An ICF gem
By: Carole McMichael
The hot new housing market in the Southwest seems to be driven by pricey California locales. Homeowners there are cashing in on elevated real estate values, taking their profits and buying or building in areas of California and nearby states where they can buy a $2 million house for $1 million. This trend perfectly suits Don Brooks, owner of Manchester Builders in Indian Wells, California.
"This county we are in is the fastest growing county in California, and we have a lot of concrete residential building going on," says Brooks, whose business operates in Riverside County. "Right now, it is absolutely on fire. There are 150 concrete trucks here and you can never get one. No matter how many they bring to the valley, it is not enough because there is that much new construction going on. One of the reasons it's so busy, compared to San Diego and some of the premier areas around Los Angeles, is that it is still affordable."
The ICF solution
Brooks specializes in high-end custom homes built on spec. An Arxx distributor for the last one-and-a-half years, his company also supplies materials for other construction projects. Before he began building with ICFs, he visited several home-building shows where he was introduced to a variety of concrete building products.
Brooks notes that of the many advantages offered by ICF companies, the one that stands out to a potential buyer depends on the region. In extreme climates energy efficiency is key, but in mild climates buyers might be most concerned with protection against natural disasters, such as fire. The idea of building with ICFs piqued Brooks's interest because concrete and foam are ideal for building in a desert setting.
An area near Indian Wells that was recently devastated by fire is now seeing a lot of rebuilding with concrete; however, homeowners in Indian Wells, which doesn't have native vegetation, are not going to be drawn to concrete for fire protection. Consequently, Brooks chooses concrete primarily for its energy-saving properties. Protection against termite damage and earthquakes are also high on his list.
"There are several good ICF manufacturers," says Brooks. "It is like Ford and Chevrolet. You almost can't go wrong with your choice. We like Arxx because, number one, they are a large company with good assets behind them; and, number two, the people who represent them are terrific to work with. If I had to pin it down to one thing, I would say I like the product, but love the company. Delivery is fantastic; every load has been on time.
"A lot of the problem the concrete market runs into is the perception that the cost of building out of an ICF system is considerably higher than wood frame. All things considered, it's not. The payback--the insurance, energy savings, termite prevention and literally no maintenance--better than evens it out. When you are building out of wood, the house might last 70 years, if it is well maintained. Concrete lasts several lifetimes. It is amazing that you can do that with something as simple as concrete and foam, but for some builders, it is hard to change old habits. That requires re-educating."
Estada de Rosa
Though ICFs offer many advantages, buyers of high-end custom homes are most interested in design and luxurious and unique features. Brooks has designed a self-gated estate, Estada de Rosa, to meet those criteria.
Brooks wanted the house to have the comfort of traditional elements on the interior. The home's crown molding, picture molding and wainscoting are natural wood (6,000 feet of knotty alder); cabinets throughout the home are also made of alder. The floors are travertine over a concrete slab, with radiant heat in the floors of the bathrooms. The exterior, finished in stucco with a concrete stone, reflects a traditional Southwestern style with 45-degree exterior walls and arched windows.
The 5,762-square-foot, one-story house sprawls handsomely across the lot, occupying more than an acre of land. At one end, a large master suite holds one of the home's five fireplaces and a round turret room for a spa tub off the master bath. "The biggest design challenge was the turret room," says Brooks. "Building a round room from rectangular block is not so bad if the room has a large enough radius. Then, all you do is make cuts on the block and they bend. A tight radius, as we had, is different. It would be far more economical doing something octagonal using 45-degree block, and it would be far cheaper to create a round structure with wood. You have to decide case by case, but it is wrong to think you can't use any wood in conjunction with ICF systems," he concludes.
A spacious guesthouse, including its own kitchen, bath, living room, bedroom and garage, occupies the opposite end of the home. Additional living areas include two bedrooms with baths, formal living and dining rooms, an office, a billiard room, and a family room adjacent to the spacious kitchen. The entranceway, with octagonal walls, draws visitors into a foyer that offers an inspiring view of the mountains through a huge 12-foot-by-16-foot window.
The home's many windows maximize access to the extraordinary views, numerous porches and a covered patio across the back of the house, which ends in a 580-square-foot outdoor living room with a fireplace. Five units control separate heating and cooling zones, including the garage.
