Monday, October 28, 2013

Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF)

Last week I mentioned how I would LOVE to work with a builder and use green materials. It’d be an even sweeter deal if the work I did had some benefit (a house I could live in.) But just being able to make the community aware of new materials would be satisfying enough.

I did a post about Icynene Spray Foam Insulation a few weeks back. I remember when this product came out, because an acquaintance of mine in Florida was making good money being a specialist with it. His company was growing as more and more people learned of it and its benefits. We used it in our house, and it was a great decision!

Insulated Concrete Forms is not something we would use as an upgrade on our current house. Although, it could be used on an addition in some cases, an addition to our house would be to add more to the second floor. We wouldn't be able to use concrete walls on just the second floor when the first floor was wood framing.

ICF replaces traditional wood framing and sheathing. It comes in “blocks” and can be used for any shape house. Even ones with curves and bay windows. The forms are interlocking modular units that are dry-stacked and filled with concrete.

In Florida, most houses have their exterior walls made out of cinderblocks. It became building regulation after many bad hurricanes that all houses would be built using cinderblocks. I was surprised to move to Alabama and not see a similar building regulation. Being Tornado Alley, I’m shocked to see wood framing still being used on brand new homes. Even with a brick outer-layer, that house will be splinters after a small tornado comes through.

I forget the particulars on how I stumbled upon learning about ICF, but once I researched, it was a no-brainer. Why weren’t more people using this?

I researched the cost. Since it replaces both wood framing and sheathing and insulation, it was three steps in one. The cost is around 6-10% more than wood framing. Not bad if it replaces other steps in the building process!

Another reason why it is not widely used yet, is the learning curve. A builder does have to become certified. There are families in the business with years of framing experience. They have their timing and costs very efficient. Having them learn something new, would take time and money that they don’t want to spend. However, I have found one builder that is certified and will use it. Southern Construction and Design. They are approved builders in my current neighborhood.

I’ve seen a house going up on the other side of town and they are using ICF. I about FLIPPED in my seat when I drove by. I immediately called Mr. JCrew and told him I saw a local house going up using ICF. I don’t know why I got so excited. It wasn’t my house or even a friend’s house, but I was excited. I couldn’t see a builders name on any signs around, but I was curious to see if it is the one builder I know of. Turns out, there is someone else in the area that uses ICF that is doing that project.

ICF House being built that I saw in town.

I think it is a great option and definitely has its benefits:
  • Energy efficient
  • Structural Safety – restists damage and protect occupants from fire, wind, earthquakes and flooding.
  • Comfort – even distribution of air temperature in the home.
  • Acoustical Properties – provides improved reduction of “outdoor” noise
  • Durability – ability to resist rot, decay, corrosion, pest attack and other forms of degradation. 
  • Environmentally Sensitive – ICF walls can be made with a variety of recycled materials that can lower the carbon footprint of the structure.

Some benefits of ICF construction help to minimize the monthly cost of home ownership by reducing insurance premiums and energy/utility bills.. ICF Construction call allow up to 60% smaller heating and cooling units to service the same square footage. ICF homes can also qualify for green tax incentives.

One downside that I have come across only matters if you are crunched for space. An ICF wall is thicker than a wood-frame wall. If your lot can’t handle the added thickness of the exterior of the house all around, you would have to take away from the interior square footage. This would be a problem in urban communities where houses are built on top of each other.

I would think all builders and homeowners would want to build something that would protect them from harm. It’s an added bonus that it also cuts your energy bills in half.

Cost of ICF construction is very dependent on the familiarity of the contractor and trades people with the product. In most cases, there is a “learning curve” in any new construction process that requires building several houses to eventually economize the overall approach to construction. Therefore, the experience of the contractor is an important factor that will have an impact on cost and quality. Fortunately, ICF construction is a fairly simple method of construction using a system of conventional materials and it is easily leaned and understood by contractors, trades people and “do-it-yourselfers.”

In fact, when I was researching making my own furniture and looking at plans, I was on Ana White’s blog. She lives up in Alaska and is building a House for both her mom and her mother-in-law (a Momplex). They are building it themselves and used ICF. It was then that I learned, even a six year old can do it! (Seriously, check out the link. It gives a lot of information from a Do-It-Yourself perspective).

Now, there is an option to keep wood-framing and “upgrade” it to meet the energy efficiency of ICF, but it ups the price.

There are ways to increase the R-value of the walls, if you want. I believe this is overkill, but good to know.

During my research, I found out about ICF deck. It can be used on the floors!  ICF decking weights up to 40% less than standard concrete flooring and provides superior insulation. ICF roof decks are less common as it is difficult to pour concrete on an angled surface.

I haven't decided on the necessity of that one yet, but it's cool. Probably very useful in cold climates. 

Selling factors for me with ICF are the noise reduction and the safety against natural disasters. We aren't located in a Wind-gust belt, but we do have higher odds of having a tornado come through. And with cities losing more space to build houses, our neighbors are getting closer and the roads are getting wider. ICF would block all the traffic noise. 

If you're going to put the effort into using ICF, then you can't forget the windows and doors. You can lose heat/air through them as well. 

Houses today can last decades, but wouldn't it be cool to see them standing for centuries? Look at the building materials used for commercial projects; they are much different. They use steel and concrete for walls and metal roofing. Maybe people don't want their houses to be around forever. Some do look dated, but I think color is what dates a house.

If I were to build my dreamhouse, I'd want to pass it down to my kids, and I'd live in the in-law suite. But using wood-framing, I couldn't guarantee that.

One downside I thought of when researching ICF was that people may be afraid of renovations with ICF. It wouldn't be easy to knock out a window and make it a door, or vice-versa. House-flippers wouldn't like ICF houses. Although, I did talk to a local builder that is doing an addition in ICF. The addition includes an indoor pool and other extras, but that addition will be the safest place to be. You can swim during a tornado warning. Even the windows are strong enough to withstand the wind gusts.

Overall, I am excited for more homes to use ICF. Especially in areas that experience tornadoes, fires, hurricanes and earthquakes. It's really up to homeowners to decide if they want to use it. Builders are willing to use it, but the market has to drive it. The more people that hear about it, the more we will be seeing it used. I'm excited!


  1. Your style of blog presentation is very attractive.The meaningful contribution of your mind reflects on those people who are looking for new ideas and informations regarding Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF.


    1. Thank you, Grant! I love new technology. The more I learn, the more I like ICF.

  2. Insulated Concrete Forms is not something we would use as an upgrade on our current house. Although, it could be used on an addition in ...

    1. Definitely agree. ICF is framing ... aka "the bones." Unless you tear the whole house down and start over, ICF is not the answer. We did have a house in town use ICF for their addition.


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