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Steven Huff's prototype home, Chateau Pensmore, is built to withstand natural disasters and to be nearly energy neutral. The former CIA agent says the home's price tag is less than $10 million, and it will be completed in 2013.
Steven Huff's prototype home, Chateau Pensmore, is built to withstand natural disasters and to be nearly energy neutral. The former CIA agent says the home's price tag is less than $10 million, and it will be completed in 2013.

Pensmore showcases new construction technology

Posted online
Steven Huff said he wanted to keep things as quiet as possible. But when you’re building a 72,000-square-foot home, even in the remote Ozarks’ hills of southern Christian County, people notice.

In the last six months, national media giants The New York Times, Forbes Magazine and “The Today Show” have reported on Huff’s construction of one of the largest residential homes in the country. The estate in Highlandville is dubbed Chateau Pensmore.

Huff, a former CIA agent and software entrepreneur, is investing in Green Bay, Wis.-based TF Forming Systems, a company that he feels is on the cutting edge of energy efficient and durable concrete construction. Having already built two homes with the company’s technology, the Brunswick, Mo., native said he wanted to show the world – in particular, anyone in the commercial construction industry who wanted a virtually indestructible and nearly energy-neutral hospital, school or company headquarters – the capabilities of compressed Styrofoam and concrete.

And now at least one local company is working to develop technology being used in Pensmore’s contruction.

Under $10 million
Huff opened his doors to Springfield Business Journal on Sept. 27 to talk about his vision for the home that may change the landscape of the foothills at the western edge of the Mark Twain National Forest for centuries. Construction on the house began in 2008 and is expected to wrap up in late 2013.

The star of the construction show, which Huff maintains is costing less than $10 million, is TF’s TransForm, a super-insulated energy-storing vertical concrete forming system. To make the home as close to energy neutral as possible, Huff is using solar heat collectors to store liquid radiant heat in tubes throughout the concrete walls to make the home, among other things, a model for future green building.

After founding a software company that became Austin, Texas-based security and intelligence firm Overwatch Systems Ltd., Huff said he turned his interests into energy technologies. With many pouring millions of dollars into making cars more fuel efficient, he thought the construction industry was ripe for innovation.

“Forty percent of the energy used in this country is in heating and cooling buildings, more than is consumed in transportation,” Huff said.

The problem with using solar collectors until now, Huff said, is that it has been impractical to store all the energy collected when the sun is shining. But his insulated concrete walls act as “thermal batteries,” he said, storing British thermal unit in the tubing that winds throughout the building.

“We can keep the walls a few degrees higher than the temperature inside,” Huff said, which helps offset energy lost through the windows. He said solar collectors would be installed on the roof of the castle-like home, and the stored energy would be used to heat and cool the home. While the house would be on the grid and have to use energy when he’s entertaining visitors, Huff expects the utility bills to be nearly nonexistent. “We think that we’ve hit the sensible sweet spot of technology,” Huff said.

While other insulated concrete forming systems, or ICFs, exist on the market, Huff said TF’s patented design keeps walls from warping and is designed with builder applications in mind.

Beyond being a showcase for its energy-efficient features, the 13-bedroom, 14-bathroom home that will serve as a residence for Huff, his wife and his adult daughter, is being built to withstand 300-mph winds, earthquakes and even bomb blasts.

He said standing concrete walls slip over time from the rebar backbone that holds them up, but by adding twisted steel fibers developed by Luke Pinkerton of the University of Michigan and patented by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based PolyTorx into the concrete mix, the walls become virtually indestructible, reinforcing the structure in every direction.

“This changes the future of construction,” Huff said of the Helix rebar product.

Contractor interest
Huff said a few local contractors are involved in the construction, including Killian Construction, Neiderhauser Construction LLC and Sechler Electric Inc. During SBJ’s tour, a crew of about 30 were working at the site.

Huff already has brought in a busload of local architects and engineers to take a closer look at the project and promote the benefits of the TransForm system. He hopes by demonstrating its construction process, TF Forming Systems would resonate with area contractors.

Brandon Dake, a partner with Dake Wells Architecture Inc. in Springfield, is among the architects who recently toured Pensmore. While he said the TransForm system has advantages, he doesn’t see it as a game changer for the construction industry.

“With every client, we talk about three things: cost, quality and scope – by scope, I mean size,” Dake said. “There are some projects and clients where this could fit in quite nicely. But it will not, in my opinion, be the next best thing and become a standard practice for every building in 10 years. Construction costs are going up so rapidly, and the economy is so volatile that we are looking at ways to save money at every point we can. This system is going to come with a premium.”

He also took issue with the project being promoted as “green.”

“What we are faced with as architects is trying to build more with less – less materials, less costs, less transportation requirements. We are trying to use less of our resources. And this Pensmore project, it seems to me, is grossly overusing resources, if it is in fact a single-family residence,” Dake said.

Springfield-based Paragon Architecture Inc. is working to apply the technology to smaller-scale projects.

Paragon principal Brad Erwin, who has collaborated with engineering firm Toth and Associates Inc. to provide design services for safe rooms in schools, said he believes that technology fits right in with that line of work.

“Fair Grove (School District) was approved for a (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Saferoom grant. As part of that grant, we are designing that facility using TF Forming Systems’ designed system,” Erwin said.

He said the indestructible properties of the specially blended concrete used in the TransForm system have many applications.

“Educational, commercial, residential, bomb-proof type projects (are the) types of applications that we’re working on,” Erwin said.

He said Paragon Architecture is involved with a group of designers, builders and materials suppliers looking to design an 1,800-square-foot tornado-safe home, something that could be appealing to those rebuilding homes in the Joplin area following the EF-5 tornado that hit the city May 22.

“We’re trying to evaluate right now how to bring that into the market at a price point that makes sense and would be competitive in the custom home market,” Erwin said of the Project Safe Home group.

TF Forming Systems President Jerry Spude said the company recently opened a local office in the Diamond Shopping Center in Ozark and hired a salesperson, a marketer and an administrator.[[In-content Ad]]

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