Lessons taught in Kansas City
By: Carole McMichael
ICF builders discover quickly lesson number one of their trade: Successful construction markets are not just about the merits of the product, but also about where they are building and the mindset of the client.
"In Johnson County, Missouri, houses are like cars," says Bryan Yancey, president of C&C Concrete Specialists Inc. "The average person stays in a house for only two or three years. Our clients don't want to paint and fix things, and they aren't interested in whether a house will stand the test of time.
"To go after this market, I have to get the upfront price of my ICF home down to the same level as wood. It is already cheaper than wood with energy costs and low maintenance figured in. Still, it is kind of a tough sell. If a client has to choose between building out of ICFs or getting the kitchen tile he wants, the ICF is the first thing to go."
Like most ICF builders, Yancey started as a stick builder. And like most, he had a personal dream of being a homebuilder, so he built a 3,500-square-foot stick home for himself. That first winter, his monthly gas bill of $450 turned out to be real motivation for change. Although he hadn't seen a lot of projects using other building materials, he began to search for a better alternative to stick. The turning point came when foundation crews failed to show up for another stick home: He went to a block distributor and built with ICFs instead. As a result of this descision, Yancey started his company.
"I wasn't particularly happy with the first block I found," says the builder, "but the second block found me. It was the one I used on a clubhouse in a multi-family development I did earlier. Now, [after several ICF projects] I'm a block-neutral builder and build pretty much with all variety of ICFs. Whichever ICF salesman brings me a lead, I'll build with his block. Actually, I find that suppliers often get involved in ICF projects whether it is their block being used or not--it is an advertisement for the industry."
The foundation lesson
"A lot of people try ICFs for the foundation," Yancey says. "I now do poured-in-place concrete instead for the basements of all of our ICF homes--I just don't believe ICFs below grade is a great idea. The waterproofing adds to the cost, and below grade, you don't get the benefits that ICFs give you above grade. To me, ICFs are not really supposed to be below grade.
"The foam is an excellent channel for water. If it gets in the foam, it can get inside your house through the ties; so you have a lot more possible entry. I did eight or nine houses using ICFs below grade and didn't have major leaks, but I had a little moisture on the edges and that bothered me. I wouldn't say I have had a problem with my ICF basements, but it's something I've now made a point to avoid.
"Typically, I pour a 10-inch cast wall and stack the block on top of that. It simplifies a lot of issues, so the ICF is not in contact with sod and landscaping. We spray waterproofing on the cast wall conventionally and then put 2 inches of rigid foam on the outside of that, and backfill. The foam there is just for R-value. We also put 2 inches of foam on the inside. So essentially we are creating an ICF sandwich. The benefit that we have is cheaper waterproofing and a cheaper wall."
The block lesson
The key to block choice in the ICF market lies in the ease with which the block can be stacked. This ease depends on the simplicity of the keyway (tongue and groove) or the interlock. Blocks should, "sit tight to each other without pounding on." Most of the time when Yancey has a choice, he uses Eco Block, though he is also checking out a new product called A-1 Block.
"One ICF I used warned that a block might settle 1/8 of an inch," Yancey says. "So the crew might have to allow an extra 11/2 inches per wall. A block settles if the keyway where blocks sit on each other is too complicated and the installers can't pound the block together so that it is tight. To me, if a block is 16 inches tall, it should take up 16 inches.
"When we start a job, my crew will ask me, 'Is this the good block?' They don't like blocks that take a lot to put them together. So far, they prefer either Eco Block, which has a simple tongue, or A-1 Block, which has an even simpler tongue. If your installers like the block, they will do a better job and that saves time."
Where the heart is
Yancey describes his house as traditional Kansas City style--a two-story stucco home with a walkout finished basement. The basement, or lower level, houses 1,000 square feet for a shop and the company's office. It also has a family room, a bedroom and a bath. Following a design trend that is popular all over the country, the main floor lays out the kitchen, the hearthroom with a fireplace, the dining room, the living room and a half bath in an open floor plan. The family's private space is separate: On the second floor, there are three bedrooms with a shared bath, the master suite with a master bath and a laundry room.
Not everything is traditional. First, the office and shop space are built underneath a suspended slab below a three-car garage, forming a concrete envelope that doubles as a saferoom --a must in tornado-prone Missouri. Second, the tile floors have lightweight concrete to cover the tubing for the radiant heat system. All of the hard-surface floors use radiant heat for extra warmth, but not to serve as the primary heating system.
According to Yancey, the most challenging feature in the house is the suspended ICF wall--imagine a large concrete door with ICF walls rising above that. He notes that it was a challenge only the first time they included this element.
Step by step
"This house is done with a monolithic slab," Yancey says. "We pour the slab and then start stacking block. It is connected with the keyway and there is rebar sticking out 2 or 4 feet depending on what the engineer determines. The day after we pour the slab, we usually come back and saw-cut the slab to control cracking, then start stacking. We don't pour the concrete in the ICFs until the slab is cured (seven days), otherwise, it could put a lot of weight on the edge of the headers. The pour date also depends on scheduling.
"We tie the rebar to the blocks--horizontal rebar is spaced every 16 inches; vertical rebar is every 2 feet on center. For any large openings or windows and doors, the engineer may call for additional rebar. The basement and main floor walls are 9 feet; the second floor walls are 8 feet, except for the master where it is 10 feet. The basement walls are 8 inches thick; the rest of the walls are 6 inches.
"I have specialized separate crews that just do the slab, the ICFs or the framing. The framers snap the lines after we pour the walls, which are poured one floor at a time. We pour up to where we can tie in the floor. The more blocking or bracing put on ICFs, the better. Next, we test whether the walls are plumb. We use an internal vibrator around windows and doors and difficult spots, but mostly not the walls because vibrating them may increase water and weight and the chance to have a blowout. In place of that, we put a guy inside and outside of the wall. They just pound on it to get the concrete to consolidate."
For the roof, Yancey typically uses conventional wood trusses. In the attic, he chooses insulation that will bring it up to R45. He insulates the interior walls with blown cellulose or recycled paper to minimize air infiltration.
For his ICF homes, Yancey used the same subcontractors who he works with for his frame houses, so initially he had to train them. On his house, his crew used hot knives to cut channels in the foam where the subs marked what they wanted. Most of the time, the vents are put in the walls before pouring, but builders can drill through later.
"For the [vents or openings] the subs are sure on, we put in a sleeve; the ones they are not sure on, we do later," Yancey says. "People think drilling through the concrete is a huge problem, but it isn't.
"I don't use subcontractors on the shell, so I have total control over quality and scheduling. The crew, which I trained in building the ICF shell, were employees that I used on the other projects. They picked it up pretty fast. You only need about four guys to do the ICF work. My crews range anywhere from 10 to 14 guys, but they are not always on the same job. Presently, I've got six projects going on at once. There may be stacking at one site, while there is pouring on another."
The business lesson
While labor hasn't been an issue, getting enough jobs has been difficult, according to Yancey. For new projects, he relies on block suppliers, his web site and his reputation as a builder. Each new house generates about three serious inquiries from prospective clients.
"The more work you do," he says, "the more work you get. We don't have open houses. Meetings with clients are scheduled in my home, which I think is a key selling point. I run a lot of people through this house. It's like a model."
Getting more jobs is about getting people educated on ICFs and convincing them that it is a better way to build. "That is getting a lot easier," Yancey says, "but if they still argue, they deserve to have a wood house."
"Four years ago," he adds, "at a home show, people would ask, 'What is this?' Now, they ask, 'How do you attach the floors? How do you put in the electrical?' Clearly, the public is getting more educated."