Article No: 52

2006-05-01 10:13:15
Dream Hacienda Emerges from ICFs
By: Carole McMichael

If you are a serious golfer and enjoy the ambiance of 17th century Spanish colonial architecture, Richmond Construction has a home for you, right near the No. 1 tee box of the new Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at Cimarron Hills, north of Austin.
Photo by Paul Finkel, Austin Digital Images, courtesy of Richmond Construction

Working with Gerogetown, Texas, architect Rick O'Donnell, Steve Richmond built his "castina del suene" — dream house — filled with Spanish, Southwestern and Italian design features. There are two kiva fireplaces, art niches, wall fountains, mission terra cotta tiles, polished mesquite flooring, antique fixtures and doors, numerous skylights, hewn beams and hand-carved corbels — and that is just a start. The 4,955-square-foot home, which provides three living areas, even includes a master bedroom retreat with a well-concealed outdoor shower off the master bath. Informal entertaining opportunities are extended by a 1,700-square foot outdoor living space.

Underneath all the rich finishes and features that take you back to Old Spain, is 20th century technology: the solid structure of insulating concrete forms (ICFs), a wall system that could be molded and shaped to have the look and feel of adobe, and steel framing.

This was part of Richmond's dream, but in many ways, it has been a long time coming.

Richmond was 13 or 14 years old when he first became interested in alternative building materials and methods. A degree in engineering from Texas Tech reinforced his bent toward analyzing things, not only from the standpoint of beauty of appearance, but also strength. Concrete seemed to meet these criteria.

"Another factor in choosing concrete," Richmond said, "was witnessing the Jarrell, Texas tornado. As I was trying to get home to Salado, I was caught on the side of the highway. When I looked at what was left of the homes after the tornado, that furthered my interest in concrete."

There was a problem, however. Most of Richmond's residential projects were generated by customers, so design decisions were made before he came on the project. The ideal opportunity came along in building a home for the 2002 Texas Capital Area Builders Parade of Homes. At last, a project where he had all the input. "I looked at a number of ICFs," Richmond said, "and was convinced that on this project with this particular design, Perform Wall was the best choice."

Perform Wall

The technology behind the product has been around 30 years, developed in Germany in the 1960s. The ICF is made of a mixture of EPS (expanded polystyrene) and cement: 85 percent EPS and 15 percent cement.

The Perform Wall Panel System, which is manufactured in Mexico, is distributed primarily west of the Mississippi River. Company headquarters is located in El Paso. The panels come in five different thicknesses (6.5, 8.5, 10, 12 and 14 inches), which have increasingly larger concrete cores to enable them to carry heavier loads. The 6.5- and 8.5-inch are used for interior walls. All ICBO tests are based on the 10- inch panel, which is used primarily in Texas and California. The 12- and 14-inch panels are used in colder and hotter climates because of superior thermal characteristics. Fire resistance (four hours) is the same for all panels.

"A panel weighs approximately 10 pounds per square foot; so a 12.5-square foot panel would weigh about 158 pounds,"Ron Smith, Texas sales manager at Perform Wall LLC, said. "Two people can easily handle this. Standard dimensions are 15 inches tall by 10 inches thick by 10 feet long. They are stacked by hand to about five or seven feet. A minilift is used for the rest of the wall. We have built up to 60 feet.

"Before the pour, the wall is built up to 10 to 12 feet depending on the expertise of the builder. The concrete is poured at five- to six-foot increments. Some builders are comfortable with up to a 10-foot pour. The manual recommends five to six feet. The panels can be customized to make any size angle or cut with a keyhole saw to make curved or round turret style walls, curved stairways or alcoves."

Richmond said that in further pursuit of a completely noncombustible and high performance structure, steel framing was used for all interior walls, roof trusses and ceiling joists.

"It offers the additional benefits of straight, true walls that are termite proof, do not warp, twist or rot, and do not promote or support mold," Richmond said. "There is very little waste that has to be hauled off, and it builds a stronger structure. So, if you are going to build a home to be the best thing on the market, don't sell it short and go back to the old reliable stick frame."

Natural partners

For some contractors who are first-time ICF builders, there may be concern about working with new material with an inexperienced crew. Richmond wasn't concerned.

"We have a really good crew. I started my business in 1988 and most of my crew, who have been with me since then, have been subjected to just about everything under the sun," Richmond said. "We do a lot of the specialty work ourselves, own a lot of our own equipment and have a fully functional woodworking and metalworking shop.

"I hired a couple ICF-experienced workers from Austin to help the crew. It took us about six weeks to learn the system and be ready for the first pour. There was roughly 8,400 to 8,500 square feet of slab that had to be covered. The walls were all different heights and elevations. We learned on the job, and we had Ron Smith from Perform Wall as the tech rep, who worked with us and checked before the pours. Most of our crew enjoy using alternate materials and doing things differently. They like to be on the cutting edge."

Not surprisingly, Perform Wall doesn't expect a builder to have a crew like Richmond's.

"It has a full-time technical coordinator on staff," Smith said, "and a building assistance program for builders and contractors, as well as do-it-yourselfers. This involved teaching them proper stacking, bracing, filling — all details that lead up to the construction and all that are necessary afterward. That includes coordinating all of the subcontractors so that they too are trained to work with the panel. We are there to be a constant resource for information and a sounding-board; and we require an onsite tech rep before pours."

Richmond noted that the plumbing and electrical subcontractors hadn't worked with concrete before either. They were worried beforehand, but found it simple after they got into it. The ICF, which cuts like butter, was routed out with chain saws. The subcontractors ran flex conduit and, after the pipes and wire were installed, the ICF was glued back in place.

"We did the routing ourselves," Richmond said. "I didn't want to take the chance that they might whack out more than was needed and I would have to go back in and fix it. The house is wired for audio, video and computers — set up for just about anything that will come down the pike, including security systems. I have done a lot of saferooms, but there are interior areas done with ICFs, so I felt these areas should be pretty safe as is."

Cost questions

Trying to compare the cost of this ICF house against a wood-frame version is not particularly helpful. This was a first-time ICF project and a large, rather complex design. In general, according to Smith, there would be anywhere from 8 percent to 15 percent greater cost upfront to build with an ICF; however, savings from heating, maintenance, extermination of pests and homeowners' insurance will provide a payback in 18 to 24 months. These figures don't reflect the payback in improved air quality.

Smith pointed out that to assist builders who are investigating building with ICFs, Perform Wall offers consultations with builders and contractors who were just as skeptical when they started, but now prefer Perform Wall over other forms of construction.

Richmond would encourage builders to try ICFs. "They would be building with a product superior to what they have been using," he said. "If you are really concerned about your reputation with clients, you've got to put your long-term effects in front of your immediate pocketbook. One of the reasons I'm building with concrete is that it puts my company way out in front of the competition that is building the same old way."

For more information, call 512-869-2675.