Article No: 40

2006-05-01 08:14:51
Building Your Concrete Home: Part 3

Early in the summer, most of the country watched the nightly reports of the out-of-control fires in dismay — first at the loss of forest land and then at the loss of thousands of homes. Those well acquainted with the fire-resistant features of concrete houses no doubt hope that when the homeowners rebuild, they will choose concrete. If they do, they will be faced with the task of finding the right builder.

Photo courtesy of NCMA

According to Pieter VanderWerf, president of Building Works Inc., a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., potential buyers should talk to more than one builder. "For ICFs, it is a good idea to check Web sites, specifically:, and [The Insulating Concrete Form Association] will have the names of manufacturers who are members of their association and if the client contacts them, they will have someone call on him. Usually, that will be a local sales representative, but he will be familiar with local builders. is an independent site, so it will list non-ICFA members. The site also sells a directory of ICF manufacturers, distributors and contractors. Also, in the back of Concrete Homes Magazine, there are listings of distributors who could probably suggest some local builders as well."

Mark Buschmann, vice president of construction for Buschmann Homes, located in suburban north Chicago, noted that besides association, manufacturer and distributor sites, builders are now putting up their own sites. They also may get the word out by advertising, building model or concept homes, using a PR company or participating in local parade-of-homes events.

Buschmann has found that clients have often done research on the systems out there and have an ICF system in mind. In this case, the client should contact the distributor, who can locate area builders or contact a local builder's association. If the client hasn't chosen a system, he will likely accept the builder's preference. Buschmann said that he would not refuse to build with the client's system of choice, but would explain why he chose the system he prefers and see if it would not be just as acceptable.

According to Buschmann, a client sometimes chooses a builder from a different state. This is not a bad idea, but he should be aware that building codes may change from state to state and if the state does not have a code per se, local codes often apply. It is incumbent on the builder and the crew, if the builder uses his own crew, to learn the different codes. While this is not difficult, it adds time to the job. For this reason, many builders just prefer to work where they already have experience with the codes.

"Picking a good builder that you can trust is what you want to focus on, rather than picking the best form," VanderWerf said. "The builder will choose the form he has worked with the most or the one he can handle most efficiently. If only one form is selling in your area, there may be other builders who work with other forms that they have shipped in, and that is not necessarily going to be too expensive. Again, find the builder, check references. If after a year of living in a house, the tenant says he had a good price and they are happy with the home, don't sweat the details. Most of the differences in forms are relevant for the contractor. The end wall usually ends up pretty good no matter which system you use."

Masonry Homes

Masonry concrete block has been used in building in this country much longer than ICFs, so it is not hard to find masons; but if the client is not looking in Florida, it may require going through a lot of listings to find a mason who builds masonry block homes. "One may check the yellow pages under masons, bricklayers, masonry, general contractors and home builders," said Harry Junk, residential market manager for the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA). "However, the best way would be to contact local block producers who sell to the builders. Also, there are a number of organizations: the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), local or state builder associations and the International Masonry Institute (IMI), that could help. Also, the NCMA Web site,, lists a directory.

"There is no shortage of masons, simply a shortage of informed masonry residential builders. They need to apply the knowledge they have of building commercial projects to that of residential ones, since in most cases they're just smaller in scope. Such programs as the NCMA Residential Marketing Summit offered once a year helps to educate as well as publications like Concrete Homes Magazine. Local area builder associations need to bring in the experts and builders from other areas to help educate masonry builders."

How to Choose

Once the client finds a builder, he has to make an evaluation. He should check to see how long the builder has been in business, and for concrete homes, how many houses he has built with ICFs or masonry block (at least three) and get references on previous jobs and follow up.

"You don't want a builder learning on your dollar," VanderWerf said. "I don't mean a builder can't do well on his first house, they do that all the time, but generally speaking, contractors get more cost efficient after they have done three or four houses, either in ICF or concrete block. Also, clients often expect building a house to be like buying an off-the-shelf product. Practically every house is built semi-custom with changes coming up until the last second. You can't expect it to be according to the client's imagination. Now if the finished house was not according to the plans, that's different matter."

"Know your builder," said Robert Anderson, CEO of Affordable American Homes, based in Chicago. "The client can do that by checking out a model home and checking to see if the builder belongs to any builders' associations. Typically, a professional builder does. Check his track record. If he has had complaints against him or problems with permits or certificates of occupancy, look elsewhere. Incidentally, model homes are one of the best sources of new clients. People are so interested in houses going up, you will have 30 or 40 inquiries immediately."

