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Concrete homes strong, comfy

Dear Jim: We are planning our dream house. We want to use a building method that is attractive and efficient but also very strong. We already lost one home, and almost our lives, to tornadoes. What do you suggest? -- Marg R.Dear Marg: There have been many advances in efficient and strong concrete-framed house-construction methods. When finished, they look just like any ordinary wood-framed house. With the superior strength of concrete, your architect has even more design flexibility for a unique contemporary home.

The strength of concrete also makes these houses much safer in tornadoes and hurricanes. If there is a house fire, the walls will remain standing. These houses are very quiet and comfortable, especially in the summer, due to the heavy thermal mass of the walls.

The exterior of a concrete house can be finished with any typical exterior wall treatment -- siding, brick, stone, stucco, etc. Stucco is particularly attractive and well-suited to this type of construction. It is low maintenance, quick to apply and it seals small gaps and air leaks.

There are many new concrete building methods that are very energy efficient. These methods use either concrete with separate insulation systems or insulation mixed directly into the concrete as it is formed. Concrete-framed houses settle very little, so they remain airtight.

One method, used in Europe for decades, is aerated concrete systems (called either AAC or ACC). Using steam and very fine cement particles, large AAC building panels are produced. They weigh only one quarter as much as concrete and are very strong. They are totally vermin and termite proof.

Another concrete panel system uses normal-density concrete. Your architect or builder takes your building plans to a local concrete plant. The wall panels are precisely made to your plans with the wiring, rough openings and foam insulation included. Construction time is greatly reduced.

One of the most energy efficient building methods is stay-in-place forms. Instead of using plywood wall forms that are removed, high-R-value rigid foam insulation panels are used instead. They are left in place after the concrete sets. A variation on this is stackable hollow foam blocks.

Shotcrete is another extremely efficient and strong method. First a thick lightweight foam insulation core is erected. Reinforcing steel mesh is placed on both sides. Concrete is sprayed under high pressure on to the mesh and foam to create the wall. There is virtually no air leakage.

Another option is insulated concrete blocks. These use special concrete blocks that fit together with foam insulation sections to create the wall.

Write for (or instantly download -- www.dulley.com) Update Bulletin No. 491 -- lists of 20 concrete system manufacturers, descriptions of the various building methods and stucco basics. Please include $3.00 and a business-size SASE.

James Dulley, Newspaper Name, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244

Dear Jim: With the warmer weather here now, I was wondering if indoor plants help to cool a house in the summer. We have central air-conditioning and we use it a lot in the summer. -- Paul I.

Dear Paul: The answer to your question depends on your climate. Plants do give off moisture and this evaporation process does cool the air. Unfortunately, this also increases the indoor humidity level.

If you live in a dry region that uses evaporative coolers (swamp coolers), then the indoor plants will help cool. In more humid climates, the extra indoor humidity more than negates any cooling effect.

"You can take an online open house tour of James Dulley's own house and see all the money-savings improvements and products that he tests in his own home. There are nearly 100 pictures with links to the various columns that describe the improvements and products. Go to www.dulley.com/house/ on the Internet to visit his home."