The Client Challenge
By: Carole McMichael
Are many ICF builders missing the boat? According to David King, general manager of Brian King Builders Inc., a fast expanding ICF building firm based in Danville, Ky., educating clients should be the foremost focus of marketing.
"Our tag line," King said, "is: 'An informed consumer today will always build with insulating concrete forms.' We believe that. The challenge is to inform. Consumers haven't been informed because many ICF companies are so focused on selling forms and gaining market share that they are forgetting to take the message to the consumer, who is ultimately the one who is going to drive growth. There is plenty of business to go around and they need to be educating consumers that this is something that works.
"Probably 60 percent of our business is from people who have read about concrete homes or seen sites on the Internet. They call us and say, 'we don't know a lot about it, can you help us?' We spend a lot of time focusing our Web site (www.bkbi.com) on the consumer. It offers 4,000 house plans to let them know there is no limitation to the type or style that they can achieve. The site also provides all the technical information to help them understand the system. We get a lot of hits off the site and from that, at least five genuine leads a week.
"We try to avoid selling 'concrete' homes because of the negative image of it as a box or bunker. We concentrate on selling a home that saves energy, gives them good quality air and quiet. ICFs also offer them a home with better resale value and a much greater life expectancy than stick-built."
Brian King Builders started out in wood-frame residential, getting involved in distribution of concrete forms close to three years ago. They soon found there was a certain group of consumers who wanted ICF homes but couldn't find anyone to build them. All of a sudden, they became the leaders of a niche. Because they offered homes on a turn-key basis, their custom construction, as well as distribution business, began to grow rapidly. The company builds in Kentucky, southern Indiana, southern Illinois and southern Ohio, where, in the last three years, they've built about 50 out of the 150 concrete homes in the area. More recently, they have begun a development that will offer 26 Energy Star homes.
"Rising lumber and energy costs made us take a broader look at the industry," King said. "When we looked at ICFs, we determined that probably a major portion of the new construction would be shifting to ICFs for energy conservation, air quality, comfortable living and quick construction. It takes a month off construction time compared to stick-built. IntegraSpec (www.integraspec.com) is the block we use most of the time, but we do use other blocks if the client requests.
"The number one thing I like about ICFs is that they give consumers an alterative to conventional stick framing at a very fair price. ICF homes conserve energy costs up to 70 percent, and help the environment by not using as many trees. I can build a house from ICFs selling at $105,000 that is comparable to a house selling at $100,000 built from stick. Based on energy savings, the ICF homeowners' monthly energy bill will be reduced considerably. Payback time is no more than two years. Any time I can inform a potential home builder about ICFs and I do my job properly, they always build with ICFs."
In Danville, Ky., David and son Brian, owner of Brian King Builders, recently built a Cape Cod-style home, which is 3,600 square feet in a story and a half with a walkout basement and generous decking in the back. This house was built to Energy Star specifications. To be Energy Star builders, the company has to build houses that conserve at least 30 percent of energy used in a conventional stick-built home. ICFs alone allow them to exceed that.
"In our homes, we always downsize the heating unit," David King said. "We do a complete heat loss study, so every system is designed specifically for the house being built. The studies are provided as a service by the HVAC supplier because they use the houses we build as case studies. They are saving a lot of energy for the consumer, so the ICF makes them look good. In the Danville house, we used energy efficient water heaters and air exchangers as well. Your exchanger system, which is controlled by the thermostat, doesn't have to spend a lot of time heating up the air and costs less than what is saved in energy bills. Basically, the consumer is getting a whole lot more system for the same or less money."
One of the interesting design features in the Danville home was the soundproof theater in the basement, requiring an interior wall built out of ICFs. King noted that it would have been more of a challenge if he were building it in stick frame.
"This area has a significant tornado risk, so we always put a safe room in our houses," King said; "but this client said he didn't need one - he had a safe house. The theater with no windows, of course, could function as a safe room. Usually we put a safe room under the front porch slab. With an access door in the basement, we can do that very cost effectively."
