Here Are More Examples of Concrete Construction and Fire Resistant Roofing  

My previous two columns about reducing your home’s vulnerability to wildfires generated a lot of reader response, providing even more to write about on this important subject.

Fire resistance is personal for Rita and me, since we live in a wood frame home backing to open space which would be ready fuel for a wildfire.

I’ve been told that following an 1863 fire, Denver passed an ordinance requiring masonry construction. Somewhere along the line, that requirement was dropped. I wouldn’t be surprised to see building codes changed once again restricting wood construction.

While there’s a trend toward requiring  fire suppression systems inside homes, they are designed to suppress fires which originate inside a home.  If a fire originates externally, such systems may be of limited effectiveness in saving a structure.

Last week I wrote about ICFs — insulated concrete forms. Concrete is poured into a form which has insulating EPS (expanded polystyrene) on each side. This produces a concrete wall which has insulation pre-installed on each side of it.

A couple readers made me aware of the opposite approach, a concrete wall in which the “sandwich” has concrete on the outside and the expanded polystyrene on the inside.

Reader Lynn Greene invited me to visit her home in Perry Park (see picture below), southwest of Castle Rock, which was built with Thermomass® walls and concrete floors developed by Composite Technologies Corporation of Boone, Iowa.

Lynn’s tenant told me that the energy costs peak out at about $70 per month to heat the house with radiant floor heating built into the concrete floors. That heat is provided by a high efficiency boiler using natural gas. Large south-facing windows provide a lot of free winter time heating. (Notice the large overhangs shading the south-facing windows in summer but not in the winter.)

The Thermomass walls were poured in place, less expensive and more attractive than walls built of uninsulated concrete block. It also allowed electrical and other conduits to be built into the walls instead of surface mounted afterward.

Another “sandwich” approach is sold by a company called RSG 3-D, but they create panels which are assembled onsite instead of being poured in place. Also, their polystyrene interiors (which are wider) have steel connectors instead of the plastic connectors used in the Thermomass walls. That reduces the insulating quality of the wall, since metal is a conductor.

Another reader reminded me that the making of concrete is a major source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. According to Wikipedia, “The cement industry is one of the two largest producers of carbon dioxide (CO2), creating up to 8% of worldwide man-made emissions of this gas, of which 50% is from the chemical process and 40% from burning fuel.”

Click here to read an article from The Guardian about the development of “green concrete” in Australia that sounds very promising. As you may know, “concrete is made from approximately 10% Portland cement, 3% supplementary cementitious inclusion (for example fly ash), 80% aggregates (such as gravel and sand), and 7% water.” Then it is reinforced with steel, which has its own huge carbon footprint.  By replacing the steel with recycled plastic, that impact is mitigated, and, according to article from The Guardian, the Australian company Wagners has created earth friendly concrete using blast furnace slag – an industrial waste from steel production – along with fly ash, a waste from coal power generation, as a replacement for Portland cement.

To make a concrete home truly resistant to wildfire, it is necessary to make the windows and doors and other openings fire resistant too. There is glass (with frames) rated for 20 to 180 minutes of fire resistance. See www.fireglass.com.

Lastly, one must deal with roofing. Another reader made me aware of the synthetic roofing by CeDUR which was installed on her Wheat Ridge home and which is also on Woody’s Wood-Fired Pizza:

It looks just like a wood shake roof and is installed the same way in individual shakes, but it has the highest rating of fire resistance (Class A), earning homeowners a substantial discount on their homeowners insurance. Learn more at www.cedur.com/fire-safety.

There are vents of all kinds not only on your roof but on soffits, foundations, eaves and gables, and they need to be protected from flying embers. Vulcan Vent sells vents for all those openings, “built to create a barrier against wind-blown embers and flames in the presence of intense heat.” Learn more about them at www.VulcanVents.com.

