Largest ICF production-run housing project in the nation is on track for a new record
By: Carole McMichael
In many parts of the country, residential building with insulating concrete forms (ICFs) focuses on the custom-home market. But in Cathedral City, outside of Palm Springs, Calif., Joseph Morreale, CEO of Rio Del Sol Development Inc., is working on the final phase of construction of what is touted as the largest ICF production-run housing project in the nation. When finished, the Villages of Rio Del Sol will include 287 homes, 160 of which are ICF-built.
"We are building the first template for accurately determining the costs of doing a production run with ICFs," Morreale said. "That is why this is a nationally recognized project. No one yet has the knowledge of what the production run can yield."
From the standpoint of market, there isn't a better site for the Villages project. Currently, the market is elevating by 2 percent per month. Approximately 4,000 people a month are moving into the Palm Springs area from cities such as San Diego and Sacramento. They are looking to downsize, retire or invest equity from their previous homes. Homes here, which run from $250 to $300 per square foot, are cheap compared to the $600 to $750 per square foot in major cities.
Unlike many development projects, the Villages of Rio Del Sol homes were not on the market until the grand opening in October.
Filling out the concept
The Villages of Rio Del Sol is a planned unit development that will be totally built in 18 months. Morreale is currently completing the last 55 acres. There are four separate villages. All the houses in a village share a style distinctive to that village. The smaller homes are in the village called Espana, which offers two different models. The next one is a Santa Barbara-style village, which evokes Spanish colonial revival design from the early 1900s. The third is the Tuscan-style village called Palazzo, and the fourth is the modern village called Elements, which uses "desert modern"-style — a mix of "old Palm Springs" and the openness of modern. In the Tuscan and Elements villages, which he is working on now, there is a grouping of three different designs with three different facades, creating nine combinations in all.
All the homes are single-story, built on slab. Typically, there are three or four bedrooms with three or three and a half baths. Interior walls are drywall; interior partition walls are wood frame; floors are hardwood or natural travertine or tile. There is European-style cabinetry and granite slab countertops in the kitchens. Every house has 15-foot vaulted ceilings in the living room. All of the standard rooms have 10-foot-high ceilings.
"The designs are fairly straightforward," Morreale said. "No bay windows, but we do have arches and bowed walls. All houses have front courtyards with large entry monuments, so there is no access to the front door until you come into the courtyard, which is accessed electronically. There are zero lot lines, but we have generous green belts behind the houses to create a park-like feel. We are following very specific tract plans and have mapped out which houses, with which elevations will be built on which lots."
"The main thrust of wanting to use ICFs is the benefit we would receive architecturally," Morreale said. "It has to do with the amount of insulation or R-value with respect to California's strict energy standards. They put you in a position of having a limited amount of glass that can be incorporated into the home design. Architecturally, we wanted to use a lot more glass to create homes that have more light and more openness. Building with ICFs gave us an avenue that nothing else could. There is also the obvious benefit to the builder that the homeowner gets an estimated 50 to 80 percent reduction in the energy use; and that always is a great marketing tool."
The amount of glass is not just an energy issue. Morreale is building in the greatest seismic zone, so that means he has to meet the highest seismic standard. According to Morreale, the ICF exceeds the strength required by seismic standards, blowing away the strength from a stick-frame home, which needs a tremendous amount of plywood and hardware to meet seismic standards. Considering the rising cost of wood, that makes ICFs a viable alternative. "In fact," he said, "ICF houses are getting higher comp value than stick houses and that is recognized on resale."
Morreale checked out a lot of companies in looking for the right ICF. He chose Eco-Block because it was user-friendly for production housing. Because it is not sold in solid-block form, but comes broken down, twice the amount of product can be shipped on a truck, making it a cost-effective way of getting volume of product to a site.
"The negative side to that," Morreale said, "is, once onsite, it has to be snapped together. However, we have laborers onsite who are multitasking. Whenever there is an opportunity, people are snapping blocks together. So I don't consider it something we would have to hire additional crew for. Everyone just jumps in."
Keeping it all together
For Morreale, keeping such a huge project on track started with preplanning, which involved meeting with related subcontractors that they have to deal with during the ICF stage. That included the foundation people, framers, electricians, plumbers and mechanical subs. He explained to them what was expected and how they are expected to coordinate with the installing crew.
"Many subs have shown interest in working on ICF construction, but have not had a chance to try it," he said. "By the time we were done, they indicated they would not need to charge more money for working with ICFs. Our contract requires whoever deals with us to have a specific project supervisor who is going to be assigned for the longevity of the project. If a sub does bring new people in, we have our training and safety meetings on a weekly basis to help them get educated, and keep us conscious of those who need training."
