ICF Is a BFC (Breakthrough For Construction)

By Steven Ferry

April 2007

The Mountain Meadows Condominium Project in downtown Pigeon Forge, Tenn., may well be the largest ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) project in the country and possibly the world. Seven 7-story buildings, each with a footprint in the 10,000 to 12,000 square-feet range, are situated on the side of a mountain in the heart of the vacation area of the Tennessee Mountains. To emphasize this point, they’re constructing the buildings around a water park.

Paul Tomazin, Florida-based Titan Walls’ man on the ground, confirms all the walls in all the buildings are being built with ICF, from foundation walls below grade to demising walls, interior walls, elevator shafts and all the exterior walls. The sizes of the forms range from 11-inch (six inches of concrete) up to 15-inch (10 inches of concrete).

Normally when writing an article on a project, one wants to dig around a bit, find out what challenges the contractor ran into and how he overcame them (or very occasionally, didn’t). This article is no different, but Tomazin’s response was different: "Actually, there are not a whole lot of challenges with ICF. They vanish when you’re hauling a whole lot of Styrofoam™. Normally, hauling forming material up seven stories, plywood, masonry, etc., is a challenge. I wouldn’t call hauling Styrofoam overly challenging: An ICF form or brick replaces six masonry blocks, each one weighing in at about 35 pounds), and yet each ICF form only weighs 5 pounds. With 210 pounds versus 5 pounds, you can see how it takes less time and effort to build using ICF.”

You can also see why Tomazin and many others are completely sold on ICF.

"So, rather than being challenging, ICF is advantageous, both in the hauling and in working with the system. Actually, there is one element that I would not call challenging, but you do have to exercise caution with it. When dealing with any form concrete, especially ICF, a blowout (when concrete is poured too rapidly into the walls, it can push out a Styrofoam form and concrete will spew out of the wall) several stories up can make fixing that on the outside of the wall a challenge. But fortunately, none of the buildings here have had that issue,” Tomazin says.

Testament to the ease of working the ICF system is the length of the project. Total Walls began work on the Mountain Meadows Condominium Project at the very end of November 2006 and is scheduled to complete at the end of this month. Working with ICF as opposed to masonry or concrete, this project is supposed to shave off about three months from the project’s time line, which is considerable when talking about financing dollars and sales.

The owners decided on ICF for a few reasons, according to Tomazin:

"a) They wanted to differentiate their buildings from the many others being built in the area. ICF is allowing them to promoting their buildings as highly energy-efficient and sound proof.

"b) They wanted to save money on installing all the heating and air-conditioning units because ICF allows them to reduce the unit sizes required.

"c) To save money through reduced construction time.

"d) To save money because ICF itself covers all the fire and soundproofing requirements for all the demising walls, meaning no further applications are required.

"The owners have done a few projects out of ICF, and I know they really like working with it for the benefits it provides the end user, and the speed and ease of construction.”

Getting Started
As ICF goes, Tomazin is somewhat of an expert, beginning to work with the system a full decade ago. He started with personal projects in Central Florida when his brother, Mike, who had begun working with ICF while at engineering school in Pennsylvania during the early 1990s, moved back to Florida and they both built houses for themselves and their father. Other people saw these houses going up, would ask the Tomazins about the system, and then go build their house out of ICF, too. It started with relatives and grew from there, until they ended up building with ICF all the time!

The Tomazins did go through a learning curve on using ICF, and now have a couple of hundred projects under their belts. As Paul explains it, "ICF has undergone some transformations since the early 1990s, and I think the system and the materials are close to being maxed out now in terms of capabilities and what you can do with them. There were some learning curves with the forms and some initial investments with bracing and that kind of thing. But really, the biggest thing was just closing enough projects and types of projects during the early days, both residentially and commercially. We’ve done office buildings, schools, condominiums, lots of different projects now that have enabled us to work out all the kinks and streamline any project.

"As ICF has continued to grow—and it is doing so rapidly, especially up here in Tennessee, there’s a tremendous amount of ICF going up, more so even than in Florida—the manufacturers have become better over the last 10, 20 years. Additionally, the Insulated Concrete Form Association has now been in existence for 10 to 12 years or so, and they and the manufacturers are providing a lot of support these days. If I were considering moving into the ICF business today, I would turn toward the ICFA or toward the manufacturers, because they provide a wealth of knowledge. People like me who are installing these different forms, have been telling manufacturers what worked and what did not work, relaying all we have learned and all the little tricks we have developed, and thereby helped the manufacturers. Manufacturers have responded by continually upgrading and tweaking their products to the point where the forms are really streamlined and work really well. In addition to having very workable system, these manufacturers and the ICFA are vaults of knowledge on installing ICF and a definite resource for ICF installers.”

A Few Words from a Young Codger
But if Paul T. were to offer pointers to new installers, he would want them to know that "the main issue is that many people have misconceptions about what ICF is; they don’t usually realize that ICF is simply a stay-in-place concrete form. On job installs, it needs to be secured like any concrete form would be. With this understanding and procedure in place, the product will install pretty smoothly. But what generally happens is new installers think they just need to ‘stack ’em and pump ’em’ and the next thing you know, they are having blowouts because they’ve vibrated the walls too much or other little issues they’ll come across.

"During the early part of the ICF industry, they promoted ICF as a kind of do-it-yourself product, and some still do. And that’s where the problems occur, because some ads say, ‘It’s just like Lego®, stack ’em up.’ So people think it’s really easy and they don’t realize that when dealing with something like poured concrete, it’s really important to form and secure it properly.

Contractor Bennies
When the pitfalls are understood, ICF delivers only benefits for the installer. The system goes up really fast, probably in a quarter to half of the time of conventional masonry or stick frame, partly because of speed of assembly and in part because there is no need for framing, furring and insulation. ICF forms are easy to handle and easier to work with because of their low weight, as well as not needing furring, insulating, etc., so you can use smaller crews. On the Pigeon Forge job, Titan Walls fields a crew of eight to 10 people, whereas if this were a masonry job, even to meet the goals set over the greater number of months required for masonry construction, they would need to field 20 or more masons, according to Tomazin.

"Working with Styrofoam as opposed to plywood and even masonry or stick,” he continues, "you can adapt any floor plan, creating curved or angled walls just by cutting with a handsaw and shaping the Styrofoam—which is much easier to do than with conventional wall systems.

"Once that’s done, the other trades like plumbers, electricians, heating and air conditioning people and exterior finish guys have a much easier time working with the ICF system, too, once they learn it, because ICF is Styrofoam with furring already built into it. They’re also able to put all their lines and stuff into the Styrofoam walls with just a router, some of it before the concrete is poured. Their product is just that much more difficult to install into a solid concrete wall or similar.

"It’s amazing, really, when working on an ICF job site, more than on any other job site, that people driving by are constantly stopping to ask what you are dong and what kind of product you’re putting up, because most people have never seen it before, and most people are really interested and kind of fascinated by the whole thing.”

Maybe the more people who have their curiosity answered, the more will be demanding, like those family members and neighbors of the Tomazins during the 1990s, to have their homes and offices and other buildings made from this new construction system.

About the Author
Steven Ferry is a Clearwater, Fla.–based writer for the construction industry.