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Drawn to Concrete Homes

Environmentally friendly, economical and virtually indestructible, concrete is finding a new home.

In November, Mike Tsamouras will move into a newly constructed home in Vienna on a quiet block on Berry Street.

But Tsamouras explains that if the neighborhood ever gets loud, he will be the last to complain. His new home is made of concrete.

"Everything is more solid. You don't have the vibration," said Tsamouras, standing on his unfinished gravel driveway. "When it's windy outside, you don't hear it."

Originally from Greece, the self-employed salesman has long known the benefits of building with concrete. "All over Europe, that's all they do, and then they dress it with brick or rock, but the walls are concrete," said Tsamouras.

When finished, Tsamouras' six bedroom, 7,500-square-foot home will be indistinguishable from a traditional stick-built house.

BUILDING WITH CONCRETE costs more up front compared to wood construction, but it's worth it, say concrete industry advocates.

Like an energy-efficiency appliance, a concrete home will save homeowners money over time, said Hessam Nabavi, director of industry services for Virginia Ready-Mixed Concrete Advisory Council. "It costs a few percent more to build, depending on the design," said Nabavi. "On average, though, it pays for the difference between three to five years because of the energy it saves."

According to Nabavi, who said concrete homes are going up all over Northern Virginia, a concrete home reduces utility bills by an average of 30 percent.

Savings can also be found on the insurance side. Because of disaster-resistant qualities, insurance companies often offer discounts up to 25 percent to owners of concrete homes, according to the Insulating Concrete Forms Association.

The homes reduce operating costs, said Nabavi. The concrete home can't rust or rot and it isn't vulnerable to termites or other insects. And, concrete will not burn.

JUST DOWN the street from Tsamouras' house, Mark Quinn, a custom builder and president of Project Services Management, is building a 6,000-square-foot concrete home for Jay Ahn and Suzan Park, relatives who own a construction company in Chantilly.

"It's a house made of coffee cups and concrete, but it will withstand a hurricane or a tornado," said J.P. Brahoney, a concrete supplier in Loudoun County, describing Ahn and Park's new home, which will be finished in September.

Like Tsamouras, Ahn and Park found the inspiration to build a concrete home from their native country. In Korea, they said, building residential homes with concrete is very common because of the high cost of imported lumber.

"They have better sound proofing, air quality and we don't have to worry about fire damage," said Park, who lived in a concrete home before coming to the U.S in 1985.

"Another major concern was energy efficiency because of rising gas prices," said Ahn, another reason they decided to build with concrete.

From their new home's basement, cool during the peak hours of a steamy, 90-degree day, Park said concrete homes are known for being cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

NUMEROUS METHODS are available for building a concrete home, said Quinn. The longtime builder said he built Ahn and Park's home using Insulating Concrete Forms, called ICFs, which look like big hollow Styrofoam Legos. The ICFs are stacked and reinforced with steel before concrete is poured into them to create the framing. Quinn said concrete can just as easily be used for traditional or more contemporary home styles.

"I'm building a 10,000-square-footer in Fairfax Station and I've got a 12,000-square-footer going up in Frederick, Md.," said Quinn, who anticipates a growing niche market in the region.

In 1993, homes with an exterior concrete wall accounted for 3 percent of the national housing market, according to the Portland Concrete Association. By 2004, it has grown to more than 16 percent.

Homes constructed with concrete also appeal to the environmentally conscious.

Mark and Joann Hartzell of Manassas are thinking of building one in Nokesville, Va.

"It seems safer and environmentally friendly," said Joann Hartzell, who works in Woodbridge. The couple likes that a new concrete home would save trees and be more durable.

In the end, Tsamouras wanted something that would last. "The cost of construction is so expensive nowadays, but you're not getting what you pay for," he said. "You're getting a nice floor plan, but you're not getting the solidness, the durability. The bottom line is if you're going to buy a home, you want it to be worth the money."