Article No: 160

2006-05-03 09:04:32
A Glimpse of Italy in Washington State
By: Carole McMichael

Photography by Jeff L. Evans

Until recently, the Pasco, Wash., area has not seen many concrete housing projects. Devoted Builders LLC and Pischel Construction LLC are partly responsible for changing that trend. Here and there, builders have done single custom concrete homes, but Fred Giacci, developer of Fortunato Inc. and general manager of Devoted Builders LLC, notes that his businesses were the first to introduce ICF homebuilding on a larger community scale. Giacci is building the Mediterranean Villas Town Home Community, a development that will include 250 town homes.

"I've been exposed to a lot of construction," says Giacci, "but haven't been happy with stick and its overall value, its inefficiency and the lack of quality of life. We have a desert climate in this part of Washington state, so that means we need building materials that can deal efficiently with cold in the winter and heat in the summer. We have a lot of dust and allergens as well, so we are always thinking about a clean and healthy environment. There is also a large contingent of people around here who are looking for homes that are solid and green-friendly, minimizing the cutting down of the trees."

Giacci did research via the Internet to find the best value in a construction method--one that could address the shortfalls of stick-built. The solution turned out to be ICFs. They provide the homeowner with noise reduction and a feeling of security--key features for selling a client on town home living. He checked out a number of ICF blocks, and settled on Amvic as the best. Giacci says he is always open to using a new product that might be better, but hasn't found one yet.

Continuing a tradition
"It is really a piece of my heritage," says Giacci about creating the Mediterranean Villas development. The builder is the grandson of Fortunato Giacci, a carpenter from Rome who brought his trade over to this country and taught Giacci's father and Giacci as well.

"I designed the town homes to look like villas, with a center unit of two town houses that are two stories and single-story units on each side," he says. "Typical of Mediterranean design, we have lots of arches and the exterior finished with stucco. To keep expenses down on roofing, we used a composition shingle, specially made to look like tile."

Giacci tried to design very functional floor plans, using the great room concept with the kitchen open to the dining and living areas. Clients can choose from nine floor plans and one- or two-level houses. The units start at 1,200 square feet and go up to about 2,000 square feet. With two- and three-bedroom floor plans, every model has a master suite with a walk-in closet and two full baths. The units are technology-ready, fully wired throughout. Air exchangers and humidifiers operate on a timer that regulates the temperature of fresh air before it comes into the house. All homes have patios and one- and two-car attached garage options.

To ensure privacy for townhouse residents, stucco-clad walls divide yard space. Entryways have an angled front window and are not lined up--neighbors don't see each other's front doors. To relieve owners of yard maintenance hassles, a community association takes care of landscaping. For owners who want the social advantages of a community, the association provides a pavilion and an open-air palazzo for community gatherings as well as a variety of walking paths. A neighborhood watch helps with security, allowing residents to take a month-long trip without worrying about their homes.

The Villas' clients consist of professionals, singles and retirees. Units, which include the lots, are priced from $129,000 to $180,000. Although the development is already in an advanced phase, Giacci keeps his eyes open to design trends for possible adjustments to the plans and plan options.

Working with Amvic
Joe Wallace, an Amvic distributor and ICF trade contractor on the development, first introduced Giacci to Amvic Block in 2002. Wallace provides hands-on involvement and the all-important knowledge of proper bracing methods.

"I've been building with ICFs for 15 years and have tried most of the other blocks," Wallace says. "Amvic has been the strongest. It is easier to deal with than other blocks because the ties are 6 inches on center--and there is less waste because it is reversible. It comes in a variety of sizes. On the Villa project, we used the 6-inch blocks for the exterior walls. The inner walls were wood-frame and finished in drywall."

Important development site specifics include the frost depth, which is 24 inches and normal for the region, and soil composition, which is sandy, making a good building surface that doesn't take much energy to compact. The building process begins by pouring the footings and the first two courses monolithically. A special forming system specifically designed for ICFs attaches the blocks to the footing, which is 10 inches by 14 inches.

Generally, the block reaches the minimum 2,500 psi for curing in seven to 10 days, at which point block stacking can begin. Wallace uses a mix with fly ash and slag cement. The mix used for footings contains 3/4-inch aggregate; the mix for the walls contains 3/8-inch aggregate. After pouring the footings and the first two courses, builders backfill and install plumbing. They pour the floor and stack walls to a full room height, supporting them with steel bracing. The team completes four unit floors at once, resulting in a footprint of about 4,500 square feet.

Ductwork, the heat exchanger and penetrations for gas and water that run through a sleeve are put in before exterior walls are poured. Electrical wiring and plumbing are installed after the roof and trusses are in. Electricians use a hot knife to cut channels in the polystyrene foam of the blocks after the walls are poured and hardened. Drywall can be attached to 1 1/2-inch-wide strips embedded in the foam. According to Giacci, the foam is very dense (type II EPS at 1 1/2 pound cubic foot density) and substantial compared to other blocks.

"The inner walls go up at the same time as the outer walls," Wallace says. "If we are doing a two-story, we frame the interior floor, frame the wood floor to the second story and then stack the second-story walls. Blocks are attached by interlock, then the rebar is set in. One advantage of Amvic is that you can set rebar in a channel and not have to tie it. We plumb corners, string-line out walls, then verify with a level. We try to get everything within the width of a fishing line. After the pour, we check everything when the concrete is still wet and we can do all our adjusting then. We take the bracing off after 24 hours and check again."

Crew members
"Usually, my crew is me, my wife and her sister," says Wallace. "That has been the most efficient number. If you get any more than that, you can get in each other's way. I come in and precut all the block and then we stack it up for ends, windows and doors, and frame our own bucks. I do on-the-job training for my crew."

In fact, Wallace does training for Amvic in the western United States and, in some cases, for the subcontractors as well. He explains the process and walks them through a job so they can see what they are dealing with. If an actual model isn't handy, he teaches them just by using pictures and one block sample. So far, they haven't had trouble catching on and, Wallace notes, sometimes they have come up with better ideas.

"Working with subs is not as difficult as it used to be because ICFs are getting to be visible enough in the construction field that the subs realize that they need to get on the bandwagon now," says Wallace.

Lifestyle is key
"We share with potential clients that the houses are concrete-built, but it is not our focus," says Giacci. "Our main thing is the lifestyle the Villas offer because of all the factors: the quality of the construction, air quality, maintenance-free living, the value itself in being affordable--one of my objectives with choosing an ICF was keeping the price down. Building with ICFs is a little bit more expensive than building with stick, but with our volume, it is fine. I don't market one specific advantage.

"In our sales office, although we have a wall to show construction at all levels, most buyers come for the lifestyle. When we share the advantages of concrete, that kind of finalizes their decision. What really sells the town house is what they feel when they are inside the house. A house was still under construction when we showed it, but the buyers couldn't hear it. We show different models, but just one model at a time because most units are pre-sold or sold before they are finished. Clients look at different models and different price ranges. During the process, we have three stages where they can pick items such as countertops, carpet, paint and fireplaces. We try to find a happy medium where they can personalize their house without slowing down our building schedule."

Giacci estimates construction of the development's remaining 120 units will last another two years. "We have been averaging about four units a month, and we are picking up the pace, so it should be five, and that includes building, selling and completing," he says.

"People's eyes are wide open. Building concrete homes is going to pick up a lot more and not just in our area. The light is going on everywhere."