The Finish Line: EIFS Overseas
One of my favorite aspects of the EIFS consulting business is working with new products and markets. There seems to be an unending stream of innovations in the EIFS business, including the proverbial next-generation EIFS design and challenging new markets. New markets-always overseas-are especially interesting to me, and I really enjoy figuring out how to work with EIFS in places where they barely know what the system is. This month’s column will give you some insight into the way various types of EIFS are composed on a worldwide basis, and how EIFS is used on a wide range of supporting walls-some of which are much different than in North America.
TILE AND LIGHTWEIGHT BLOCK
In North America, most mid-rise and tall buildings use lightweight, non-load bearing exterior wall systems. Overseas, it is not uncommon for taller buildings to have concrete frames, unlike the steel frames that are prevalent in North America. The exterior wall is often some type of block, such as thin-wall, tile-like material. The interior is usually finished off with wet-applied, plaster-based materials (not drywall), and the outside is stucco.
The final exterior cladding is often ceramic tile, bonded to the stucco. For example, the white buildings (shown above), of which there are untold numbers in places like Hong Kong, have tile facings. They look like EIFS from a distance, but it’s obvious up close that they are tile-faced. The tile is easy to keep clean-an important factor in cities with rampant air pollution. For practical purposes, these walls are uninsulated.
There are vast, highly populated metro areas around the world where the climate is hot all the time: either hot and humid, or hot and dry. The availability of air conditioning to ease this discomfort isn’t so much of a factor, as even though air conditioning is available, it is expensive. Thus, the energy efficiency for EIFS is not worth the money to them, and thus the demand of EIFS in these areas is limited.
As a side note, it’s an interesting historical fact that the growth of many southern states, Florida especially, was driven in part by the widespread availability of air conditioning around World War II. Prior to then, these states’ populations were low, partially due to the brutal hot and humid summer weather. Florida is one of the biggest EIFS markets, and the demand is also fueled by the fact that it looks like stucco, which is very popular in the region.
AVAILABILITY OF MATERIALS
Countries have varying mixes of in-country materials, including metals and minerals. Some countries have no gypsum and must import it, which makes it expensive. But these countries also have minerals that we do not have, such as other types of cements that can be used to make sheathing board substrates.
China, for example, has a lot of magnesium oxide (MgO), which is widely used to make cement-like sheathing boards. Thus, MgO sheathing is very widely used. New Zealand, which has limited in-country gypsum sources, mixes what amounts to lava powder-which is common in the volcano-endowed country-into the drywall. This makes their drywall harder but it is basically still gypsum board. The point is that in trying to promote EIFS overseas, you need to know what is readily available and its price in order to design EIFS wall assemblies.
FIRE CODES AND ORDINANCES
North American cities, being relatively young by world standards, have lots of buildings that are less than 100 years old. But in Europe, there is tremendous pride in the history, much of which stems from the architecture that is much older than it is stateside. Thus, there is a dilemma: beautiful but energy inefficient, older buildings. The question, is what to do with these often masonry buildings that are clear candidates for exterior insulation? In historically important areas (Paris is an example), the thought of retrofitting these lovely buildings with a smooth, modern cladding is anathema. So they usually opt for other forms of insulation, such as in the cavity or indoors, to retain the important charm of the building exterior.
Fire codes in crowded older cities-especially in Europe-tend to be more conservative than in North America. The Great Fire of London in 1666, for example, caused the development of more restrictive and detailed building codes. These codes were used early on as templates for the United States. This resulted in restrictions in the use of claddings that contain combustible materials, such as the foam plastic insulation in EIFS, on large buildings and in crowded areas. This is one reason why EIFS is not seen much downtown in large cities like London and Tokyo.
HIGH RISE VS. LOW RISE
Modern high rise construction started in the United States and continues to have the most tall buildings. In some countries, ordinances restrict the heights of buildings for aesthetic purposes. For example, if you look at the Paris skyline, by far the only tall structure is the Eiffel Tower and that’s not because land is cheap in Paris; it’s a law about building height limits. EIFS’ lightweight and prefabricated system make it a good choice for tall buildings, but generally it’s cheaper to build horizontally rather than vertical, except in areas where land is scarce, like New York City.
The ability of EIFS to be made into prefabricated panels is a big plus, and sometimes this technique is used on medium-height and tall buildings. The ability to obtain metal stud framing and sheathing substrates is critical, and in some countries these key components simply are not available, so prefabrication is not an option. However, occasionally you’ll see prefab EIFS panels with timber frames and plywood substrates overseas, on mid-rise commercial buildings. This is not permitted in the U.S. by the building codes but from an engineering standpoint, it can be done.
Labor in North America is expensive. Overseas this is not always so. In some countries it is almost free-there are hordes of people willing to work their tails off for very little money. What this means is the ratio of material-to-labor is not anything like what it is in North America. It also means that the price of the product-not the labor to install it-is critical. In developing countries, sometimes people from the West think that overseas business partners are “cheap.” That’s not so. The only “edge” they have is on the labor side. To import EIFS is expensive but the labor percentage is much less to them. The good news is that with low labor costs and with enough training, the workmanship can be outstanding.
WHO OWNS WHAT?
North America has an unusually high percentage of detached single-family homes. In many other countries, people live in side-by-side homes or mid-rise buildings. Overseas, there is a much higher percentage of publicly owned housing too; apartments and the like. With higher heating costs overseas and the expectation that the building will last many generations, there is an increased emphasis on longevity. Hence, buildings overseas are designed more conservatively.
An example of this cultural aspect, as it applies to EIFS, is this story: I was in Asia trying to set up a manufacturing and distribution system for EIFS. I met with a lot of business partners and showed them EIFS samples. They’d heard about EIFS but had not seen it. Several potential partners said-in a kind way-that EIFS was not good. Their reasons were always the same: EIFS was way too light-weight and thus it had nothing in it, and thus was cheap and would not last.
Trying to be rational, I explained how EIFS works and that it is durable and so on. One guy reached around and picked up a granite sample, intended for exterior cladding. He handed it to me and said “This is a good product. Feel the weight.” The “granite guy” turned out to be a good guy to work with but when we talk about EIFS, he’s still not convinced.
MONEY TO BURN
To really drive home the point of the huge range of costs in other countries, here’s a memorable and true story:
I was having trouble getting a client to understand the importance of pricing in some developing countries in northern Asia. I finally got him to come with me on a trip over there-he had never been outside the U.S.-so he could see first-hand what I was talking about. It was winter with snow on the ground. The concrete columns and floor slabs for a new mid-rise building had been poured, and the plywood forms were being stripped, in preparation for applying the EIFS. There was this old, bearded Asian man in a grubby parka sitting on the ground cross-legged. He had an anvil between his legs, and a hammer in one hand. On one side he had a stack of used plywood forms, and on the other side a bucket. He sat there all day, in the cold, pulling out the nails and straightening them with his hammer. The nails went into the bucket and were re-used. That was his job. When my client saw that, he finally got the message. W&C