Kansas City combo: ICFs and services
By: Carole McMichael
"When will they ever learn?" is the haunting refrain from the folk song "Where have all the flowers gone?" It could well apply to the many homeowners who were on the losing end of the tornado that hit close to the Kansas-City area in May. The good news is that some 200 homes were built out of concrete in Kansas City this year, and next year it could be closer to 400. Todd Kane, who is the owner of Sanctum LLC, a 3-year old company, has become a serious ICF evangelist.
"When I spun off Sanctum, I took a close look at things in the building market," Kane said. "Locally, in Kansas City, Mo., there are a lot of builders who do wood-frame construction to the exclusion of steel frame and concrete. I came out of the commercial construction world, working for 18 years for a large contractor; so I was familiar with concrete technology.
"Basically, ICFs are just like the reinforced concrete systems used in commercial work. The only difference with ICFs is we leave the forms in place. Also, because of my commercial background, I felt more comfortable investigating what applications concrete and steel had for the residential world — how they could be incorporated into home construction. Much to my surprise, I found that ICFs were making a huge inroad.
Choosing the ICF
"When I was analyzing what to build at Siena at Longview, a 134-house subdivision I'm developing in Lee's Summit, Mo., I wanted to a find a building technology that would be a value-add to the consumer, not just the same old thing. I did analysis of steel, concrete and wood, looking for the easiest to adapt and the best price benefit. I decided to use ICFs for all the homes.
"I have built with other ICFs, but prefer Arxx Wall Systems because of the ease of installation. That saves on labor costs and avoids slowing down production. I also like that the forms have a wider range of product mix. For example, they have hinged forms that allow me to build bay windows or really funky shapes that many homeowners want. I never feel I have to build the same house twice."
Kane's building package has evolved to include ICF exterior walls, interior wall studs out of steel and floor trusses out of steel. ICF walls go all the way up to the bottom side of the roof deck, which gives the homes a really solid structure. He uses wood roof trusses because he said he finds they are still more cost effective than steel ones.
"It is always a very customized process for us," Kane said, "where we help the clients pick what they want. The majority come with a sketch or picture from a plan book, but want a gazillion changes. Our in-house architects and in-house CAD operators redraw the plans. Our philosophy is: we are not going to force the client into any floor plan because we've built it before. We concentrate on how they want to live, how many kids they have, do they want an office. Most have some concept or some dream."
One of the other reasons Kane was attracted to ICFs was that he recognized the advantages of constructing homes using engineered systems. With ICFs, the planning gets done upfront, so when the crews mobilize, it is just a matter of putting all the pieces together in the field, reducing the construction period. Some of Kane's custom homes are being built in just three months from groundbreaking to moving in.
"My company overcomes inadequate drawings," Kane said, "by providing drawing services in-house and teaming with other manufacturers, like Arxx, that can make all the shop drawings ahead of time. I'm building a business philosophy. The homeowner has a project lifecycle. From the day they decide to build, they have to find a lot, a real estate agent, an architect, a builder, an interior designer and a banker to finance, then sell and move.
"We have all the services available. We do that so we can control the process and reduce the time for turnaround. Because we spend more time on construction planning, we won't have to waste another six months in the design process. We turn designs around in four or five days. From the time we meet with a customer, it may only be two weeks to ground breaking."
Codes and crews
Generally, code administrators, who must approve construction at plan-review time and at field inspections, have been receptive to ICFs, according to Kane. In the cities and counties where he has built ICF homes, inspectors have approved all construction, partly because of the 2000 International Residential Code that many jurisdictions have adopted. It has a whole section on ICF construction, so most of the inspectors have had some training.
"Initially," Kane said, "we padded the process, inundating inspectors with data. We took CDs with pictures of construction techniques; and ARXX technical support has been awesome.
"Local distributors offer a lot of training, but we do some ourselves. We hold two sessions a month at some of our open houses, inviting other builders and owners who want to learn about the technology. We even have some training sessions for code inspectors."
When Kane started out, he encountered the usual resistance to change. Also, he found that most builders functioned as brokers or construction managers, who did not personally perform the services, but subcontracted out about 90 percent. To get the crews he needed, he tried three things.
