What Great ICF Houses Need Is Great Marketing
By: Carole McMichael
People from all kinds of professional backgrounds are being drawn to ICF residential construction. Many are builders who have converted from the wood-frame persuasion. Cement contractors and foundation specialists, various construction trade subcontractors and even adventurous homeowners are making the move also. One of the more unusual converts is Jim Snelgrove, a retired pharmaceutical salesman, who currently partners with Dirk Seay in ICF Building Systems LLC, which serves the Big Country area in a 100-mile radius around Abilene, Texas.
Photo by Robert Reed Photography
"My partner tried to get me into the building business for a long time," Snelgrove said. "He invited me up to an Arxx seminar in Lubbock. I thought, 'I can sell this.' So we went into business as distributors of Arxx High Performance Wallsystems. It has been a growing business ever since. Seay was already working with ICFs in New Mexico, so he takes care of all of the technical stuff. I do all of the sales and advertising.
"I make all the client contacts. If the client wants to build with ICFs, either we recommend a builder to work with or we work with the builder the client chooses. We have trained builders and installers that we can recommend.
Our position is: we don't build the house, we work with the builder the client employs. The advantage of our approach is that instead of being the distributor and builder, we go out and get 10 or 12 builders, increasing the volume of our business quite a lot. Almost all projects are custom houses; however, one of our builders did do a spec house. Although, he hasn't sold the house yet, that house has gotten him five other jobs."
Most potential clients, who have read their ads and checked their Web site, have already made the decision to build with ICFs when Snelgrove contacts them. He finds that about 90 percent have already built two or three homes and want their next one to be a permanent home. "They want three things above all others: comfort, safety and efficiency," Snelgrove said. "Number four would be aesthetics. When you find out what their priorities are, the price of the house becomes number seven or eight on the list because the price is a variable."
Bringing in the builders
"It is the responsibility of a distributor, not Arxx, to educate the builders," Snelgrove said. "Arxx will help you as much as they can, but when you start out (especially in an area where ICF building is not established), you have to hit the pavement and seek out the builders. We had to scratch for everything we had. Some beginning ICF builders build one or two houses and expect the world to knock the door down; but that doesn't happen. And it takes money to get started. We own the scaffolding to rent out to the builders because there is no place in West Texas to get it.
"The first thing a prospective builder wants to know is what is it going to cost. Typically, he prices himself very thin. When he compares my wall system to wood frame, he is looking just at the cost of the wall, so he decides this is too much. And he runs from you. What he is not doing is looking at the cost of the entire building and the payback — how much it costs to operate the house.
"The 8,000-square-foot home we are working on now was supposed to cost $765 per month for electricity. I had a mechanical engineer do an energy audit. He guaranteed the owner that if he built according to the specifications in his recommendation, it would never cost more than $133 per month. And if it did, the engineer would pay the difference. If you amortize the mortgage, the amount saved in payments and in insurance more than pays the difference. Then you are moving into a house that appreciates quite nicely."
Another plus, according to Snelgrove, is that most cities in Texas have adapted the national energy code. That means builders can't build a house that leaks. With a roof of R 40 and walls that are R 50, the builder is far ahead of the energy code. It is Snelgrove's job to educate the builder and homebuyer that they are building quality that will return money to their pocket.
"The home may cost 10 to 12 percent more than wood-frame," Snelgrove said." It is my job to show them that they can afford it. Builders must realize that they have the advantage of a salesman representing them. When I talk to clients, I give them a list of builders who have experience building with ICFs. I explain to the clients that it they pick one who has never built with ICFs, the builder is likely to add money to his bid to protect himself. So they are better off to go with someone with experience."
Snelgrove and Seay put together a school, using an instructor sent by Arxx, but it was up to them to advertise and go out to builders. They select candidates that they would like to see on their list.
Although the school is primarily for builders and sometimes crew leaders, if a potential homeowner wants to take the one-day class, that is okay. The cost is $150 for the instruction and books.
