Unfazed by associations with cell blocks and parking garages, more homeowners are discovering that concrete is the chameleon of construction. It can take on the texture of wood or glass, an artist’s palette of color beyond drab gray and, with the addition of structural fibers and plasticizers, is less prone to cracking.
Concrete has been around since ancient times, when Roman builders mixed lime, sand and rubble with volcanic ash to create the Pantheon dome. Modern concrete swaps out the volcanic ash for portland cement. Concrete homes can be poured in place into forms made of plywood or steel plate and lined with everything from pine boards to mirror-smooth plastic laminate. Or they can be erected using precast concrete walls or blocks. The sturdiest concrete homes are reinforced with steel, making them strong enough to withstand fires, floods and hurricanes.
Concrete homes are typically more expensive to build than conventional homes, but they’re less expensive to maintain and more durable over time. Concrete affects the bottom line in other ways, lowering heating and cooling costs and even insurance premiums. “Reinforced-concrete building systems are more disaster resistant, more insect resistant, more mold resistant—also one of the most energy-efficient systems available,” said Ed Hudson, director of marketing research for Home Innovation Research Labs, a subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group.
According to surveys, poured and precast concrete is most popular in the luxury sector—accounting for 4.1% of high-end homes built last year. That marks a steady increase in the demand for luxury concrete since the recession low in 2012, when such homes accounted for just 1.9% of new construction. Investing in concrete construction with high-end finishes may pay off in resale value–– Realtors now recognize that polished concrete floors are a very popular design element. Also, concrete, when imprinted with a pattern, can create an aesthetically pleasing dramatic effect. Although renowned for its durability, not all concrete is built to last. In the Los Altos Hills, Calif., a designer constructed a wall that has been engineered to partially erode over time; the concrete, which was mixed with soil and organic matter to encourage the growth of lichen and moss, is also embedded with hidden objects, such as stones, machine parts and a doll belonging to a female client. “Some are starting to show up now,” she said. “Some of the things won’t show up even in my lifetime.”