Just Listed: Ground-Floor 2-BR Arvada Condo With Attached Garage  

West Wood Villas, built in 2007, is a pleasant community of 17 multi-family buildings on a quiet campus off McIntyre Street, a short walk from the Westwoods Shopping Center, where you’ll find Kohls, King Soopers, Ace Hardware, Sprouts, UCHealth Urgent Care, Walgreens, and numerous smaller businesses. This condo at 6273 Kilmer Loop #103 is arguably the “best” unit, being on the ground floor with a private patio, attached 2-car garage and NO STAIRS! It was just listed for $495,000. Find interior pictures, a narrated video tour, and a long list of condo upgrades at www.ArvadaCondo.info.

https://youtu.be/jy55O8E_ots

Just Listed: 5-BR Brick Ranch With Finished Basement in Arvada  

created by dji camera

Few brick ranches in excellent condition like this one with a finished basement at 5930 Garland Street are currently on the MLS. It was just listed at $495,000. Features include an oversized painted & finished garage, plus a 10’x20′ screened patio in back.  Interior photos and a narrated video tour can be viewed at www.ArvadaRanch.info. The location of this home is appealing, within biking or walking distance of Olde Town Arvada. The newly updated Ralston Creek Park is just 1/2 block away, and extensive Ralston Road shopping is also nearby. Open house will be on Saturday, Jan. 22nd, 11am to 1pm.

https://youtu.be/uwB6wdDvLwA
created by dji camera

Do You Have an Adjustable Rate Mortgage? Here Are Some Important Changes

I recently received a call from a reader asking what is likely to happen with his adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) that is tied to the LIBOR Index. LIBOR may be just another acronym that you’ve skipped over in the sea of real estate acronyms, but if you have an ARM read on, because the “index” (LIBOR) that is used to set your interest rate is being phased out after 2021. I asked Jaxzann Riggs, owner of The Mortgage Network what borrowers should expect.

LIBOR, or the London Interbank Offered Rate, was a benchmark interest rate index used for decades by lenders all around the world, as a predictor of future loan costs. To break it down, LIBOR was calculated based on estimates of the average interest rate a group of leading global banks would charge each other for short-term loans. Lenders then used that information (referred to as the “index”) to calculate the rate you would pay for your mortgage as the interest rate on your ARM was “adjusted.”

During higher-priced housing markets, many homeowners chose an adjustable rate mortgage because they preferred the lower monthly payments that an ARM offered. Most ARMs created in the past 20 years were tied to the LIBOR benchmark, which is why this index has played an important role in how much interest you pay on your mortgage if you have an ARM.

The LIBOR index, as I said, is being phased out. Introduced in 1986 by the British Bankers’ Association, the LIBOR index quickly became the default standard interest rate used by both local and international lenders. Despite wide acceptance, LIBOR was based on self-reporting and good faith estimations, which made it very susceptible to manipulation and fraud. Scheming and collusion within the LIBOR index were brought to light in 2012, causing distrust, tighter regulations, and the beginnings of a plan to create a new system. 

Introducing… SOFR, the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (pronounced “so-far”).

Effective January 3, 2022, the mortgage industry began to adopt SOFR. SOFR is a benchmark rate that uses the rates banks are charged for their overnight transactions. This system helps deter manipulation and subjectivity, as it is based on transactions secured by U.S. Treasuries.

What does this mean for you?

Absolutely nothing if you have a fixed-rate mortgage. However, if you have an adjustable rate mortgage, you might see changes in your upcoming bills. ARMs typically adjust annually and as LIBOR-based ARMs hit reset, the new SOFR index is likely to be used to calculate your new rate. When SOFR ARMs reset, they will be adjusted every six months, the reason being that the 1-year LIBOR looks forward, while SOFR looks backward. LIBOR reflects where interest rates are expected to go in the next 12 months, while SOFR reflects an average of short-term rates during a recent 30-day period. 

Jaxzann told me that LIBOR and SOFR rates should be close to each other. “It won’t be identical but within the margin of a homeowner’s perspective, it should be a minimally different.” 

