ICFs Leading The Way Into The Future
By: Joseph Lyman
Insulating concrete forms as a growth market! What a concept. Just a decade ago, ICFs were known as a relatively obscure building system used mostly for foundations. Mainstream builders laughed at ICF forms saying, "There is no way that'll hold concrete." If you really want an education on how far ICFs have come, talk with seasoned veterans who installed ICFs 10 years ago and you will hear an earful about the challenges they faced each and every day on the job site.
Fast forward to 2003. ICFs are now the third most popular building system used in residential construction, and the fastest growing building material in the U.S. market. What about those challenges on the job site? Solutions have been created in the means of an easy to use, first-class building system that delivers a quality wall system. In short, ICFs have matured into a product that is catching the eye of customers, contractors and architects alike.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, ICFs grew from less than 0.1 percent of the above-grade residential market in 1993 to 3.8 percent in 2002. That constitutes a 3,700 percent increase in ICFs' residential market share, an increase in business typically reserved for the likes of Microsoft and General Electric.
The growth of ICFs in Canada is equally impressive. According to the Cement Association of Canada, 1,920 above-grade single-family ICF homes were built in 2003, up from 1,449 in 2002.
However, this growth isn't a surprise to anyone. Rolland Johns, vice president of marketing at Cemex USA, says, "The ICF industry continues to grow and prosper because it is technologically superior. Like any new technology, the industry has been challenged in this early stage of the product life cycle; but the tenacity of the industry's early pioneers, and the partnership that was forged with the cement industry have provided a firm foundation for a prosperous future."
Marketable building materials
Although ICFs are still used for foundations, markets have expanded to use in the above-grade single-family home market, as well as military base housing and multi-family residential projects. As first-cost building issues become less and less of a concern on projects, clients understand the long-term value and benefits of using ICFs.
Another important market in the growth of ICFs over the past few years has been the increase in the number of ICF subdivisions emerging around the United States. From South Carolina to Mississippi, and from Minnesota to California, ICF subdivisions have been gaining in popularity.
Jim Niehoff, residential promotion manager of the Portland Cement Association, says, "There has been a dramatic increase in the number of developers who are constructing small- and medium-size subdivisions that feature ICF walls exclusively." Additionally, Niehoff said he believes there will be continued expansion throughout all levels of the housing market due to the benefits and payoffs that ICFs offer to homeowners, and that contractors are starting to take note of as well.
"The energy efficiency, disaster-resistance and sound mitigating qualities of ICFs strikes a chord with homeowners at every income level, and this directly affects its popularity as a building system. As a result, PCA projects that by 2006, ICF systems will make up 8 percent of all single-family housing starts in the United States."
They don't make the ICF, they make it better
One of the most significant improvements that has spurred growth over the past several years is the creation and improvement of such mainstream building products as joist ledger board hangers, window and door systems, bracing systems, tools and waterproofing materials; items specifically designed to make building with ICFs easier.
Buddy Hughes of Insulated Concrete Inc., an experienced ICF contractor says, "It's a great deal easier building with ICFs now with all the innovative products on the market, and it's helping to increase productivity on the job site. With the development of coatings, structural attachments and architectural finishes, ICFs have become one of the most user-friendly building systems available."
Although ICFs remain a relatively simple building system to master, the need for qualified ICF installers increases every year, and as the industry grows, so does the demand for professional installers and quality workmanship.
Since 2001, the ICFA has worked with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters to train UBC apprentices and journeymen in the proper installation of the ICF building system. David Lawson, ICF training coordinator of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters says, "The United Brotherhood of Carpenters is impressed by the attention and reception the ICF building system receives from both customers and contractors. UBC members are excited about its potential, and look forward to providing the industry with credible and professional ICF installers." Lawson is also confident about the ICF market, and said he believes ICF construction will become more competitive as more tradesmen become proficient in its installation.
Additionally, the ICFA also works with the National Association of Home Builders to educate its members about how they can receive the training necessary to begin building with ICFs. Through education seminars and presentations to their members, homebuilders throughout North America are realizing how they can be competitive using ICFs.
Although it can be said that product innovation and improvement has helped to fuel ICFs' popularity, the industry has never forgotten what is mostly responsible for its rapid growth: customers.
The ICF story is an amazing mixture of customer loyalty and brand identity that surpasses the benefits of living in an energy-efficient, disaster-resistant structure. ICF homeowners boast about their comfort level, the love of their home, how much they save on their energy bill and how they would never live in any home except an ICF.
John Ware of Denver, Colo. sums it up best saying, "I built an ICF home for my family in 1999 and have enjoyed the benefits for more than 4 years. I cannot imagine living in an ordinary house ever again."
Considering the incredible growth ICFs have experienced over the past decade, ICFs' future looks bright. Still, the ICF industry's most important mission is one of education. Training, awareness and best practices remain top priorities of the industry to ensure ICFs are properly used in the design phase and on the job site.
However, it isn't difficult to see that the face of residential construction is changing, and ICFs are leading the way.
As Rolland Johns says, "We are changing the way homes are built in the North America, and ICF's are the essential ingredient of this strategy."
Joseph E. Lyman is executive director of the Insulating Concrete Form Association of Glenview, Ill. He can be contacted at 888-864-4232 or by e-mail at noSpam("jlyman", "forms.org"); email@example.com at forms.org.