Article No: 261

2009-07-29 13:14:05
Do it Yourself with ICFs

A two-story Colonial home, built with insulating concrete forms (ICFs) during weekends, holidays and vacations, has settled comfortably into 100 wooded acres in the mostly rural community of Virgil, N.Y. The land on which it sits, plus nearly 2 million additional acres of land in Cortland and seven other central New York counties, was set aside as part of the Military Tract of Central New York to compensate New York soldiers who fought in the American Revolution in 1775-1783 with 600 acres each.

David (Dave) and Michelle Lemon, who lived 10 miles away in Cortland, bought the 100 acres from a farmer with the dream of building an energy-efficient and environmentally responsible home in this community of fewer than 3,000 people.

Lemon, who is with the Bureau of Fisheries in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, researched that dream before deciding to build an ICF house and to do it himself.

“We wanted to build an energy-efficient home and of the potential choices for that, the ICF seemed the most logical of the high-efficient choices out there,” he said. Lemon, who had done a lot of house framing while in college but had never worked with ICFs, decided that he would build as much of the house as possible himself using weekends and holidays away from his fulltime job, a project that started in June of 2005 and was completed 29 months later.

“I took a training course for the ICF system I had originally planned to use, and I actually became a certified ICF installer for that system by taking the course, but the learning curve for ICFs was not difficult.”

He knew that his cousin, James (Jim) B. Lemon Sr. had his own masonry business for 19 years and had 25 years of construction experience. Dave asked him to help with the footers and the foundation. He was surprised to learn that since he had talked with him last, Jim had started a new company, Thermal-Crete Inc. Thermal-Crete ( is located in Red Hill, Penn., and is a supplier for TF System – The Vertical ICF. Thermal-Crete is the sole supplier for Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and also sells to the surrounding states. In fact, Jim had just finished a training course on the TF System a week before Dave called him. But it was not until after he had talked with Jim that Dave decided to switch to TF System’s ICFs.

Both Jim and Dave now laugh about the coincidence and the timing.

“It was Jim’s first experience with it and my first experience too, but we got through it,” Dave explained. “It turned out to be fairly easy. Obviously he had training in it through his job and I had my training for the other system, but the vertical ICF was amazingly simple. It sure went up fast and was easy to work with.”

The house took a long time to build, but days on the calendar don’t tell the whole story. It gets cold in the woods of Virgil, and so they lost two winters when they did not work. “It does get cold,” Dave said, “and the wind was a constant factor. It starts getting cold in mid-October and stays cold until April. Last winter, for example, we had lows of 10 and 12 degrees below zero.“

He also lost most of one summer waiting for financing and dealing with bureaucracy. “I had to do a whole subdivision thing for the town and they steered me in the wrong direction, so I had to wait for two months on all that to be resolved. At least nine months of the time was sitting around waiting.” Once they got started in earnest, the house was built during weekends, holidays and vacation.

“Major things were done during time off from his fulltime job,” Jim recalls. “Dave would take off a week here and there like when I came up to help him with the foundation; then he and some friends built the first floor and the deck; and then we’d come back for another week to put up the next floor with the ICFs. Then he’d do his framing and that’s why it took a long time.”

Other than frustration, time wasn’t as big of a factor as it might seem because Dave and Michelle owned an older home in Cortland, which they are now renting for additional income. “But it was a big project,” Dave said. “I’m not sure I would take on such a big project again while holding down a fulltime job.”

First Piece of Puzzle
Building an energy-efficient house that was environmentally responsible was the original objective. The ICF concrete home was the first big piece of that puzzle, and the final results went far beyond their highest hopes.

Jim Lemon is a member of the Insulated Concrete Form Association and an ICF evangelist, praising the above-grade benefits of the ICF, including its environmental friendliness, wall strength, proven fire ratings, insurance savings, cost competitiveness, thermal mass that leads to astonishing energy-efficiency, reduction of noise pollution and air infiltration, and low maintenance.

He also likes ICFs for below grade construction, citing additional strength of the concrete when poured between two layers of polystyrene, the warm touch of foundation walls, walls that are ready to receive drywall to turn unused basement space into functional living space, elimination of condensation with its resistance to mold and mildew, and its high R-value.

Jim had no trouble convincing Dave to switch from the horizontal ICF he was considering to the TF System. Because Dave was going to do it himself with a little help from his friends, he realized on his own that the learning curve would be easy. With his knowledge in framing, he recognized that in one step with the TF System, he could form the foundation, insulate to an R-25 thermal rating and stud out for the drywall and exterior finishes almost the same way he had framed out stick-built homes.

Jim explained that all carpenters are used to framing vertically. ”It’s nice because the learning curve for any contractor is short with the TF System. We brace our corners a certain way, but if you have, for example, a 30-foot-long wall, with our system we just have to keep the top of the wall straight. You can just use a 2x4 attached to a turnbuckle within a foot of the top of the wall down to a stake and you can adjust your wall inside and out.”

A C-channel track is nailed down on the outside along a chalk line. The outside corner piece and inside corner piece are placed in the channel. Then I-beams (or recycled, rigid plastic studs) are used to connect the inside and outside panels and that determines the width of the wall. By using different studs, we can increase or decrease the thickness of the concrete inside the panels. Then another C-channel on the top keeps everything straight.
Jim said that the versatility of the TF System is unmatched in the world of ICF construction.