I agree that the switch from LIBOR to SOFR is going to have a relatively limited effect on most borrowers, but as with all things, knowl-edge is power and consumers who have an ARM should contact their loan servicers to discuss the changes that they can expect.

So, take a deep breath and remember, you are not alone in this! Reach out to Jaxzann Riggs  at 303-990-2992 to discuss the implications that SOFR will have on your existing ARM or the future benefits that you might enjoy by having an ARM.

Homes Built of Concrete Garner Increased Interest in Wake of the Marshall Fire  

Last week’s column focused on ways that homes can be made more fire-resistant, but there’s only so much you can do to protect wood frame homes from wildfires that are driven by hurricane force winds. Looking at neighborhoods where every home was reduced to its concrete foundation, it’s not hard to question that common method of construction.

Reader Peter Deem made me aware of the use of insulated concrete forms (ICFs) to construct the entire “envelope” of a house and pointed me to Don Clem of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, which has a local office in Denver. That organization, along with its Colorado affiliate and several concrete companies, sponsored an 18-townhome project in Woodland Park for Habitat for Humanity of Teller County last summer. Here’s a picture of those townhomes under construction:

Photo by Sara Vestal, Teller County HFH

I was first introduced to the use of ICFs when I participated in the 1994 Jimmy Carter Work Project on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in Eagle Butte SD. The 28 homes in that project were conventional wood frame (“stick-built”) homes, but the concrete foundations were poured into ICFs. An ICF replaces more common wood forms which have to be removed from the foundation after it cures. The ICF provides insulation in the form of two inches of expanded polystyrene (EPS) both inside and outside the foundation. After seeing it there, I was surprised not to see ICFs in widespread use for foundations by production builders over the past 27 years.

The ICFs being promoted now are for above-ground use for exterior walls, and there are even ICFs for pouring concrete flat roofs. (More commonly, there are concrete tile sloped roofs, including one on the house Rita and I once owned on Parfet Estates Drive in Golden.)

While concrete is a non-combustible material, the EPS insulating layers will melt with direct flame, but it does not act as a fuel source, will not promote flame spread, and will not release harmful gases. In addition, the ICF would be protected on the outside of a home by siding — for example, a fiber cement siding like Hardieboard, which is not combustible, and the flames would probably only be present briefly during a passing wildfire. The interior would be covered by drywall, as with a stick-built house.

Speaking of that, there is still the question of combustible vegetation such as juniper bushes that are close to your house. Another reader made me aware of Phos-Chek, the same fire retardant that you see used by aerial tankers to attack wildfires. While that chemical is red, it’s available in a colorless concentrate that you mix with water and apply using an ordinary sprayer to the vegetation around your home.  A single bottle of Phos-Chek sufficient to make 5 gallons costs $59.99.  You will need 5 to 20 gallons depending on the amount of vegetation you want to cover. Click here to view a KNBC news segment about a Malibu homeowner who saved her home from the Woolsey fire in November 2018 thanks to an application of Phos-Chek to the grounds around her house three months earlier.

In last week’s column I also mentioned that the soffit vents typical of homes with unconditioned attics can allow embers to enter the attic, igniting an interior fire, but I neglected to mention that there are ways to fireproof soffit vents to keep that from happening.

Another way that concrete homes are being built is using 3D printing pioneered by Icon, an Austin TX-based company which is currently building a 100-home Texas subdivision in partnership with Lennar using that process. Icon built its first 3D-printed home in 2018 as a proof of concept, following which they built a community of 3D-printed homes in Tabasco, Mexico. Here’s a picture of a Habitat for Humanity 3D-printed home in Virginia:

Just as desktop 3D printers work by applying multiple layers of material following a computerized template, Icon’s huge 3D printers apply multiple layers of concrete. See www.IconBuild.com for more information about this company, which, by the way, has NASA contracts to build 3D-printed structures on the moon and on Mars. Their primary mission, however, is “to re-imagine the approach to homebuilding and construction to make affordable, dignified housing available to everyone throughout the world.”

