Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The ICF Decision

The rationale for and thoughts behind our decision to build with Insulated Concrete Form.
Orignially posted to LiveModern 1/11/2005

Having a basement in our part of the country is the norm, but no matter how much is done to improve the livability of the space and make it comfortable and welcoming, there's still always something basement-y about it that hinders the desire to spend time there. With our no-wasted- space tendencies, we started thinking about the possibility of building a slab on grade home very early on, a fact that directed our process and clearly defined our destination as ICF before we really even knew it.

Because my vision for our home was a somewhat industrial looking finished product and we knew we wanted to try to economize, I started to explore commercial construction practices with the thinking that this must be a more economical means of getting a basic structure. As it turns out, the commercial standard of building with concrete block doesn't make sense for residential OR commercial construction (that it persists is crazy, IMO. I attribute it to the power of the labor unions here.), so that option was quickly eliminated. Then I ran across Insulated Concrete Form, a product I was aware of but really knew very little about at that time. Like most deviations from the status quo (ie. stick building), I at first figured ICF was just another anomalous new product, here today and getting sued tomorrow, yet hearing my carpenter uncle lament about how the quality of wood building products has sharply declined while increasing in price certainly helped me to start believing in and looking for alternatives to stick construction. The more I read the more I started to believe that ICF might be a good fit for our needs. In my mind, the most important selling points were a high level of energy efficiency and weather resistance for our demanding climate and strength and feasibility for slab on grade in MN. It just made sense to me that if the means existed to build a stronger more weather resistant structure with a much higher degree of energy efficiency for nearly the same cost, why not do it? Humans started building things out of wood centuries ago because it was readily available and nearby, which is no longer the case, so isn't it time we start embracing the more sensible alternatives that technology has afforded us? A decent rant, right? Yet the decision to take the ICF leap was a little scary especially since most of the people we talked to about it, including my relatives who have been building homes their entire lives, had never even heard of it, and we weren't exactly planning a $50K cabin in the woods.

ICF presented many attractive features and made sense but I did expend significant time and energy on research before I was comfortable saying I thought ICF was a good idea. It was definitely helpful that we are both questioners of the status quo. The idea of not doing things a certain way simply because that's the way they've always been done comes naturally to us (this can probably be said of most modern enthusiasts). In our case, outside the box happened to mean choosing ICF, just as others have chosen modular, SIP's, rammed earth, straw bale or whatever. That we could have had our home built with wood for the cost of the materials only and my gracious uncle's free labor, yet chose to use ICF is a good indication of how strongly we felt it was the right choice.

I'm going to end with my floorplan sketches.

This is basically what we started with. I'm fortunate to have a relative who is a draftsmen who converted this floorplan into a very basic set of D size prints that we used for the plan appraisal required to get our financing. Our land purchase and financing all happened prior to our having found an architect so our final plans did change and I'm definitely NOT recommending doing things in this order because it was all a bit dicey. Fortnuately the plan appraisal process for new construction seems to be a "how much does it need to be valued at" kind of game. These sketches reflect my adaptation of a previous plan for slab on grade to the walkout lot we bought. Because of our dislike for basement space, I had originally planned to leave the half of the lower level unexcavated, put the garage on the upper level, and have a third floor for studio space. Once I met with an excavator on site, it became apparent that the result (and eventual demise) of this idea was that we would have had to pay to truck in several hundred yards of fill for a box full of dirt within the walls of those unexcavates spaces. In the end, we exchanged the unxcavated space for garage and shop on the lower level, put my studio on the upper level and deleted the third floor entirely.


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