“With our vertical ICFs, we’re not limited to any specific height.” Panels are available in any height up to 12-foot-tall and can be stacked for even taller walls. “You can go up to any height as long as you pour in 4-foot lifts. We recently bid a theater that had 47-foot-high walls.

“We can give you anywhere from a 2-inch panel thickness all the way up to 6-inch panel thickness. We can do any angle corner sets – we’re not restricted to a 90-degree or 45-degree angle.

“Radius walls are also simple because the panels can be curved to accommodate the radius. We can pour our concrete walls from 4 inches thick to 24 inches thick. We can create interior shelves for sunken rooms and inside corners, and exterior brick shelves with outer corners to uniformly support the exterior width of brick.”

On this house, Dave said the basement wall went from a wider 10-inch wall to a narrower 6-inch wall on the main floor, and a shelf for the first floor deck was created. For the second floor they used anchor bolts to attach a rim board and joist hangers for attaching the floor joists.

Ready mixed cement was provided by LewBro Ready Mix in Locke, N.Y., and Saunders Ready Mix in Cortland. The waterproofing membrane was a peel-and-stick roll-out system.

The only warning Jim has for ICF builders actually applies to any concrete project. “Like with anything, when you are pouring concrete, you just have to think ahead.”

Energy Efficient Inside Too
In addition to the ICF envelope, Dave installed a highly efficient Tarm wood-burning boiler system, which was manufactured in Denmark. This system allows the Lemons to use renewable resources instead of fossil fuel.

“It’s actually a wood-burning gasification system that is much more efficient than a straight wood-burning stove,” Dave explained. “We spent extra money on that, but the Tarm boilers burn like 85 percent efficiently with wood and the nearest straight wood-burning stove I found at the time was about 65 percent.”

Wood gasification burns the otherwise unburned components of a wood fire. There’s an initial burn chamber where the primary combustion takes place and there’s a secondary chamber where all the unburned gases from the primary chamber are consumed.

 “When it’s burning full tilt, you can look out at the chimney and there’s really no smoke at all,” he said. In the approximate seven months a year that they must heat their home, the Tarm boiler uses less than five cords of wood. With about 40 percent of his 100 acres wooded, as well as other readily available and inexpensive wood, the renewable fuel makes the boiler system a no-brainer.

He had considered a windmill system because of the strong and constant wind, but the price of the wind system, plus the heat pump was prohibitive.

Dave also has a radiant heating system in the basement and garage floors, and in the time they have been in the house, the radiant system in the basement has never come on, a testimony to the insulated 10-inch concrete walls. “The radiant system in the garage comes on, but the basement stays very comfortable without any outside heat.”

Another interesting aspect of this energy-efficient home is an 850-gallon hot water storage tank that is located in the basement and that was insulated by wrapping it in TF System ICF panels. That tank provides domestic hot water for the family of four and is heated very efficiently from the wood-burning boiler in the garage. The insulated tank, which holds water at 175 degrees when the boiler is running and 155 degrees when it is not, radiates no heat and the basement is as cool and comfortable in the summer as it is warm and comfortable in the winter.

On the main floor of the house and on the second floor, he installed English-manufactured Munson radiators. “That decision was primarily aesthetic,” he explained.

“I just didn’t want baseboard heaters all over the place, and these small attractive radiators, combined with the ICF concrete walls, keep the house at a comfortable, constant temperature. It’s the most comfortable house I have ever been in.”

Finally, he included high-efficient windows and doors throughout the house that eliminates air leakage and shuts out the noise from the continuous wind.

Welcome Home

The two-story Colonial, which sits on three levels, is beautiful as well as practical. Entering from the front door into an elegant entryway, there is a centered staircase that goes to the second floor.

To the left is the dining room and to the right the media room, and the back half of the first floor is the kitchen and great room – all with hardwood floors. Built on the open concept, foot traffic can flow from one room to the rest on that floor. The media room does have two pocket doors that allow it to be closed so that television, music or video games don’t interfere with other activities.

Between the kitchen and the 850-square-foor attached garage is a mud room with a full bath and laundry room. Another door off the kitchen opens to the stairs going down to the 1,400-square-foot basement with its 10-foot ceilings and exposed concrete floors.

“Dave is a tall guy and he is now using the basement for lifting weights and other workout activities,” Jim said with a laugh. “He wanted to lift weights without banging them against the ceiling.” Dave says the basement will eventually become a recreation room and fourth bedroom.

The basement has three windows and a double-wide walk-out door to a side yard. There are retaining walls on each side of the walkout that are packed with dirt to enhance the R-25 insulation value of the basement.

On the second floor, the master bedroom opens to the right and stretches across the back of the house with a large master bath and a walk-through closet and dressing area. To the left at the top of the stairs is a bathroom for the two boys, whose bedrooms are right and left off of a hallway that goes back toward the front of the house. The second floor is carpeted.

There is just less than 4,000 square feet of living space in the house, including the 1,400 square feet of finished basement.

The exterior finish on the house is vinyl siding, and the roof is normal wood truss with shingles. “It doesn’t matter which window or door you look out, the view of the wooded acreage on which this house sits is just beautiful,” Jim said of his cousin’s dream home.

Dave said he is also instituting a land management program on his property.
“I will plant hay or something else,” he said.

“I’m not going to go crazy with it because I already have a job. But this will allow me to get some value out of it now and I can do more when I retire.”