Their home page goes on to say, “the audacious mission of Icon is to revolutionize homebuilding, and our team’s expertise and determination have already made this dream a reality. Our team has a passion for design, engineering, and elegant software. We have decades of experience in sustainable technology and construction innovation.”

Building with concrete is both less labor intensive, less expensive and more sustainable than building with lumber. It’s significant that one of America’s biggest builders, Lennar, is working with Icon to build those 100 concrete homes in Texas. That project should provide facts and figures about the practicality and economy of building with concrete that could be a powerful influence on the rest of the home-building industry.

Politicians Could Learn From the National Football League  

One of the remarkable parts of watching NFL games on television is at the end when the coaches and players who just “fought like hell” against each other converge on the playing field to shake each other’s hands and even hug each other, exchanging congratulations and best wishes to the players who just beat them.

And one of my favorite penalties is for taunting. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a penalty for taunting off the field, including in politics? Nowadays we not only see politicians taunting, insulting and ridiculing each other, but even refusing to concede that they were defeated.

Wikipedia defines taunting as “a battle cry, sarcastic remark, gesture, or insult intended to demoralize the recipient, or to anger them and encourage reactionary behaviors without thinking. Taunting can exist as a form of social competition to gain control of the target’s cultural capital.” Sounds like today’s political discourse, doesn’t it?

In football, a coach can challenge a referee’s call, but the final call after review is accepted without question (except by fans), and the players proceed undaunted, accepting every call and moving quickly to avoid a delay-of-game penalty.

Come to Golden Real Estate’s Ribbon-Cutting This Thursday in Golden  

   Golden Real Estate’s new office at 1214 Washington Ave. in downtown Golden is ready to welcome visitors, so the Golden Chamber of Commerce is hosting a ribbon-cutting at our office  on Jan. 13th from 5 to 7 p.m.

   Readers of this blog are welcome, and we hope to see many of you there. Meet all our agents as well as our in-house lender, Wendy Renee of Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp.

Refreshments will be served.

We Want to Help Fire Victims Who Want to Relocate, Not Rebuild

If someone you know lost their home in last week’s fires and decides to relocate rather than rebuild, have them call us. Golden Real Estate will rebate 75% of our earned commission to any buyer who lost their home and all their furnishings in the fire, so they can use that money to buy new furnishings. Email Jim@GoldenRealEstate.com for more information.

You can donate, too, at www.CommFound.org.

Last Week’s Fire Disaster Is a Wakeup Call for Building More Fire-Resistant Homes  

My column on Nov. 29, 2018, followed the wildfire that took out the entire town of Paradise, California.

Last week we experienced a similar tragedy in our northern suburbs of Superior and Louisville. The difference was that this fire was driven by hurricane force winds that are all too common along the foothills.

Those winds weren’t limited to that area, and it was clear to Rita and me that a spark on Lookout Mountain (to which our home backs) might well have led to a similar catastrophe for the city of Golden. There’s no way to stop a fire driven by such winds.

You probably noticed, as I did, that the fire spared some houses while completely consuming adjoining houses, so perhaps it’s possible to increase the chances of being one of those skipped houses in a future wind-driven wildfire. Was it just luck, or did those homes have any features that may have helped spare them?

Today I’ll describe some features that might increase the chances of a home being skipped.

In high wind or low, it’s important to recognize that fires spread from home to home primarily by wind-blown embers. You’ve probably heard of insurance companies requiring homes in the “wildland urban interface” to create a “defensible space” around them by removing trees and other combustibles within, say, 20 to 30 feet of the home.

Useful as that might be, it’s more important that burning embers from further away not land on combustible material such as dead leaves, shrubbery, a wood deck, or a shingle roof.

There’s a useful website on this topic, www.DisasterSafety.org/wildfire. One of the links on that website that you’ll find useful is “What to do if a wildfire is approaching your home.”