Starting the Process
The time spent on preplanning depends on the stage the plans are in when the client comes. If he just has a sketch, King contacts an architect on contract. From there, it takes about two weeks to create finished blueprints. During that time, there are group meetings to decide placement of fixtures and utilities. Next comes the site evaluation to determine the best way to set the house for sun and drainage. They include a soil evaluation as well. King noted that ICFs provide great ability for backfill heights because the configuration of the steel inside the forms determines how deep they can go for basements. The site is also checked for access problems. Typically, he is able to deliver all of the product in a 24-foot gooseneck cattle trailer.
King uses his own excavating crew to dig the foundation or basement. A separate crew does the footers, 90 percent of which are formed, not dug. They take extra care, being sure each footer is poured within a quarter-inch of grade. They also insert a piece of rebar upright about 4 feet. After the footing is complete, King's ICF crew comes in and assembles the forms, squaring the corners to specifications. Using No.4 rebar up to No.6, depending on engineering demands, they place it every 2 feet horizontally and 8 inches on center vertically. Typically, the basement walls are 10 feet.
"Once the walls are up," King said, "we assemble the alignment system to hold the walls in place. It has a scaffold that allows us to stack block over our heads. We can adjust it so, as we pour, we are constantly keeping walls plumb and safe. When we get to 4 or 5 feet high, we reassemble the system. Once the basement is finished, window and door bucks are put in and the walls are poured. When we frame our doors and windows, our objective is to have ICF material between wood and concrete - basically, an ICF capsule. That allows us to use non-treated wood (eliminating off-gassing from chemicals used to treat wood).
"Using a 2,500-square-foot house as an example, it will take us about a day to do footers and three days to stack the forms. After the walls are poured, it sets up in a couple of days. Then we put in our ledger board, held by board holders. This allows us to put in a floor in half the normal time. Then we move on to first floor walls.
"For roofing, we put a wood plate on top of the wall, bolted with bolts set in the concrete every 4 feet. The roofing system sits on top of that. We are reviewing using pre-made SIPS for roofing. Concrete roofing is still cost prohibitive. To insulate the Danville house roof, we used R-33 fiberglass batt between joists in the attic. More recently, we finished a home where we used closed cell foam, which is our preference."
Plumbing and electrical are installed after the pour. Channels for placing utilities are created with a hot knife or router, King's preference. There is no need for conduit because the wires are placed in the groove and foam is put over it to hold them in place. The flanges on boxes screw right into the connectors on the block. A sleeve is used to carry the water main to the exterior. Three- to four-inch pipes are installed in interior framing.
"The subs who are having a first-time experience with ICFs," King said, "don't know the system, so they tend to charge more money. Once they see it takes less time than conventional construction, they love it. Then, there is no additional cost and in some cases, a savings."
Making it Work
Most builders agree that as good as an ICF may be, the end result is no better than the skill of the builder and crew who build with it.
"We have trained everybody on our crews," King said. "I got on-the-job training from one of the IntegraSpec trainers, who came to the jobsite. I was certified in two weeks. We are not just building with ICFs but also training other people. Although it is not rocket science, some people are good at it, and some aren't. You have to think ahead, be conscientious and detail-oriented. If a crew member is not detail-oriented, he won't work for us.
"ICF building skills have created a niche for people who want job security. We are constantly trying to develop foremen. They pick it up quickly; and they love it because compared to lumber or concrete blocks, you are picking up just 4 or 5 pounds. There are fewer injuries and it's fun. It's almost like playing with Legos. I've seen in our guys a much more satisfied feeling when the job is complete. They believe they have really accomplished something. On top of that, they are learning something new and innovative and becoming more skilled."
Making the process work also depends on code inspectors. "Construction has grown so fast, that there are inspectors in every county," King said. "But, two years ago, there was no code for ICFs. So every time we did a job, we had to go to the inspectors and educate them. Last year, at their annual inspectors' conference, we were invited to train all the attendees on how to inspect ICF houses; and we helped write a code. It is not as detailed as it should be, but it is a standard. All inspectors have been through one or two training sessions."
The Clients' View
Clients' reaction to their ICF homes is the final proof of the pudding. According to King, what he hears from the homeowners is that they will never again live in anything but an ICF home. Their reasons: the energy saved, the comfort, the good quality air, the quiet; and worth noting in a time when basements are meant to be full-time living space - the basements feel just like rest of house - no basement smell or humidity."I've never had a complaint," King said.