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Trying to Convince the World : Promoter Gives an Edge to Round Houses

November 30, 1986|MARTIN ZIMMERMAN | Zimmerman is a Times copy editor. and

Dennis Torres believes that he has a concrete solution to the world's housing problems--but he's having a hard time convincing the rest of the world.

Torres, president of Round Structures Inc., Malibu, offers a home building system that uses concrete as its primary construction component.

"We have so many things going for us--like being able to use unskilled labor, not needing to build a factory--I felt that it would be a better mousetrap and that every country would beat a path to my door," Torres says about his product, a circular, one-piece structure that sits on a pedestal foundation.

"We do a monolithic pour--the foundation, floor, walls and ceiling are done in one piece. The forming system is assembled by a five-man crew (four unskilled laborers with a director) in four eight-hour days; the concrete is pumped on the fifth day in as little as four hours. No other system can do this."

Torres, 44, has degrees in industrial engineering from New York University and the Fashion Institute of Technology, but came to the building industry by a circuitous route.

Moving to Los Angeles in the early '60s, he worked for Forest Olson Realty for a year. He and his wife, Avery, opened their own brokerage company in 1972, but "when the real estate market went down, we were about burned out with it anyway so we closed it down and moved to Malibu."

In 1979, Torres came across the technology for the Round Structures' building system, buying 50% of the company from its founder, Richard Taylor. Torres eventually bought out Taylor's half; Taylor is now an adviser to the company. Round Structures also has an office in Walnut Creek, near Oakland.

"The aesthetics of it (the building system)," Torres said, "never really appealed to me when I first saw it. It was the practicality that made so much sense.

"The pouring system is made of special process fiberglass to give it durability; it took $3 million dollars and several years to perfect it. A lot of R&D went into it to make it simple so a person who had never had a tool in his hand could assemble it."

He spent years trying to market the system to foreign governments and private entrepreneurs overseas. "I had an enormous amount of interest, everybody who learned about it wanted it, but when it comes to governments, you can't really make contracts through the mail."

He ended up concentrating on licensing agreements, dropping all other ventures.

In the meantime, he bought land in Malibu and began building houses on a small scale; he is working on a house in Topanga and plans several others.

Hundreds of the houses have been built by others, according to Torres, in 12 countries and 11 states, with the first house being built in 1968--"It's definitely not experimental." Locally, there are houses in Malibu, Santa Barbara, Hollywood, Ventura, Newhall and Woodland Hills.

Torres works with contractors; he makes his money renting the system's fiberglass forms to them. The customer makes arrangements with the contractor for building services.

The basic Round House is a 36-foot-diameter circle that sits on a 16-foot-diameter pedestal; the house has about 1,017 square feet of floor space. The pedestal is extended for hillside applications and eliminates much of the normal site preparation needed on difficult terrain.

During assembly, the electrical and plumbing is roughed in, the rebar--a concrete-reinforcing steel bar--is put in place (a simple schematic of radials and hoops), and the window and door locations are blocked out.

One-Piece Building

"Having a one-piece building without seams and joints in a circular shape is virtually indestructible," Torres claims. "It's about as earthquake proof as you can get; it's also typhoon proof and fire proof, and it's virtually maintenance free."

Structural engineer Dave Chavez of Casa, an architectural and engineering firm in Malibu, has worked on three of Torres' projects. "As a structural engineer, I would never use that word earthquake proof-- it makes me shudder," Chavez said.

"There is nothing on this planet that is earthquake proof; (the houses are) earthquake resistant."

Torres and Chavez claim that the typical Round House is very energy efficient, with Chavez going so far as to call it "a little heat sink."

Cost of Housing

One customer, Marie Lewis of Woodland Hills, disagrees with that assessment, saying that "If it's hot out, the house stays hot, if it's cold, the house stays cold--just the opposite of what we were told would happen." Even so, Lewis says she and her husband, Bob, "are happy with it."

Round Structures building costs about $16 a square foot for labor and materials, and the forming system rents for about $10,000, for a total of about $26 a square foot for the shell. The turnkey price on a modest house is about $45 a square foot. Torres says that the houses are fully VA, FHA and HUD approved.

(By comparison, conventional construction runs between $50 and $75 a square foot, with factory housing about half that amount, according to industry sources .)

"The house can be trimmed architecturally to suit anybody's taste; I can even make it look square if I wanted to," Torres said. "Rooms can be laid out the same as in a conventional house or they can take advantage of the unusual shape. All the furnishings are the same; one of our houses in Newhall is a ranch-style, furnished in early American with a board and batten exterior."

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