"The house was only one story because the City Council doesn't allow two-story houses that would block views of the mountains," says Brooks. The house is at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, which border two sides of the property. "The city and the desert people consider the mountains somewhat sacred, so builders are not allowed to build onto the mountain itself." To blend the property with its setting, Brooks built a 12-inch concrete block retaining wall with a façade, constructed with Arxx blocks, made to look like mountain stones and waterfalls. "We used a special stain in the concrete so it blends in with the mountains," he says. "A lot of people can't tell where one begins and the other ends. We haven't disturbed the mountains, but it looks like the waterfalls originate there."
The water features built with Arxx blocks create waterfalls from many different heights. "With Arxx, you lay it on its side, stand it up straight or endwise; each position gives you a different definition," explains Brooks. "If you want a tiered waterfall, some blocks are upright, others in back on their sides, and so on." Brooks covered the blocks with gunite, a concrete mixture sprayed from a pneumatic gun, to make the blocks look like separate stones. "Because of the rapidity of using Arxx construction, it is a much faster and cheaper way to build waterfalls," he says. The manmade falls run across most of the property's back border and down the side, flanking a large freeform swimming pool that can be seen from the master bedroom and dining room bay windows.
When Brooks built his first ICF home, he paid to train his crew on the job. "Arxx has a school, but we preferred to have it on-site," he says. "The trainers stayed through 20 percent of the process. After that, we had a pretty good handle on how to do it. It is not rocket science. The actual placing of the block doesn't even require skilled labor."
"One of the most important things in building with ICF systems is the pouring of the walls, making sure the concrete gets settled in the block and that the walls are perfectly straight while they are going up. You must get a good monolithic pour to get the strength that is required, which you don't get if you pour too dry or don't vibrate right. Also, you have to have a proper bracing system to hold the walls while you pour. We bought a metal bracing system from Arxx that is adjustable, so you can fine-tune it. Once you have everything in place, you want to be able to move the walls in or out an inch to make them absolutely plumb.
"Another advantage with the ICF systems is that when you put on the top plate for the roof trusses, you can shoot them in with a laser level and adjust the bolts on the top. If you have perfectly square walls and corners, everything goes together with no mistakes. It makes the rest of the house go so much more quickly. You also have a nailer every 8 inches instead of every 16 inches."
Brooks concludes that most problems that arise with ICF construction are the fault of the installer. "Blocks are far straighter than anything you can buy in a lumberyard," he says. "In the heat here, it is hard to keep the wood from warping; building with ICFs, even if you have weather delays, you don't have the warping. That is a big, big plus."
According to Brooks, the various professionals involved in building Estada de Rosa have been won over, even if they had no prior experience with ICF construction. After building four ICF homes, Brooks's crew (usually six people) prefers concrete to wood. They realize they are ahead of the game--they have a leading-edge skill. The City Council wasn't familiar with ICFs, but learned rapidly. Electrical and plumbing subcontractors were also new to the process, but posed no opposition once Brooks showed them how to install the pipes and wiring. Likewise, code inspectors had no problem adapting. "Once they were familiar with the system, they became great supporters," adds Brooks.
"In general, no one is against saving energy costs," he says, "so everybody who has seen the ICF system is in favor of it, but they don't have to write the check. They always want to know how much more it is going to cost than wood. What is happening, however, is that the costs are getting closer. The builders are streamlining ways to build out of ICFs. We are at least 30 percent faster than when we built the first Arxx house. And by the time we finish with another, we will probably pick up another 5 or 7 percent. You just get better at it, so it gets faster and easier.
"I'm getting ready to start another Arxx project--a beautiful bed and breakfast--right now. In fact, I wouldn't build out of anything else. I will never stick-build again!"
The road ahead
According to Brooks, "In 20 years, builders will no longer be using wood for exterior construction. Concrete for residential might be 13 percent now, but in 20 years, it will be 100 percent. Why aren't they jumping all over ICFs now? There are two reasons it is not an overnight success: knowledge--public and builder--and upfront cost." Brooks is confident, though, that as ICF systems become more streamlined and as engineering and construction constraints relax because of increased knowledge of the system, it will be just as fast and cost-effective to build with concrete as with wood. Before that can happen, says Brooks, builders must become more experienced, ICF manufacturers must make the systems simpler, and design characteristics must become standardized so rules and regulations don't vary so widely from city to city. "Then it will take off," he says. "Like anything else, the more we do it, the better it will be."
For more information on Estada de Rosa, visit brookshartley.com.