A man, a plan, a home
By: Carole McMichael
The burgeoning market for home remodeling has blossomed into more ambitious do-it-yourself efforts, such as building your own home. The most likely candidates are those with enough construction-related experience not to be intimidated by the scope of the project. Still, they may need a little more courage to take on building a house with somewhat unconventional materials like insulating concrete forms. Reginald McBreairty, who has a background in electrical contracting and home inspection, had no background in concrete construction or in ICFs, but he and his wife now live in an ICF house that he built.
The initial concept was to build a home that the McBreairty family could live in now, but possibly turn into a bed and breakfast sometime in the future. When McBreairty found out that the home's site, atop a hill in the country, had suffered damaged roofs and power lines from a tornado two years earlier, he was determined to build something that wouldn't blow over in the wind.
"I started looking for the right material and happened to catch a program on testing that talked about concrete homes," says McBreairty. "That got me interested and I continued researching it. After two years of checking--looking at different homes, contractors and different types of block--I finally decided the block I wanted was Amvic. Then, I looked for a supplier who could give me some help in getting started. Jake Keiser, who has a lot of building experience, is an Amvic distributor for Strong Walls. He was willing to show me how to get the block laid out through the first course and first pour.
"Another reason I chose ICFs was that I wouldn't have to subcontract the foundation, because I could do it with ICFs myself. Once I started, it was really easy to do. It was just a matter of understanding how you put the bracing on. Jake furnished the bracing and also helped checking the walls for level and plumb for the first floor. He helped for two days, after that I could do it myself."
While McBreairty was building his house, he became concerned about noise from the traffic passing on the road below. When the house was finished, he discovered that he only heard the traffic when he opened a window. To give an even more dramatic example of the sound reduction capability of concrete, he tells the story of a heavy windstorm: "I was in the house when my wife called from work to ask if I was OK," remembers McBreairty. "She said that they had secured the building where she worked, but still thought the wind was going to tear it apart. I looked out the window and saw the trees were all leaning way over. I hadn't even known the wind was blowing."
Another of the owners' concerns was energy efficiency. After living in the house about a year, McBreairty decided to check his home's utility bills against that of his neighbor, who has a stick-frame house about half the size of his house. His bills confirmed that he was using less energy. A similar comparison with a contractor's duplex about one-third the size of McBreairty's ICF house showed that the duplex cost about $260 a month for energy, while McBreairty was paying only about $184 a month.
The McBreairty house is a two-story structure with a complex roof system. Inside, the home has 9-foot ceilings and several archways. Because Mrs. McBreairty is a caterer for fun and formal dining, the home has a large dining space, where the couple recently had 54 people gather. The design includes a lot of crown molding, columns in the dining room and triple-tray ceilings--one room has square trays and another has octagonal trays. The interior is finished with six-panel oak doors and trim with rosettes. The floors have radiant heating. All entry doors open onto a hard surface (marble tile in the kitchen and halls), with carpet in most of the rooms.
"One feature that everyone seems to like is the lighting in the hallways and closets," says McBreairty. "They are all automatic when you walk in--you don't have to touch anything. I also have step lights that go on automatically when you step on them at the top or bottom of the stairs. I have stereo throughout, intercoms, burglar alarm, central vacuum system, multi-cable and TV access everywhere, and future smart capacity for technology upgrades."
Inside and out, McBreairty planned the home with an eye toward the future; a 30-foot walk-up reaches the full height of the building, and the home's basement is roughed-in for future use so it can be finished as a separate apartment should a family member need it. One more or less finished space is the safe room. It is entirely concrete, 12 feet by 14 feet with a steel door and a concrete ceiling. Because of the home's concrete walls, McBreairty doesn't see a real need for the safe room as protection against tornadoes, but can see it used as a secure place for the children to go if they are scared.
McBreairty says he clad the home's exterior with brick on all sides "for maintenance advantages." The garage, also built of ICFs, has R-21 doors. "This makes it very easy to heat the rooms above the garage," he says.
What did "doing-it-yourself building" mean to McBreairty? He worked with one of two experienced helpers using an Amvic block of 4 feet by 16 inches. The depth of the finished wall was 11 inches. For the footers, he used a slightly larger block. The soil they excavated was heavy clay, which is hard to work with but wasn't the expansive type. The footers were 14 inches wide on the low side, and 40 inches down. For water protection, he installed a plastic vapor barrier, running the full height of the foundation, and overlapping. Then he added about 4 or 5 feet of pea gravel for drainage. Drainage inside the house eliminates the need for a sump pump.
"Once footers were in, the slab was poured," says McBreairty. "Rebar protrudes from the footers for stacking the ICFs. They snap together like hollow Legos. I like the foam and plastic because I can cut it with a skill saw, hand saw or table saw. The ones with the metal webs are more difficult to work with. It took us maybe four or five days to get blocks up--six days to the pour. Then, we waited a day to put the floor joists in. As soon as the pour was done, we did the basement framing.
"On the first floor, there is rebar horizontally in every course of blocks--vertically, it runs 12 inches on-center. Because there is less of a load with each story, the next floor used rebar 18 inches on-center and the third, 24 inches on-center. I put in more than what is required to make the walls even stronger.
"I have two guys vibrating during the pour. I usually have seven guys at the pour. We use a pea-gravel mix. A slump of 5 is recommended, but I thought that was too thick, and that would make it hard to vibrate down by the windows. So we went to a six. Because we poured in September, the weather wasn't a problem for the mix. All in all, the house took 10 months to build."
McBreairty installed all the vents and the finish plumbing, but subbed out the copper lines. His goal was to put the manifold in and use plastic, but none of the plumbers he contacted wanted to use plastic. He did the electrical wiring as well. For the wires, he used a chainsaw with a depth gauge and cut a groove for the wires.
McBreairty considered the roof design the most challenging aspect of the project. The roof was so complicated that the truss manufacturer said they had never created trusses for such a difficult design. In the end, he had to redesign the dormers and reframe them to make the trusses work.
"Usually trusses are designed to withstand 60 to 70 miles an hour winds," says McBreairty. "I had my trusses designed for a wind load of 120 miles an hour. To make my roof even more wind resistant, I put my roof decking down with ringshank nails. They have ridges so they would pull out the plywood before they would pull out of the wood. I also used a lot of tie downs on it and 45-year rated shingles. R-40 cellulose fiber was blown in for insulation. We have a lot of attic space, but the trusses are so high, they had to stack them one on top of one another.
"For good air quality, I have the house well ventilated, using a power vent with a humidistat. I also have an air exchanger in the basement tied to my cooling system to keep fresh air coming. It is 82 percent efficient. My main concern was humidity. I contracted out the HVAC. I have two units. They were oversized initially, so I had the contractor, who wasn't used to working with ICFs, go back and redo it."
The reaction of code inspectors to ICF houses can be cause for nervousness, but in McBreairty's case, the process went relatively smoothly.
"I didn't have any problem," he says. "I was concerned about them requiring conduit in for the electrical, but I checked around and found they don't do that here. That saved a lot of time. I don't think the inspectors had much experience with concrete housing for residential. They seemed quite positively surprised. There were no questions. Before I started, I provided all the specifications."
Would you do it again?
When asked if he would build another ICF house, McBreairty says, "Absolutely, the results are so great. A lot of builders have stopped by and wanted to hire me to do theirs because their clients are interested. People that look at the house can't believe it is a concrete home. I think ICF homes will be a major market in the future. And for non-contractors, there is a little learning curve, but they can do it themselves."