Our ICF Home

Among my earliest memories as a child living in Alabama are waking up to the eerie sound of my parents’ radio telling us to take cover as a tornado approached our area. We would all gather in my grandparent’s damp and spooky storm pit with as many neighbors as possible. We all knew the risk of not getting into a safe place. If the tornado touched down near our homes, we would likely perish. Although this experience of taking shelter in the middle of the night was not too common, it made a lasting impression on the severe nature of intense storms, tornadoes, and the danger they brought.

Later in life, I began working in the EPS Industry at a molding facility in North Alabama, not too far from where I grew up. In the early 2000s, I learned about Insulated Concrete Forms, also known as ICFs, as our facility began molding them for various brands. ICFs are made of two 2-5/8″ thick panels of EPS (expanded polystyrene). Between the panels is a 4″ and 12″ space allowing room for concrete to be poured into. Each form is typically 16″ tall x 48″ long and stacked one on top of the other. To create a wall of EPS blocks with a space in the middle where steel reinforcement bars are inserted. High-strength concrete is poured to create a monolithic external wall assembly (no seams or gaps).

In 2017, when we began planning to build our first home, building with ICF was a no-brainer for me. Some of the advantages of building with ICF that I considered were:

  • Energy savings – The concrete walls with EPS insulation on both sides create a superior barrier to conditions outside the structure. The high mass of the concrete provides a significant buffer where heat or cold passes through the wall very slowly, resulting in a consistent temperature inside with reduced heating and cooling costs.
  • Safety from storms and tornadoes – The reinforced concrete walls are highly resilient to outside forces, whether high winds from a storm or pressures and flying debris from a tornado. It’s expected that these walls (when correctly engineered with re-bar) will withstand 200mph winds. The walls will stop a flying 2×4 from moving at 100mph, quickly penetrating a typical wood-built home with a brick exterior.
  • Maintenance and longevity – Since we plan to live in this house into our later years, we wanted to build a structure that would retain its integrity for many years with the least effort and cost to maintain. Concrete is a very stable building material (when properly reinforced) and will last hundreds of years.

Although this is a partial list of benefits when building with ICF, these are my top three.

We designed our home with the main floor and a full walk-out basement, and later during the building phase, we decided to finish the attic space. We used 8″ thick concrete forms for the basement walls; on the main level, we used 6″ dense concrete structures. Once the ICF walls were poured, the house looked like a “white foam castle,” and neighbors called it the “Styrofoam or foam house.” It’s funny how people misunderstand what an ICF home is. It’s not a foam house; it’s a CONCRETE house insulated with EPS. I had many conversations with neighbors and friends explaining what we were building. One neighbor came over for a tour after the walls had been poured and, after seeing the barricades close-up, said, “Well, you’re doing it right!”.

Throughout the construction process, we learned much about building a home, especially an ICF home. It took us about 18 months from breaking ground until we moved in. Most of this time was spent on the interior and finishing. I was amazed at how quickly the ICF walls were put up and poured. The crew we hired for building the ICF walls was from Mississippi, and they build ICF walls exclusively. The owner told me that before they were introduced to ICF, they were typical home builders creating with wood. One of their clients requested their home be built using ICFs. Once they made this one home with ICF, they realized that the work was so much easier due to the light weight of the forms, and they transitioned to only building with ICF.

Today, we enjoy the comfort and safety of our ICF home every day. Our home is heated and cooled with electricity only. The HVAC we chose is a Mitsubishi VRF unit with multiple zones. This unit can vary the refrigerant flow, which means it can deliver meager amounts of heat or cooling without shutting off. This results in a very consistent temperature inside and low energy consumption.

I’m still amazed at how consistent the temperature is inside the house, even when nights get very cold during the fall season. It takes days for the outside temperature to affect the inside temperature noticeably.

The ICF walls also create a great sound barrier, resulting in a tranquil environment on the inside. I appreciate this at night when we’re sleeping! We rarely get woke by outside noises like passing cars, barking dogs, or even thunderstorms.

The threat of severe weather is no longer a stressful time. Often, family and friends visit when tornadoes are in the forecast. We can enjoy a meal together and watch coverage of the storms without worrying, which we appreciate. Even though we have a basement, the safest place to be during a storm, we rarely need to go down because the main floor walls are also solid.

There are so many benefits to building with ICF. The comfort and energy savings are unmatched by any other building material. Even though the initial building cost is slightly more (5-10%) than traditional wood construction, the savings from lower energy bills alone easily make it a quick payback. Comfort, safety, and longevity are the icing on the cake!