Clients should also find out if the builder (ICF or masonry block) is certified. "When builders have problems, it often goes back to not having training (not just watching a video)," Anderson said. "Certifying is done by the manufacturer, so if you run across a company that doesn't do training, keep looking."

Behind the Choices

"I have always been looking for ways to improve the building process, get beyond the limitation of the 2x4. I looked at SIPs, alternate methods of insulation and ICFs," Buschmann said. "When I originally chose an ICF system, I researched a number of them at the NAHB show. Even then, part way through building my first home, I changed to the Arxx ICF system, which I use now. In selecting a system, product assembly is probably not as important as getting qualified people. Both Portland Cement Association and the ICF Association have been working on changing this situation by offering training opportunities."

"Eight years ago," Anderson said, "I co-founded a builders' association — Automated Builders Consortium — a national group that promotes building affordable homes in the inner city using premade components rather than stick-built. When you bring that into ICF building, the time savings is tremendous. So far, I've built about a dozen ICF homes. A number of the TV housing shows have shown ICF systems, so clients will come in and say, I saw a particular system. We will give them a comparison with what we normally use, primarily T.F. Wall. Basically, it is a vertical panel with a combination of Styrofoam with a metal brace inside. We use a number of block systems too, the most prevalent being ICE Block.

"We have gone to various ICF companies' training. Six in all. Now we do the training. Part of our program is to teach homeless people trades. We just did a home in Evanston, Ill. where the entire crew had never built before out of anybody's system. We used T.F. Wall. They assembled the 10-foot wall in the basement all in one day. Besides crew training, we spend an enormous amount of time educating people who come to see a model home about the advantages of concrete housing."

What It's Not

The most common misconception about concrete houses is that they are square boxes instead of the master chameleons that they are — able to look like any style house in any neighborhood. Another misconception is that anybody can build with ICFs. It has increasing appeal to do-it-yourselfers because they envision a Lego-like ease in putting the blocks together. Buschmann does not recommend a do-it-yourself approach because clients generally have no relationship with tradespeople and frequently overpay for products or labor. He noted that their lack of experience in contracting alone takes up a lot of time; and they usually are thinking of the contractor fees they will be saving, but do not realize the potential expenses in dealing with problems they have no experience with.

VanderWerf took on the do-it-yourself role. "If the client wants to be his own contractor because he wants the experience of building his house, there is no substitute, period; I did it myself. But if you are dealing with a newer product, you will have to go through the learning that the first-time contractor would. There will be some waste and some redoing. It is more work than you realize. If you wonder why people pay for a general contractor, you will definitely find out. I probably paid a little more, and took a little longer and there are some mistakes there that still bug me, even though other people don't know about them. If you would prefer to get good quality without aggravation, find a good builder that you can trust."

The Good Stuff

If a client is planning to have a concrete home built, he probably is aware of the many benefits. According to Buschmann, they are obvious: The structure is strong and quiet, fire-resistant and energy-efficient. ICFs can produce an R value of 50, about four times superior to wood frame. ICF walls provide a monolithic thermal mass that eliminates temperature swings, which makes it very popular with wineries. Another benefit is the healthy indoor air quality. Without the moisture typical in wood frame, there is no breeding ground for bacteria, at least not with a correctly sized HVAC and access to fresh air through an air-to-air heat exchange.

Anderson has found the energy cost savings a powerful draw for clients. "Our model home — 3,500 square feet, two-story, single family home with a full basement — had a February gas bill of $48 during the killer winter of 2000," he said. "Most people across the city were getting bills for $500. The July bill for a family living in our model home had a bill of $17.

"Home owners insurance is less for an ICF home, and what many people may not realize is that most major mortgage companies will allow clients to have a slightly larger mortgage because debt ratios still fit. The amount of mortgage you are allowed is based on your income-to-debt ratio. That extra $5,000 or $10,000 may allow the client to get more of the house they really want."

What has really wowed people considering building a concrete home, Anderson noted, is that at the same price they would pay for a stick-built home, they can get a house that is constructed so well. "As far as we are concerned," he said, "the price is comparable, and not based on factoring in the energy savings. We dispute claims that it is more expensive to build with ICFs. Every home we build, we figure both ways — under conventional construction and under ICF construction. We actually save money with ICFs. Since we have started to make the manufacturers aware of that by showing them the numbers, they are starting to change what they advertise."