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It started out as a challenge — to build a house on site, completely out of concrete, a home so indestructible it might survive a millennium and anything nature delivers, from earthquake to fire.

Contractor Joe Manning won’t live to test his 1,000-year hypothesis. But Nick Nicastro, the man who bought Manning’s surprisingly attractive fortress in the hills above Occidental six years ago, said he has, so far — knock on concrete — had to do no repairs.

“I haven’t done anything,” he grinned, standing in the contemporary, light-filled kitchen functional enough for the professional cook that he is.

Nicastro runs a company called SAGmonkey that provides mobile repairs and support, including catering, for professional cyclists and athletes.

He and his wife were pedaling their own bikes along Coleman Valley Road one day when they happened upon the intriguing house in the woods, then occupied by Manning as he finished it up and awaited a buyer. The more they talked, the more fascinated they became by Manning’s unique spec house.

You might expect a concrete house to look like a warehouse or, as Manning puts it, “an industrial business park shell.” Instead, he designed and built it to look like a normal, wood frame and stucco home with shingle roof. It looks and feels warm and inviting.

In the embers of a devastating season of wildfires — 1,280 single family homes were destroyed in Lake County’s Valley fire alone — Manning’s “Concrete Concepts” offer an appealing option for those seeking to rebuild or who are contemplating building a new home in a wooded area or near wildlands.

While concrete is not fireproof, it is fire resistant. It is non-combustible and has a slow rate of heat transference.

So while fire may enter through the windows or roof, and whatever is inside can burn, the basic structure won’t burn.

“Every fire moves fast, at 10 to 50 miles an hour, and they’ll blow on through and eat up everything in their path. But if they can’t catch, they’re going to just go right on by. You could lose a roof, however,” Manning said.

If there is a fire within the structure, all you would have to do, he added, is come in with a pressure hose and wash down the walls and floors.

The Coleman Valley Road demonstration home purchased by Nicastro was not built with insulated forms or blocks, the more common forms of contemporary concrete construction. Manning, in partnership with his son Ian, poured the walls in wood forms on site.

First he poured the concrete foundation and cured it. The foundation served as a platform for the pouring of each individual wall. Radiant heat was installed in the floors and electricity, plumbing and insulation went into the walls at the time they were formed.

A giant 275-ton crane was maneuvered up Coleman Valley Road — a site that caused a temporary traffic backup and caught the attention of a local radio news crew that wondered what was going on in Occidental.

The crane lifted the massive walls, that were then set and braced. All the walls had to be braced before the crane would release them.

“We did 17 walls on the first lift,” Manning said, “then another 15 more.”

Within a couple of days, the basic form of the house was up, with some of the steel-reinforced walls weighing up to 28,000 pounds.

“A lot of people who are doing concrete building are spending all this money on forms, with almost enough lumber to build another house,” Manning said.

He took the lumber from the frames he made to pour the concrete and incorporated it into the frame for the roof. making efficient use of materials.

The interior locking walls are 34 feet long and about 10 feet tall and poured with openings for steel-framed windows.

Manning was drawn to concrete construction not only for its strength but for the streamlined construction.

“It’s poured on site and up it goes. You’re done. There’s no drywall, no painting, no baseboards, no trim,” he said.

While it does look clean and streamlined, the home inside does not appear stark or monotonous. Manning finished the interior walls in different ways to lend interest.

A plastic cover laid down over the wet concrete after the pour leaves an interesting wrinkling. You can see the same effect at a freeway underpass but inside Nicastro’s house, it looks like the work of an artist.

Scattered about are subtle etchings in the concrete that Manning applied when the walls were still wet: a whale’s tail or frond-like patterns that look like sea kelp. Other walls are smoothed like plaster or brushed, which give them the appearance of stone or aggregate.

The house has mainly concrete floors with some wood. Other trims and materials, like the rounded doors of eucalyptus, ceiling trusses of Monterey cypress and hand-cut limestone counters in the bathroom give it a custom look.

“I wanted something more homey, I didn’t want the structure to look like a library, so we went with a traditional shingle roof,” Manning explained.

Fire resistance wasn’t the first thought on his mind when he set out to build a concrete house. He sees the main advantage as ease of maintenance and durability.

No need for paint or new siding. It’s not subject to dry rot or termites.

It’s not a practical building option in every location, since it’s dependent of the ability of the crane to get in to the site.

“To me, it’s insane how it was all put together and how it all worked,” said Nicastro, who loves his safe haven in the woods.

Neighbors have organized an emergency response team and plan and in the event of disaster, it’s the Nicastro house they have agreed to come to for shelter.

“It’s timeless,” he said. “We’re going to welcome our grandkids here.”

And if Manning is correct, Nicastro’s grandkids may be welcoming their own grandkids to the concrete house on Coleman Valley Road sometime in the distant future.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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