As you may have guessed from my last blog, I had no idea what ICF was, so I asked Joshua to explain. He explained that ICF stood for Insulating Concrete Form. The blank look on my face inspired him to elaborate a bit more. Here is his layman’s explanation of what ICF is:
“Insulating Concrete Form construction is like building a house out of Lego blocks, except the blocks are hollow, and they have plastic boards inside them. The construction is very simple and fast. The blocks are light because they are made of extruded polystyrene foam, and they are easy to put together because they interlock just like Legos. They can be order made to reflect most angles, and when that is not possible, they can be cut and braced to form the required angle. After the blocks are fitted together, they are reinforced with rebar to give the concrete greater strength and flexibility, and then concrete is poured into them. This makes a solid concrete wall that is virtually indestructible.”
I replied with something along the lines of, “So, you are talking about making a concrete house. OK. I can see how that would last a hundred years, but other than that, I can’t think of any reasons as to why I would want to do it. I have lived in two wooden houses that were over a hundred years old. Both were pretty comfortable. All that concrete sounds kind of dank and cold to me. A bit like living in a prison. Besides, wouldn’t remodeling be a bit of a problem?”
Joshua was starting to get pretty enthusiastic at this point. He proceeded to talk for almost an hour about all the reasons that my wife and I should consider building an ICF house. I’ll try to shorten and summarize it a bit without losing the passion that he clearly felt.
“Well, first, let me say that it won’t be dank and dark like a prison at all. The polystyrene acts as a thermal and moisture barrier preventing any moisture buildup, and of course, windows will prevent darkness. So long as you plan them before you build the house, you can put as many windows in it as you want. You can also put any exterior siding on and interior siding in the house that you want, giving it the look you desire. No one will know it is made of concrete unless you tell them it is,” he said. “Second, you said that you wanted a home that would be there in a hundred years. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Alexander in Florida, not one ICF home was severely damaged. The same cannot be said for stick homes (construction talk for wood homes). Here in the Ozarks, we have quite a few tornadoes. In an ICF home the worst that could happen is the roof might be damaged
Another advantage of an ICF home is that it is much more energy-efficient than a wooden house,” he continued. “It will cost you about half as much to heat and cool an ICF home as a wooden house of equal design and size. ICF’s effective R factor is much higher, someplace between 28 and 50 when all other factors such as air exchange rate, thermal bridges, and thermal mass are taken into account. This will keep your electric bill low. (There was a whole bunch more in this section, but I didn’t understand it at the time, so I will skip it for now and write about it later.)
ICF homes are also greener than stick houses because concrete is greener than wood.
Likewise, ICF homes have less outgassing than stick houses. Are you interested in having a clean environment for yourselves and your children? (We indicated that this was a major concern on our part.) Polystyrene is essentially inert. So is concrete. They don’t outgas. Also, neither have to be treated to prevent rot or insects.”
It was at about this point that I started getting overwhelmed with information, so I interrupted him with “OK, but isn’t concrete more expensive than wood?”
Joshua admitted that it was. That in fact, an ICF home would cost about 8% more than a wood house.
I also asked if it wasn’t kind of hard to make changes in an ICF house.
He replied that making changes to the interior was no more difficult than with any other type of house, but that putting new doors, windows, or additions on was much more difficult, so it was important that you knew exactly what type of home you wanted.
I said that I would do some research on the subject (which I will put up later), but right now, my wife and I were at the point he had just mentioned. We needed to learn what type of home we wanted. We had never had a custom home-built before, nor had anyone we knew, and we were at a loss as to how to proceed.
Well, Joshua sat down (He had been standing up, drawing pictures in the air, and demonstrating ICF advantages over the house we were in at the time.) and proceeded to give us the some very useful advice. To keep it simple I am going to paraphrase it and list it.
- Know what you want. Sit down and make a list of everything you want in your house.
- Take the list of everything you want in your house and divide it into three parts: must have, really want to have, would like to have. Understand that most of the things in the third section will go the way of the dodo.
- Know what you don’t want. Write down everything you definitely don’t want in your house. If your contractor knows what you don’t want, it will help him help you choose things that you do want. There are so many options out there, and they change constantly as new things are invented, that it is nearly impossible for any one person to know them all. Your contractor will know more about them than you will, and he will know specialists in each area that know more than he does.
- Go house shopping. Look at the type of houses you would like to live in, take pictures of what you like and don’t like, and make notes of the same things. Look through house magazines and go to home shows. Repeat the process. Put your pictures in a scrapbook and rewrite the notes under the pictures.
- Sit down with some graph paper or a good computer graphics program and draw out your house.
- Make sure that you find a house designer/architect and a builder that you trust. When building a home, trust and communication are everything and they do go together. Without them, you won’t get what you want. The house designer or architect will be able to interpret your design into practical reality. However, don’t expect them to design your house for you. Their ideas and imagination will never be the same as yours. (Actually, this last one is all mine. What he said was “After you have done all that, give me a call.” Well,
what did you expect; he is a contractor.”)
Finally, we had an idea of what we had to do.