As the most dangerous months of the hurricane season arrive, Ray and Geoff Hawes of Mount Pleasant aren't worrying much.
That's because the father and son entrepreneurs may have the strongest homes in the Lowcountry.
Both were built with an aluminum skeleton bolted together and connected to a heavy concrete foundation.
Both also cost a lot of money, a reality they acknowledge means that their approach isn't for everyone.
But for those interested in paying a premium for a sturdy structure, the Hawes' business, known as Cat Five Houses of Charleston, certainly would be worth looking into.
It's a subsidiary of Rapid Deployable Systems Inc., which has built portable shelters for repainting everything from the Ashley River drawbridges to North Charleston fuel tanks to every aircraft carrier in the Navy's fleet.
To understand what's going on, let's visit three places.
Inside a nondescript warehouse off Dorchester Road, shop foremen Bryan Coulter and Tim Oliver have worked for years to craft specialized pieces for the Rapid Deployable Systems' structures.
They liken the pieces to Lego bricks, but they're built from patented aluminum poles crafted in Charlotte.
“It's not just nailed or screwed, it's bolted together,” Oliver says. “It would take a lot to pull it apart.”
The business started up around 1998 in response to growing concern about how lead paint and dust could harm both workers and the environment if not properly controlled during heavy-duty paint jobs.
The aluminum is lighter and more portable than steel, and the frames can be quickly assembled and taken apart. The frames also can be placed on wheels and moved. And there's one other advantage, too, says Quince Cody of Cat Five Houses.
“Aluminum has memory, where steel does not,” he says.
In other words, an aluminum structure can bend, then pop back in place, much like a soda can.
Inside the warehouse is a prototype of a new structure that could prove popular in the wake of this year's devastating Oklahoma tornadoes: a safe room built with an aluminum skeleton covered by 1/8-inch-thick steel plates.
Coulter says the structure could be built inside a home or school, and it also could serve as a sauna or for another purpose. “It might be a good idea to get some use of out it between storms,” he says.
A renovated house
Geoff Hawes, president of Cat Five Houses, was interested in seeing if the aluminum frames could be adapted successfully for residential use, so he did just that at his home in Wakendaw Lakes.
“It was just inevitable that we would try to build a house out of this system,” he says, noting that his father had built a steel-frame home in England.
Technically, the project on West Vagabond Lane was a remodeling, but the finished product is about twice as big and looks nothing like the 1980s home.
However, it also doesn't look dramatically different from its neighbors since the stucco exterior and sheetrock interior are materials found on any conventional house. Only the skeleton and the metal roof panels that resemble gray pan tiles are dramatically different.
Also, the foundation is a ring of concrete at least 3 feet deep into which the aluminum beams are set.
“You can't move it,” Hawes says. “You can't pick it up. You can't move it off its foundation.”
Hawes says the house was valued at $282,500 before the work, and he put about $375,000 into it. A recent appraisal placed its value at $730,000, and he expects to save more on power bills and insurance premiums.
A new house
Hawes had hoped to build a new home on Folly Beach, a very visible location and very vulnerable to hurricane-force winds.
But the would-be owner bought another house instead, so he built the new home for his father, Ray, the company's chairman, on Victory Pointe Drive in Charleston National.
Since Hurricane Hugo devastated this area in 1989 — Geoff Hawes uncovered a huge fallen tree while digging the new home's foundation — codes have been beefed up.
But he says even hurricane straps don't create the sort of solid structure that he can bolt together.
As with the Wakendaw remodeling job, there's nothing on the outside that indicates its novel structure. But those looking into the garage can see diagonal bracing. Hawes says that bracing could have been lessened with a different structural design.
Obviously, price is a big consideration. Hawes says the Charleston National house might have been built for $500,000 using conventional framing, whereas his cost $750,000.
Hawes says the company isn't looking to design or build homes, but it is looking to give architects, builders and their clients another choice, one that might cost more but that will stand the test of time.
“ 'Built to last' is our slogan, that's what we're trying to promote,” he says. “It's a good way forward, not for everybody but for those who want to live here long term, and they don't want to worry about the contents of their house, or their house.”
Reach Robert Behre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5771.