solution for settings that benefit from noise blocking. Think office buildings, schools or apartments.
3. To Improve Healthcare Settings
Concrete even has health benefits over other materials, making it highly suitable for environments like hospitals and private practices. Concrete buildings have minimal levels of air infiltration. When air can’t get into a building, it’s easier to control and filter the air circulating indoors. Lack of air infiltration also significantly reduces unwanted moisture.
As a structural element, concrete offers better vibration control and sound dampening to benefit both patients and staff in a medical facility. Studies on noise levels in hospitals show too much commotion affects how well patients recover, and how well staff members can focus on their jobs. Reducing building vibration can improve the function of increasingly fine-tuned machines, as well as decrease strain on surgeons performing delicate procedures.
Certain forms of concrete featuring calcium aggregates also block more radiation than any other construction material. Facilities that perform radiation therapies are particularly suited to concrete builds.
Concrete vs. Wood
Despite being the material of choice today, wood construction comes with a host of pitfalls concrete avoids. When weighing a concrete vs. wood house, consider these factors:
- Pests: Termites are a wood frame homeowner’s personal hell. The average cost of a termite treatment runs over $500, and an out-of-control infestation can end up costing upwards of $2500 depending on the severity. Termites may have strong jaws, but they have no interest in or ability to chew through the walls or floor of a concrete home.
- Rot and Mold: Prolonged humidity can cause a wood-framed house to experience persistent trouble with mold. In many cases, homeowners don’t realize they have a leak in their wood walls until health problems or visual indicators appear. By that point, mold may have already taken root. Concrete doesn’t absorb moisture, so there’s little chance of mold. And rot, of course, isn’t an issue.
- Longevity: Today’s wood-frame houses have lifespans of about 30 to 50 years on the low end. In concrete vs. wood construction, the longevity of concrete wins out by centuries.
Concrete generally wins out when it comes to strength, versatility, durability, soundproofing and energy efficiency. It can even offer cost savings for the initial build as well as maintenance and efficiency savings later on. Wood is lightweight and easy to work with, but those advantages fade with time and result in constructions that are more likely to fail or have problems, which adds to the overall costs.
At first, wood might seem like the greener choice since it’s renewable, but the topic is more complex than that. Longer-lasting buildings, increased energy efficiency, reduced energy demands and less waste all play into the carbon footprints of concrete and wood. Green concrete technologies are becoming more widely available, reducing carbon emissions during the production process. Plus, many types of concrete can be broken down and recycled, and some industrial waste is used as aggregate.
Concrete vs. Steel
In every way except cost, steel is a better option for construction than wood. The contest is much closer when it comes to concrete vs. steel construction. Here are some of the ways steel is at a disadvantage to concrete:
- Fire Resistance: Steel-frame structures are non-combustible and undoubtedly more resistant to fire than wood. However, exposure to extremely high temperatures compromises the material’s integrity. To mitigate this risk, the International Building Code (IBC) mandates that steel components must be nested within additional flame-retardant materials.
- Corrosion: When water and steel come into contact, you’re faced with the possibility of corrosion. If such contact continues undiscovered, the steel faces increasing chances of weakening. Again, steel beats wood handily in a contest of ability to handle water contact, but reinforced concrete is almost entirely water-resistant.
- Lifetime Cost: As concrete homes become more popular, costs are stabilizing and coming down. Steel, on the other hand, fluctuates greatly. The cost of concrete house construction is little more up front and provides permanent savings on energy and insurance. Considering the added safety, insulation and longevity you get from a concrete home, the lifetime cost of steel is significantly higher.
Concrete outperforms steel in these areas without much additional work. Steel is often faster to work with and has a high strength-to-weight ratio, but it doesn’t have the same safety profile or design flexibility as concrete. You can also get concrete from local sources, which keeps supply chains closer and uses less energy for transporting the material.
Choose DY Concrete Pumps to Enhance Concrete Construction Efficiency
Thinking of a building project that’s perfect for concrete? You may be interested in a concrete boom pump. A boom pump’s flexibility makes it possible to accurately lay concrete where ordinary trucks can’t go. Contact DY Concrete Pumps to learn more about how our equipment and services can fast track your concrete construction project.