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Insulating Concrete Forms: Beyond Concrete
by Josh Hogue
Building blocks for a beautiful home that is made to last and offers energy efficiency second to none… Seemingly a newly evolved concept, this alternative building method has been around longer than you would expect, over 20 years. And over the years it has been perfected and advanced along with technology to become a better, more viable product.
On the mind of today's homebuyer is not only cost, but also of concern is building a sustainable "green" home. It used to be that building environmentally sustainable housing came at too high a cost to the average consumer. That still remains quite true when trying to build a green home using the stick-framing method, using wood. Concrete provides the answer on how to achieve a socially acceptable, economically affordable, environmentally sound home.
What Is It?
Insulating Concrete Forms (ICF) are hollow blocks or panels consisting of two layers of rigid polystyrene foam insulation. These blocks are stacked, interlocked, and reinforced with steel rebar and ties before filling with concrete. They assemble quickly with less strain on the installer than having to pack wood and lift walls, an added safety benefit. The result is a continuous structural wall assembly, one big solid structure, insulated on both sides. The foam blocks become insulated backing and house preset fasteners to allow the attachment of any common siding material with ease for interior and exterior finishes. And, you can rest assured that the polystyrene is environmentally safe because it is nontoxic, recyclable, and does not break down or support moisture. There are several manufacturers of ICF blocks that vary in structure and design, keeping the market competitive.
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At first glance, you cannot tell a concrete home from any other on your block, unless you would have seen it during construction. The outward appearance of a finished concrete home reflects all of today's contemporary finishes, inside and out. That is because of the fasteners in the ICF block itself, mentioned earlier.
The only noticeable difference to the educated consumer, appearance wise, is the thickness of the wall. With an 8-inch ICF block, walls are 11 inches thick, making windowsills and doorways deeper. Again, the width and sizes of the blocks will vary depending on the manufacturer of the block. Concrete is surprisingly flexible in the ways it offers aesthetic appeal.
Not only can it be used inside the walls, but throughout the interior and exterior, it can shape a beautiful look that functions for you. From stucco to countertops, stamped patios to tiled flooring, roofing to siding, fireplaces to showers, the creative capabilities are astounding. Many different colors are being produced by adding mineral pigments or recycled crushed glass. Textures can be from smooth to brushed, exposed aggregate to pre-distressed for that rustic feel.
Concrete can take any shape or form since it is aqueous when first mixed, and must harden to set. Whether your taste in style is Contemporary, Victorian, Colonial, or Prairie, ICF has the capability to achieve the particular look you desire. You are not limited to right angles with ICF; rather a variety of curves and angles can be achieved. A knowledgeable ICF home designer can make efficient use of the material strength concrete provides in creating larger open spaces that remain quiet because of the thick insulated walls; less noise will travel room to room.
The material used to form concrete and the continuous mass of the solid structure resulting from a concrete pour, becomes a nearly impenetrable barrier to heat, cold, moisture, sound, and air. The advantages to ICF over wood frame equal energy efficiency and cost effectiveness. ICF uses less of a collection of materials to generate solid airtight walls, whereas stick-framing nails together several separate layers of different materials to achieve a lesser result. Each point of connection or joint is a potential leak for air or moisture. Air leakage accounts for most of the energy loss in a home. ICF construction eliminates the potential problem of drafts with the solid wall it creates. The double insulated concrete wall is a thicker solid mass, allowing less heat to penetrate either from inside or out. The R-Value of the polystyrene left in place as part of the concrete wall is higher than could ever be achieved by wood; the foam form starts with an R-value over 20 before it is even filled with concrete or finished. Finished walls can reach an R-value of 50+. This translates into large savings now and over time on your utility bills because the home will naturally stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. This also means smaller heating/cooling units are needed to service larger areas, saving you in initial construction costs. Studies confirm an overall savings of approximately 40% considering the combinations of these factors.
Sustainability is defined as making something continue to exist; to maintain through time. ICF provides long-term value to you and the environment in several ways. First, the concrete consists of common materials that are found abundantly in many local areas. While wood is renewable, is takes a long time to grow a new tree to the stage it is usable in the industry. Concrete not only uses readily available materials but recycled materials as well, such as fly ash and slag. Even old concrete can be pulverized and reused. Then there is the mixing of cement; it uses only water, so it doesn't off-gas chemicals. The properties of the ICF and the concrete remain inert, while many other common building materials do not. The expanded polystyrene is recyclable, doesn't emit toxins, and in its manufacturing there is no use of CFCs or CFLs, rather steam is used. Also, the indoor environmental quality is healthier in an ICF home because it resists infiltration. When used in combination with air-exchange units or humidifiers, levels of airborne particles like dust and allergens are significantly less than the average home.
Concrete gets stronger with age. The polystyrene foam does not support moisture; therefore molds and bacteria cannot grow. This also makes it rot resistant. As a pest deterrent, the ICF structure cannot be eaten, burrowed into, or otherwise infested. The concrete will withstand a wildfire or earthquake, and will still be standing after a tornado or hurricane hurls debris at it. Its durability will keep you secure in all types of natural disasters. Because of its proven ability to resist damage, many homeowners' insurance programs offer a discount for such a home. Less maintenance is required since will not need to be fixed or replaced over time, truly a lasting investment.
Due to the consistency of the air throughout an ICF home, hot and cold spots are eliminated. This air consistency is a result of the airtight and impermeable qualities the ICF wall holds. And, this keeps the environmental quality of the air higher. Noise reduction is another feature offered by the ICF wall, as the thickness and insulation protect sound emissions from infiltrating the wall in much the same manner as it keeps outside temperatures from permeating, only allowing a third of the noise level you would hear in a wood home. You and your family can also rest in comfort knowing how safe the house is in a natural disaster, and that you won't have to spend the following years continually repairing and maintaining the home; you'll have more time to just enjoy it.
This is a long-term result. Concrete is comparable in price to a wood home, slightly more, but the long term benefits outweigh the initial cost. Less energy is used, meaning lower, much lower, utility bills. Reduced energy consumption helps the economy and the environment. Using better materials and less of them has a global effect environmentally and economically, gravitating a change in the old ways of building; there is a better way. Not having to maintain the home as much is a cost reduction, and saves on your time and worry. Disaster resistance will save more than just money on your insurance premiums, but possibly your life. And because of all these factors, your ICF home will have a higher resale value, which stimulates the economy and provides you a solid investment. When building a new home, don't pass up the opportunity to educate yourself on the benefits of ICF as a strong alternative to wood. The viability of this product equals peace of mind in one of the largest investments you make in your lifetime.
Josh Hogue designs energy efficient homes and offers project management services. Contact him at Superior By Design, 541-951-7677 or visit his Web page: superiorbydesign.com
Start in the Right Place
We often hear that homeowners find out about better ways to build their homes or features that they would like to include -- but after it's either too late to change plans, or very costly to do so. Planning is everything, and becoming knowledgeable long in advance of building your dream home will save you a great deal of regret, and probably money that could have gone into building a more efficient and healthy home, instead of higher utility bills for the rest of your life, and the life of the home.
Think about what features you want in your home, and then look at many plans, books, and talk with some design professionals. Building technology is advancing at a very fast rate, and you will want to adopt the best technology that you can afford, and meets your needs. You will be happy you did it, even if you end up selling your home. --LP
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