The decision has been made to build with ICFs. Now, how do you select which product to use?
Every ICF block or product line is unique in attributes and features which impact the installation speed and efficiency, the engineering requirements, and the overall energy efficiency of the wall assembly. Each manufacturer provides different support either from website documentation, training, or distributor assistance. A lot of time could be spent on this research, but you have to prioritize what best suits your project and your location.
Most ICFs are similar enough that they are installed the same and provide similar efficiencies. In the decision to select a product, there are three different paths which may influence the selection process:
First, is this a do it yourself (DIY) project. Second, selecting an experienced ICF contractor and using the product they recommend, Third, as a contractor switching to ICFs.
In either case, make a pro and con list, prioritizing specific items that will be keys to the success of a project. This is a simple list, but each item will influence the results. The main concern to keep in mind is that you are building a structural wall assembly that requires product specific engineering and installation techniques. Even a wood framed wall has engineering requirements, nailing specs, header designs, etc.
Review the pros and cons against these main points:
1. Major product line or regional product — Major manufacturers provide product experience, code approval documentation, larger product lines, more support, and more availability. Regional products may be limited in resources, product lines, and support. Use ICF Builder Magazine’s ICF Comparison chart: https://www.icfmag.com/icf-comparison-chart/)
2. Local availability — Typically, a local distributor will supply the products and may stock material. This is an advantage if you require three or four extra blocks. Distributors and/or some contractors typically order from the manufacturing plant with the products delivered directly to the job site. Buying direct may have limitations on quantities as the products are delivered in complete bundled units by the truck load.
3. Nearest manufacturing plant for product delivery — For most projects the product is shipped from the manufacturing plant. Shipping fees reflect the shipping distance and generally full truck loads. Partial truck loads add substantial shipping fees. Most ICF companies require products to be ordered/purchased through an authorized distributor or dealer.
4. Installation documentation and support — Does the manufacturer have a website and a full list of documentation and installation directions to answer your questions? Does the product have a go-to experienced support person?
5. Engineering documentation — The basic engineering for below and above grade walls plus lintels is in the International Residential Code (IRC). ICF manufacturers may have their own engineering guide, which will be similar to the IRC tables. Don’t guess on the engineering—follow the established tables.
6. Technical support — Who are you going to call? Is their technical support available for this ICF product? Does the website include documentation, details, and an 800 number? Take advice only from a credible and experienced person.
7. Product line — Investigate the company’s product lines, block types, and ICF accessories. In addition to standard straight block and corner blocks, projects may require specialty blocks, i.e. 45-degree corners, corbel block, etc.
8. ICF characteristics — All manufacturers basically provide similar product characteristics: size, interlock, EPS thickness, and cross-ties. All ICFs must pass specific testing and acceptance criteria established by the ICC-ES for code approval. Check that the product has a code evaluation report. Review the block differences:
• For ease of engineering and construction, the majority of ICF blocks have an interior ‘flat wall’ design, versus waffle or screen grid type.
• Block size (height and length, typically 16×48 inches), will have an impact on material estimates.
• Reversible interlock improves installation efficiency and reduces waste.
• EPS thickness influences energy efficiency
• Cross-tie spacing (typically at 8 inches on center) affects attachment of finishes.
9. Price — Pricing should reflect the value-add per all, or most, of the items in the above list. The key value-adds relate to having the support and availability in your area. Hopefully, there will be a few ICF products to review in making a selection. Analyze the value-add of each product, as it relates to your project and understand or evaluate the pricing of each product. As with any major purchase, the lowest priced may not offer the best overall value. Be sure before you start to build.
DIY Project or First Time Using ICFs
If this is a DIY project or first time using ICFs, it is important to do a little more research for instructions, training, and product support. Find a product distributor and see if you can do an on-site visit to a project under construction. Offer to provide labor for the day to get a feel for installing and learn as much as you can. If there are not any active projects, visit a homeowner of a newly built ICF home and ask questions. Get a reference to an experienced ICF contractor that you could hire for temporary on-site support, especially during the concrete placement stage or even for an installation inspection prior to concrete placement. Establish and use a trusted support network.
Most of the major ICF companies have training programs, either classroom, webinars or online self-paced sessions. It is highly recommended to take a training course, especially on the selected ICF product line. The installation of all ICFs have application techniques and methodology that should be followed. Your decision to do-it on your own means you have an understanding of how to construct the project with this product. ICFs are relatively simple to install once you know how to do it, the right way.
Switching to ICFs
As a contractor (general, carpenter, masonry, concrete) switching to ICFs, there are great advantages for your business. In order to take full advantage, do the research required to suit your market. The nine items in the previously mentioned list become very important. Dealing directly with an ICF company or dealing through a distributor is a business decision. Placing an order through a distributor makes life a lot easier and building a relationship through a building supply company can provide leads and product support. To understand the overall ICF market, it is recommended that contractors try various products to find for themselves the pros and cons of each. One cannot judge one product as the best if they haven’t tried anything else.
The key for a contractor is product availability and support. Good contractors can build with anything provided they have product support and availability. Meeting commitments and client satisfaction are the keys to your success.
An ICF may be a new product to you, but it has been around
for a long time. The product has been refined, tested, and monitored for quality control by third party agencies. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when designing or building with ICFs. Just like buying a house or a car, do your research, get advice from the right people with ICF experience. ICF companies have loads of information to support their products. Select the ICF product in the design stage and create the working drawings with the ICF block in the plans, maximizing efficiencies with horizontal and vertical block coursing.
Tom Patton had a 30-year architectural design background prior to joining the ICF industry in 2001. Since then, Tom has worked with major ICF companies developing technical documentation, application details, and training programs, as well as consulting and promoting ICFs with various associations including the ICFMA, NRMCA, and codes and standards committees. Currently, Tom is Corporate Brand Ambassador for Fox Blocks and co-developer of the Fox Blocks Integrated Learning Center.