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Why we need resilient building materials

Tom Evans

Tom Evans

April’s massive five-alarm fire at an apartment complex under construction in College Park left the building at risk of collapse and came on the heels of another fire in Fort Washington that injured four people, including a firefighter, and displaced 30 residents.

In July, it was a tornado in the Bay City area of Stevensville in Queen Anne’s County after its 125 mph winds caused extensive damage and affected multiple counties.

And, just recently, Howard County marked the one-year anniversary of the flash flood that claimed lives and destroyed structures along Main Street in Ellicott City, costing millions in damage and lost economic activity and wages.

These sad occurrences are often followed by heightened discussions about fire and storm safety and prevention, and rightfully so. However, planners with resiliency in mind are now including the topic of construction materials and methods, in their safety prevention conversations.

Using safer materials

While most of us really don’t think about what the walls of a building are made of, the reality is the selection of materials plays a vital role in everything from occupant safety to energy efficiency and overall building performance. Buildings made of concrete provide safety for the residents and employees who live and work in them as well as for firefighters and emergency responders entering the building.

In recent years, for mid-rise (three to five-stories) buildings, only the foundations tend to be made with concrete as architects and designers have not fully embraced the proven technology and innovations found in concrete materials and products.

We are missing an opportunity when concrete wall systems are not used above grade. Concrete provides a high-performance building envelope (the physical separator between the interior and exterior of a building) that leads to a range of benefits, including durability, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, cost savings, and — most importantly — safety.

The design flexibility of concrete allows buildings to experience added resiliency while still having the look of any other building. Concrete conforms to your design. Concrete buildings meet or exceed the performance requirements set by the end user, like comfort, cost, and safety.

Kent Island structure

Buildings with a concrete envelope will last many lifetimes and are virtually disaster-proof, providing safety for the current occupants and lower maintenance cost for the future occupants. Concrete walls and floors between units in a multifamily building act as fire stops and prevent collateral damage in case of explosions or blasts. Buildings made with concrete walls and floors offer supreme durability, withstanding destructive forces like high winds, rotting, and fire.

One building with no damage from the July 23 tornado and storms on Kent Island is the Chesapeake Village Center. It’s the first multistory, multi-use insulated concrete form (ICF) commercial building on the Eastern Shore.

ICF is a system of formwork for reinforced concrete made with a rigid thermal insulation that stays in place as a permanent interior and exterior substrate for walls, floors, and roofs. The forms are interlocking modular units that are dry-stacked and filled with concrete.

Energy efficiency

Buildings with concrete wall systems are as affordable as buildings with any other framing system. The real savings start when the building becomes occupied and the utilities are turned on. The combination of concrete’s thermal mass and insulation, creates an extremely energy efficient building. Buildings with concrete walls provide comfortable indoor air quality at a fraction of the cost to heat and cool buildings framed with other materials.

For example, Discovery Elementary School in Northern Virginia was built with ICF’s and has a site energy intensity that is three to eight times lower than other elementary schools in its school system.

Studies show that homes with above-grade concrete walls can use eight to 15 percent less energy than other homes. Because 70 percent of the yearly energy used in the U.S. comes from building operations (heating and cooling) we should design buildings with an envelope that offers the best energy performance.

In addition to outstanding energy performance, concrete buildings offer sound reduction, design flexibility and overall durability. Planners who consider concrete early in the design can take advantage of all its benefits.

It’s about time the safety and fire prevention discussion includes building materials; and the discussions start at the beginning of the conceptual design process. The concrete industry welcomes the opportunity to be included in your next discussion about safety prevention and resilience.

Tom Evans is executive director of the Maryland Ready Mix Concrete Association, representing ready mixed concrete suppliers and contractors across Maryland. He can be reached at [email protected].