By Christine Fisher
THERE’S A NEW MAINE-MADE BUILDING PRODUCT on the market, and while it began as a way to prove that masonry homes can be energy-efficient, it has found another welcome yet unintended niche: the healthy home market.
Based on German design, Comfort Block™ is a 16-inch thick concrete block with three pockets of encased expanded polystyrene (EPS) insulation, making it highly energy efficient. Some healthy home seekers are finding it offers them health benefits, too: it won’t mold, and there’s no need for drywall, further reducing the number of potentially allergenic building materials brought into the home.
In 2006, Chris Genest, fourth-generation owner of longtime Maine company Genest Concrete, traveled to Germany to attend a machine show. What impressed him most was not the machines on display but that so many homes in Germany were built with concrete.
Genest, like many, had long assumed that concrete homes simply could not be energy-efficient. But traveling through Europe, he found insulated concrete walls and highly efficient masonry homes.
When he returned to Maine, Genest dove into research, with the goal of creating an insulated concrete block modeled after German technology that could be used to build efficient homes in the States. As an added challenge, the blocks had to be compliant with U.S. building codes.
In 2016, Genest unveiled Comfort Block™. And the same year, he built his own Comfort Block™ home in Sanford.
Living up to Genest’s original intent, Comfort Block™ exceeds energy-efficient minimum building standards for walls and basements. Thanks to the three layers of EPS insulation embedded in the block, it earns a high R-value, R-30, which measures an insulating material’s ability to block heat transfer.
Comfort Block™ homes maintain a consistent temperature, too, thanks to concrete’s inherent thermal mass (its ability to absorb, store and later release significant amounts of heat).
To date, three Comfort Block™ homes have been completed, and for each, energy efficiency was a top selling point. Since moving into his own Comfort Block™ home, Genest has seen his energy bills drop 66 percent.
“We have always been fascinated with energy efficiency at the manufacturing facility because we hate spending money on oil,” says Genest. “It’s economical, really. We’re conscious of trying to save energy whenever we can, and it just kind of rolled into my house.”
AT HOME IN THE HEALTHY HOME MARKET
While Genest set out to achieve an energy-efficient concrete building block, he’s found a market among people looking for healthy building products that won’t mold.
Comfort Block™ walls are concrete and covered in cement—or gypsum-based plaster, so there’s nothing organic to mold or rot.
That’s critical for people like Acacia Fanto, who chose Comfort Block™ for her new home. Fanto is one of a small percentage of the population genetically predisposed to mold toxicity. She lacks a gene required to eliminate the cellular waste caused by mold. That waste then builds up in her cells and causes a cascade of inflammation and negative health effects.
For Fanto, that made finding suitable housing challenging. She realized that she’d have to build her own home, carefully selecting the products that went inside it. While researching alternative building materials, Fanto found herself talking with the staff at Performance Building Supply in Portland, who referred her to Comfort Block™. Fanto met with Genest and decided the product fit her health needs.
“I came to the conclusion that Comfort Block™ was the one thing that would really solve the problems,” Fanto says.
Fanto moved into her Comfort Block™ home in May 2017, and within just a couple months, she found she was less symptomatic and had a noticeable increase in energy.
“It’s hard to put into words what a relief that is,” she says. “It’s a really scary feeling to not have anywhere you can go and feel safe, even in your own home. To have that again is just invaluable.”
Those looking to build a Comfort Block™ home don’t have to sacrifice form for function. Comfort Block™ homes can be configured into a range of styles. Fanto, for instance, chose an open floor plan with high ceilings and large windows to let in lots of sunlight.
Masonry homes offer the added benefit of durability in wind and storms. Genest says it’s hard to explain the feeling of security one gets when standing behind something as substantial as a concrete wall.
According to Genest, the thickness of the concrete walls seals out sound, and there’s never any flex in the house when it’s windy out. “You don’t feel any vibration from wind at all, and it’s incredibly quiet so you can’t hear external noise pollution,” he says.
While there are only a few Comfort Block™ homes completed to date, Genest says there is a growing interest in the product. Builders as far away as Florida have expressed interest in its environmental and human-health benefits.
“Right now we are just excited that we have produced a product that is easy for many to use, more energy-efficient than code, more resilient and really healthy.” G&HM
This article was reprinted from the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Green & Healthy Maine HOMES magazine. Subscribe today!