"First I tried to convert an existing framer," Kane said. "Something got lost between my vision casting and his execution. Second, I tried to absorb a company that was already somewhat familiar with concrete; but the owner's mindset was different than mine. Finally, I just went out and hired my own crews. I now have four solid block crews with a foreman for each crew and a lead guy that we can train to be a foreman. I give them medical benefits, so I attract the workers who are looking for stability. The crews are a combination of pure carpenters, concrete flat workers and workers with ICF experience.
"We now self-perform 90 percent to 95 percent of the construction. The only subcontracting is for roofing, plumbing, HVAC and drywall. That means we do the electrical, as well as the framing and foundations. Also, we lay our own tile and carpet and do the painting. Even with the plumbing, we just ask for the rough-in costs and do the rest ourselves.
"All this means that we can control the scheduling. If you are working with 20 different trades, you can waste hundreds of hours on the phone trying to get people there on time."
Siena at Longview
The first model in the Siena subdivision was built last year. This subdivision is designed as a maintenance-provided community, which should appeal to empty nesters who don't want the hassle of maintenance. Soffits wrapped in vinyl and aluminum, plus decks made of concrete and steel from Insul-Deck, and anodized handrails help to keep the maintenance down. So do the stucco exteriors and concrete roof tiles.
The homes' style honors the Mediterranean style buildings that were part of the original ranch property. They feature various off-white shades of stucco, red tile roofs, gazebos and columns. They also include all kinds of Italianate details: arches and walls at various angles. "With Arxx," Kane said. "We can do almost any geometric shape, so there are no design challenges that way. Floor plans can be seen at www.sienahomes.net.
"The cool thing about these homes is that are no interior load-bearing walls. Although, we basically have eight exterior shell designs, the interior walls can be changed to whatever the customer wants. I designed the structures for that purpose, hoping they would take the freedom to move interior elements. Generally however, I stick with the house footprint; but even there, we have made some changes: added garages; added bay windows or popouts; and changed offsets to incorporate larger rooms."
Making 'green' easy
Many of Kane's customers who are interested in concrete and ICFs are already interested in energy efficiency. One of the key things that attract them to ICFs is that energy bills may be cut by two thirds.
"We had a heat-loss analysis done," Kane said. "So we downsized the HVAC units and put in ERV units to circulate the air. ICF houses are so tight that such units are necessary for interior air quality. We have no required air quality testing, but have the HER test by the EPA Energy Star Program. We are designated a Five Star Energy Builder. Our model house passed the test on the first go round.
"We also are designated as a Build Green Builder. This focuses first on energy efficiency. There is no wood waste on the construction site. There must be at least R-38 value insulation. ICF leftovers are ground up and blown in as insulation in the roof. And, we bury sheet rock onsite. To contribute to a healthy indoor air quality, we put in a series of finishes that are air-quality friendly. This includes a laminated cork floor, which doesn't produce toxic fumes. We offer carpeting made from sea-grass or cactus fiber. We press clients to use pre-finished floor systems and cabinets because when wood is finished in the factory, it avoids the fumes that get into house when finishing is done onsite.
Many cost comparisons of ICFs to wood frame construction come up with an average of 3 percent to 5 percent more up-front for building with ICFs. According to Kane, payback in energy and insurance savings takes only about 12 months. In Kansas City, where there is concern about tornadoes, there is an added benefit.
"We are getting good enough at our services approach, and with our own crews and being able to build much faster, we don't have the interest expense that a lot of builders do. So, we can build a concrete home for the same price points as stick-built. When you tell the customer that, it's all over for stick-built.
"After I built my first ICF house, people hated to see me coming. All I talked about was how great ICFs were. They are a great product. In terms of the future for ICFs, we haven't even fired up the combine; we are just gleaning the fields.
"In next 24 to 36 months, more and more builders will be checking out ICFs. We are going to take a chunk out of the market up to the 30-percent or 40-percent range. As more builders get trained and use ICFs, the price points will come down. Customers will realize that this is a product that fits any price range.
Carole McMichael is a freelance writer based in Hewitt, Texas, and a former editor of Concrete Homes magazine.