May 16, 2011
FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A water-resistant, fire-resistant, termite resistant building material has a lot of builders, firefighters, and homeowners excited, especially those facing fire danger in the Sierra foothills.
The destruction of California wildfires is repeated year after year. People lose their homes, everything they own inside, and even their lives, helpless to stop the advancing flames, despite firefighter's best efforts.
Laguna Beach Fire Chief, Kris Head said, "The flaming front was similar to placing a giant blowtorch directly onto a house. There wasn't a whole lot that could be done to prevent those homes from burning."
Today these homes in Laguna Beach show no signs of the fire that consumed them more than 17 years ago, but one picture brings back a flood of memories for To Bui. The structural engineer built what was called the miracle house after it survived the 1993 fire that claimed over 400 of his neighbors homes.
Christine Park asked, "Were you proud of the home you built?"
"Yes," said To Bui. "After the fire, people asked me how to build. I give them all, knowledge I have.
But even Bui has never heard of a material called "Autoclaved Aerated Concrete" or AAC. Manufacturers say homes made of AAC would survive a fire, just like Bui's did.
We took it to Fresno County Cal Fire to see for ourselves. Cal Fire Spokesman Captain John Dominguez put a blowtorch to the side of some AAC samples.
Dominguez said, "It's not radiating through the concrete block at all. If you can't feel it on the other side."
Park said, "Alright stop. I'm kinda nervous. No, it's cool."
"It's not discoloring the white concrete block." Dominguez said.
Park asked, "Are you impressed?"
Dominguez replied, "I am."
In a YouTube video by an AAC manufacturer -- shows how AAC is made. It's a mixture of sand, water, cement and air that is formed into blocks and baked in an autoclave, or huge oven. It has been used in Europe for more than 70 years, and is growing in popularity in states like Arizona.
If this were a regular concrete block it would weigh about 50 pounds, but AAC is 70% air which means, it floats!
Workers can easily cut it and shape it with hand tools and saws, stacking it like building blocks. Space for wiring and plumbing is then carved out. 99% of what's unused can be recycled.
We found four homes made in 2004, in a subdivision in Rancho Mirage, the only one of its kind in the whole state.
Chuck Knief said, "It's the best building product I've ever seen and I've got 40 years in it."
Brian Foster said, "Last week I was here and it was 105 outside and the house was closed up and the temperature was 82 inside."
Developers say residents are insulated from heat, cold and sound, a key selling point for buyers in the desert community.
The developers' vision was to make these homes the standard for all future "leaner" and "greener" homes and commercial buildings in California. The only problem -- in 2006 AAC was restricted by California's building code because of earthquake concerns.
Knief said, "Any time you have a new building material, even if it's outstanding and excellent as this, there's gonna be resistance because they don't know what it is."
We asked the California Department of Housing, which said the material needs to be tested to meet California's strict seismic codes, and any changes to the code won't be for another three years. Firefighters say, that's a shame.
"Although I'm not gonna endorse anything, this would be a good material for foothill homeowners to use," said Dominguez. "You're gonna have more of a chance of your home being safe.
Building code officials tell Action News small pockets of the Central Valley have a seismic rating that may allow homeowners to build with AAC. Interested homeowners can apply for an alternate approval process through the local building code office. In the meantime, firefighters stress the importance of homeowners maintaining a 100-foot defensible space, to drastically increase the chances their home will survive a wildfire.