California is, understandably, a leader in researching and rating building materials based on their fire resistance. Cal-Fire’s 48-page handbook dated Dec. 14, 2021, lists construction materials in 7 categories: decking; exterior windows; exterior wall siding and sheathing; exterior doors; under-eave protection; vents; and non-wood roof covering/assemblies.

If I were to invest in making my own home more fire resistant (which I am seriously considering in the wake of last week’s fires), here are some of the things I would investigate;

Metal roofing: I like the look of what is called “stone-coated steel” roofing. It looks from a distance like wood shake roofing. There’s an HOA in south Jeffco which requires wood shake roofing, but it will allow this kind of metal roofing. (It does not allow the more commonly used composition shingle roofing.)

Roof sprinklers: I have often thought it would make sense to install sprinkler heads at strategic locations on my roof to wet the roof if a fire is approaching. I’m going to ask a plumber about this concept. Sprinklers that douse the exterior walls might also be a good idea. I found on Amazon a kit of 2 roof sprinklers with gutter, wall or fence mounting and 50 feet of hose for $179.95, but I   like the idea of permanent sprinkler heads with through-the-roof plumbing, which I think my HOA would find less objectionable.

Motorized rolling metal shutters: I have seen these installed on a few Jeffco homes. They’re marketed for privacy and security, but they completely cover the windows when lowered and would surely help protect against fire. Some such systems allow the shutters to be operated via an app on your smartphone. One vendor is www.SomfySystems.com. Think of this as another reason for having a home battery backup system (which we have ordered) in case of power failure.

Non-combustible siding: The most common siding being installed by local builders is “HardieBoard” from James Hardie. Although it can be mistaken for wood siding, it is actually a non-combustible fiber cement product. It’s only 1/4 inch thick, however, so it only provides short-term protection and does not qualify as fire resistant, so it matters what is underneath it. (Refer to that Cal-Fire handbook of siding products.)

Special attention should be paid to the underside of roof overhangs, balconies and decks, where flames can be trapped. Roof soffits in most homes have vents which combine with vents on the roof to circulate outside air through the attic.  Unfortunately, this design can also allow the introduction of wind-blown embers into the attic. One way to eliminate these vents is to do what Meritage Homes did in building Arvada’s Richards Farm subdivision. The insulation of those homes is closed-cell foam sprayed onto the underside of the roofs, rather than the more typical blown-in cellulose or fiberglass batts resting on the floor of the attic, as is found in most homes. The attic in such homes becomes conditioned (i.e., heated) space, eliminating the need for soffit and roof vents. Meritage probably didn’t consider that making the homes more energy efficient in this way had the added benefit of making them more resistant to ember intrusion in a wildfire.

In past columns, I have promoted the all-electric home for sustainability and health reasons, but last week’s fires have provided another reason for doing away with natural gas. A large number of homes that were not destroyed are nevertheless enduring days and possibly weeks without natural gas for heating during some bitterly cold days. If any of those homeowners had switched to heat pumps for space heating and for hot water (as I have recommended), they would not be affected by the long delay involved in restoring gas service to their neighborhood. That might be an additional inducement to make the switch away from natural gas.

Homeowners in that area are being urged to boil water, so they might consider buying a countertop induction burner, which can boil water in one or two minutes, versus 10 or more minutes on a conventional range. I found 110V models online for $49-79.

It is not uncommon for homes to have “safe rooms” to which homeowners can retreat in case of a home invasion. If such a room were constructed in a basement with cinderblock walls, a metal door, and a concrete-and-metal ceiling, it might double as a survival room in the event of a wildfire when evacuation is a risky alternative. Given the increase in tornadoes due to climate change, it could also serve as a tornado shelter.

Although I have not researched it, I would guess that taking some of these precautions — especially metal roofing and the rolling metal shutters — might help to reduce your insurance premiums, as well as to possibly save your life and property in case of wildfire.