To maintain a safe work site and satisfy OHSA requirements, Morreale has weekly safety meetings. He compiles booklets and sets up the mission statement covering what will be done each week and how to approach safety issues. This includes revolving topics from management to maintenance of all tools to attire worn. In addition, there is a full cleanup onsite every day. ICFs don't create a lot of debris, but every bit of scrap generated on a daily basis is picked up and put in trash bags.
"One of the beautiful things about developing your own crew to work with ICFs is that no one comes to it with preconceived notions about safety and cleanliness," Morreale said. "Because we have the manpower on pour day to do it, as we pour, we have a fellow go behind with a pressure hose and clean away any concrete that has spilled out. It helps the site look professional; and if a prospective buyer comes to see the project, he won't be afraid to put his hand on it. The friendliness and cleanliness of it is one of the marketing tools."
Last August, through the auspices of the Portland Cement Association and the distributor, Eco-Block LLC, 52 architects came to see the project. According to Morreale, it was extremely well-received; and there was significant interest from large developers who want to know if they would be willing to come and build projects of 1,000 homes and up.
According to Morreale, the biggest hurdle for production-run ICF construction is finding a crew. Right now, he has 16 people working on four houses. A homebuilder for 26 years, he pulled some from his framing people and some from masonry people in the area, and added the trainers who came from Eco-Block to start his core group. Since then, he has been weaving in new people and putting them on a progressive scale of accomplishment and pay.
"We are looking to do four houses a week of the ICF part," he said. "When we get up to full speed, we expect to deliver eight houses a week, two from each village. The idea is that a four-man crew could produce one house per week. So we have 16 in four individual teams, with a team leader and a project supervisor who handles the ordering and coordination of those people. After four houses are done, the Eco-Block trainers move to the second seat, just guiding the crew while they take charge of installation of the next four houses. So far, it is working very well.
"The walls of the four houses are stacked in four days, ready for the pour on Friday when we will pour all four of them, even though these are big houses. That way, all 16 of the crew are following that concrete pump and taking turns on the hose, checking the walls for plumb, making sure there are no bulges or other issues. Instead of letting the house and pour get ahead of you, you have the manpower to stay in complete control. The more houses we do, the more efficient the crew becomes. Now we are looking at as much as a 30 percent reduction in labor costs."
The step by step
Number 4 rebar protrudes 2 feet every 16 inches. That is the mechanism by which the first blocks are installed; and after the pour, that is the attachment that holds them down to the slab. The Eco-Block forms are very precise and consistent in the way they snap together, so there are no variations in wall widths or in how the blocks go together. They are 16 inches wide by 4 feet long. The finished wall is 12 inches thick. The rebar is placed every 16 inches vertically and horizontally.
"We find that a small addition of fly ash to the mix," Morreale said, "has a tendency to make it a little bit more like toothpaste, so it flows really well in an ICF wall and eliminates any kind of air gapping and pockets that could occur. We do interior bracing every 6 feet, so we don't have any blowouts. I think people who try to cut corners on bracing can have trouble when they don't pay attention to how the block goes together - where the weak points might be. My new crew — strictly greenhorns — have produced nine houses without a single blowout or bulge.
"Also, we use only boom pumps with restrictors at the end of the boom, so we slow down the velocity of the concrete coming out of the pump. The swing arm helps spread that concrete rather than get a point load. That makes all the difference. We do three full passes around the house rather than pour in a single lift. Everyone takes time on the hose, so that everyone is interchangeable."
Although more and more ICF builders are finding that code inspectors are familiar with ICF construction, it was not the case for Rio Del Sol. Morreale invited the city engineers, the plan checkers and inspectors to the site and provided them with all the documentation that would be required. Then he showed them how the Eco-Block system works and got them "warm and fuzzy" about it before he started.
"I didn't have any trouble in scheduling inspections," he said. "I get 10 inspections a day, the limit they can give. We are trying to dovetail the city's availability, being careful what inspections we call for. We have a deputy inspector who is paid separately, acting as a liaison for the city on pour days."
Morreale is pleased with ICFs but is not "hyping" them. "We are hyping a lifestyle," he said. "It is going to be easy for people to go from our stick-frame models to our ICF models and have an unusual experience. We are trying to develop the process of alternative construction that allows us to do something architecturally different that nobody else can do. If you don't use ICFs, you can't do it."
In working with a number of different ICF distributors and manufacturers, he noted that regardless of the product he chose, he has been thanked for using ICFs and accepted as a member of the ICF family.