Like Rhyme, Assonance, Alliteration, and Consonance
By: Steve Habel
Retired schoolteacher and noted poet Norma Bernstock wasn’t sure what she wanted for a home when she moved from New Jersey to Milford, Pennsylvania, a little town in the Pocono Mountains about 70 miles outside the bustle of New York City. “When I started this process, I really didn’t want to build a house at all,” Bernstock says. “I believe in recycling, which is why I intended to buy someone else’s house.” Eventually Bernstock decided on a home design that takes advantage of her heavily wooded, sloping property, on a site that borders the Delaware River National Recreation Area. She also wanted a smaller home than the one she had in New Jersey and one that would be efficient to heat and cool.
In stepped Michael Adsit, president of Lattimore Construction, a northeastern Pennsylvania builder of more than 150 homes in better than 30 years of business. Through the majority of those three decades, Adsit has been an innovator in the use of concrete for residential applications.
“Mike assured me that we could build an environmentally friendly home, and that was our goal from the beginning,” Bernstock says. “I presented several house designs to him at the beginning of the process, and he made suggestions related to house design versus property limitations since the property is on a hill. At one of our meetings, Mike shared literature with me on insulated concrete form (ICFs) and referred me to several web sites.”
Lattimore Construction has specifically concentrated on energy efficient building envelope design and construction since the 1980s. The firm has extensive experience with ICF design and construction, earth-sheltered homes, roller compacted concrete (RCC) and conventional formed concrete construction.
Lattimore Construction started working with ICF technology eight years ago. “We began with ICF basement construction, primarily, to reduce the heavy lifting labor that is required to set steel forms,” Adsit says. “To date, we have built more than 40 foundations using ICFs. What we discovered was that our customers were coming back to us after one winter and raving about their house energy savings and remarking on how warm and dry their basements were.”
Bernstock was impressed with the statements about ICF energy efficiency, noise reduction, and the stability of the construction. Adsit assured her that any of the house designs she was considering could be built with ICFs.
“Once we settled on a design, we compared the cost of construction between a concrete house and a stick-built house,” Bernstock says. “The difference wasn’t that extreme, and I had hoped to make up the difference with savings on fuel bills. Because of my interest in preserving the environment and natural resources, during the entire process we incorporated as many ‘green building practices’ into the construction as feasible for me.”
The Bernstock house, completed in the fall of 2006, was the first full ICF house designed and built by Lattimore Construction. The firm has designed four other ICF homes, with the second one currently under construction.
The house has about 2,600-square feet of living space on two floors and features three bedrooms, a great room containing the kitchen, dining and living areas, and an artist’s studio. The house envelope has about 16 percent of the exterior walls in windows. Bernstock’s home is heated and cooled with a high-efficiency, hydro-coil system – because the house is so tight, an air-to-air heat exchanger system is used to provide ventilation throughout the house.
“We have tracked the energy use of the Bernstock house for two winters,” Adsit says. “The house has used between approximately 450 gallons of LP gas each year for heating and hot water. I have a comparably sized house, built in 1989, and it uses about 1,000 gallons annually for heating and hot water.”
The Bernstock house took six months to build, which is a month longer than Lattimore Construction’s normal production cycle. However, the extra time had nothing to do with ICFs; the company was short on labor at the time of the build. The framing part of the house, the ICF work, took “perhaps a week longer” than conventional wood framing, Adsit says.
“Once the outside walls were up, I mean all the foam blocks, I went around the inside rooms and wrote quotes from some of my favorite poets on all the walls,” Bernstock said. “It was easy to do because of the foam. I love knowing that behind the sheetrock there is poetry.”
Bernstock also laid the stone for the wall behind the home’s wood-burning stove. “One of Mike’s workers taught me how to cut the stone and to use mortar to adhere them to the wall,” she says. “I spent a week at the house during the construction in order to complete this. Since I lived close by in an apartment, I was able to see and photograph every stage of the construction.”
Adsit says that in the design process for an ICF home, one needs to remember that you are working with 12-inch thick exterior walls and it can affect inside room dimensions if you are converting a stick-frame house plan.
“Since you are working with concrete and window and door openings, wall penetrations and electrical outlets are cast into the wall, good plans and jobsite communication are important,” Adsit explains. “Demo-ing or cutting out concrete is not fun. Checking your wall alignment before and during the pour is critical. ICFs are light and can move around during the pour. Communication with your building inspector, who may not be familiar with ICFs, is important.”
Installing some type of outside air ventilation via an air-to-air heat exchanger is critical to these tight houses, Adsit adds. “Have your heating and cooling calculations done by an expert, because the rules of thumb for unit sizing do not work,” he says. “You can work with much smaller sized HVAC equipment with ICFs. Bernstock’s heating load is less that 65,000 btu/hr (in a cold climate); we put a 90,000 btu boiler in, as it was the smallest available.”
Coming up on her third winter in the home, Bernstock still coos over her solid and sealed-tight abode. “I love my house,” she says. “I love that every time a person walks in for the first time, they say ‘oohhh’ as they walk in from the front door and see the view of trees from the great room. I love the openness of the design and yet do not feel that the house is too big for me.”
“I really enjoy the kitchen because it’s in the great room and I have a view into the woods,” Bernstock continues. “In the warm weather I love the screened-in porch. And, of course, I love my spacious art studio, which also looks out into the woods. Many days I look out the window and have deer looking in.”
“I never thought I’d be living in such a beautiful home...not in my wildest dreams,” Bernstock says. “I love that I can maintain it easily since I live by myself. I’ve gotten very good at building fires in my stove, and it’s great having such a warm house when it’s 20 degrees outside.”
Bernstock also likes that when she compares her propane and electric bills with neighbors and friends, hers are always the least expensive.
“For builders thinking about ICFs, listen to what the customer is saying,” Adsit says. “High energy costs are a reality—they will never be cheap again. You are doing your customer a disservice not to provide the most energy efficient building structure.”