"The first day onsite," Snelgrove said, "we 'test the water' with the crew. We begin by explaining how to move so no one is standing around waiting. Then we get them started, putting up three or four courses. Next, we show them how to put up the scaffolding very carefully so it doesn't tear up the block. The younger ones are usually more open to new systems. If workers resist, we don't have time to convince them. We guide the builders in what to tell the crew, making sure they don't throw away block that has been cut off. When the walls are finished, there shouldn't be more than two trash bags full of waste.
"We have been in business now long enough that we also have a list of experienced subcontractors. However, each builder has his favorite subs, so we go through the builder to educate the electricians or plumbers on what changes they need to make in working with ICFs. We give them written material and ask them to come back to us with any questions and to tell us when they will be on job so we can be there to help. By the time, they've done two or three homes, they don't need any more help.
In the 3.5 years ICF Building systems has been in business, they have constructed 12 residential homes and two school buildings. The second house, pictured in this article, a 3,423-square-foot colonial plantation style home, northeast of Abilene, was built out of the six-inch Arxx forms. It is two stories in the middle with four huge columns, and one story on the ends. The exterior, displaying a touch of Texas, is covered with Luders Stone, a native limestone that is also used on the shower walls in the master bedroom. The floors in the foyer and back through the family room are stained and stamped concrete. The house is topped off with a fire-rated composition roof over sheets of Hardiboard.
For heating, the house uses a heat pump. Because of the R-value of ICFs, the size of the AC unit was reduced by one third. Because of the tightness of the house, there is also an air exchanger.
Snelgrove warns clients not to build a huge wood-burning fireplace, but use a smaller gas fireplace. If they do build a big fireplace, they should also use a Heatilator that will blow warm air back through the duct system and heat the house.
"Most distributors don't offer as complete a package as we do," Snelgrove said. "We do site locations, meet the owners, have a surveyor and dirt contractor to work the cost of doing site work. We also have the building permits. Next, we train the builders in how to order the concrete. We use a five- to five-and-one-half sack concrete mix and a plasticizer. We talk with the concrete suppliers through the builders. On occasion, my partner has talked with the suppliers and given them written instructions. For example, we want the plasticizer added at the job-site, not at the plant.
"The first pour on the plantation-style house took about four days," Snelgrove said. "They put up the wall system for the first floor and poured it in four hours. Then they put the deck in for the second floor. Between pours, they waited three days and took down scaffolding. The concrete cures in 28 days, but is strong enough to work on after three. We do a slump test when the cement truck gets onsite. We pour a cone full of concrete, wait a few minutes and pull the cone off to see how much it slumps. We should have a slump of five inches. When we add the plasticizer, it will increase the slump to eight inches, making the mix slicker, but not wetter. Therefore, we can pour it without increasing the danger of blowouts."
According to Snelgrove, they have experienced only a few blowouts because they show the builders how to set up so they don't happen. In places where there is some patching or a weakness, they show how to screw a 1-by-4 board to the webbing that runs perpendicular inside the block to strengthen it. The day before the walls are poured, they do a walk-around to spot places where there could be a weakness.
"After the pour," Snelgrove said, "we want to make absolutely sure we have no voids in the walls. You test for the voids by simply walking around and tapping the block with your fist. If there is a void, you can hear it really easily. A little bit of internal vibrating is used, but that is minimal. There is a clever way to do external vibrating using a sawsall. You take the saw blade out and put the heel of the saw against the wall and hit the trigger for a few short bursts and the void is gone.
"If you mix your concrete correctly, you have very few voids. When you find one, it is simple to fix. You get a big old flat piece of 2-by-4 board and slap it across the webs, which are on 8-inch centers. Most of our voids occur spasmodically in the large areas of the wall and not around the windows, because we pour the area below the window through an opening at the bottom of it, then do the sides and finally, the area on top. There is very little chance of a void there.
"In the future," Snelgrove said, "ICFs systems are going to be the way to build. There are other ideas out there, but ICFs are the most efficient way from the standpoint of operation and construction. Wood is going to keep going up in price and can't stay up with the demands for energy efficiency.