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How three new building materials stack up

Steel

The primary component in commercial construction for years, steel leads the pack as an alternative to wood and concrete block in home construction.

Proponents say steel is better because it does not burn or attract termites, because it is made partly from recycled materials and because there is less waste during construction. Opponents point out that few builders know how to work with steel, and that it is usually more expensive than wood or block.

Steel-framed homes can be covered with concrete panels or siding, and when complete, look no different from homes made from other materials. What about hanging pictures? They can be tacked onto the drywall interior walls. And lightning? Proponents say steel-framed houses are actually safer in electrical storms, because they provide a direct path to the ground should lightning hit.

Precast concret

Imagine building a house in three or four days. That's what proponents of precast, or manufactured, concrete panels say they can do. With precast concrete construction, wall-sized panels made of concrete, iron bars and sometimes polystyrene for insulation are poured in a factory and connected at a job site, just like building a giant box.

Proponents of precast concrete claim that it is stronger than wood or concrete block and is a better insulator. Opponents say precast concrete is tough to turn into an architecturally appealing home, and is more expensive. A Tampa company planning to build precast panel houses, for instance, plans to charge about $135,000 for a 1,824-square-foot house, slightly more than a similar-sized home built of traditional materials would cost.

Exterior walls of precast concrete homes can be covered with stucco, siding or other coverings, making them look no different from traditional homes. Or, proponents point out, wall panels can simply _ and quickly _ be painted.

Polystyrene

Think about how well-insulated a plastic foam cup or cooler can be. Builders who use polystyrene say they can make houses the same way, helping cut high energy bills. Most polystyrene construction is reinforced with concrete, pressed wood, iron bars or a combination of all the materials.

Proponents like to dwell on the insulating advantages, but also point out that polystyrene is a sound barrier and is easy to form and work with. Opponents say the material is sometimes hard to come by, and again, typically more expensive than traditional building materials.

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