Orion at Lumino Park, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Photos courtesy of SuperForm Products Ltd.

Having been involved with ICF structural engineering for almost two decades, and in that time having processed more than 180 ICF projects, in recent years I’ve begun to see a shift towards ICF construction for commercial and industrial projects, particularly schools, and mid-rise multi-family and mixed use projects. Traditionally, commercial and industrial projects have been built using other structural systems. These might include steel frame, wood frame, CMU, and conventional formed concrete, to name a few. In many cases, an ICF structural system beats these other systems on cost alone, but there are many other advantages which should be taken into consideration.

Speed of Construction
The potential for speedy construction using ICF versus other systems is significant. An ICF superstructure can be commenced immediately following construction of the foundations and/or foundation slab. Other construction systems frequently require a time lapse to allow the foundation concrete strength to reach a minimum value so that temporary construction loads can be supported.

ICF construction eliminates the requirement for pre-design and fabrication of structural steel elements, or precast wall panels, and the consequent scheduling and delivery of these elements. There is also no requirement for expensive handling equipment, such as cranes and forklifts. Working off the scaffold brackets that are part of the ICF wall bracing system is simplicity itself, and very time and labor effective.

Energy Efficiency
The calculated R-value of an ICF form is typically R-22 to R-25, depending on the system. Many manufacturers these days offer even higher R-value systems, with thicker foam panels. And while the concrete itself has very little R-value, it provides thermal mass, which produces enhanced energy performance. For example, the actual performance R-value of an 8-inch core ICF wall might be close to R-40, or even better, as a result of the thermal mass effect. Naturally, this superior thermal performance leads to huge energy savings. It is not uncommon for savings of 60% to be achieved, compared to those achieved in a code-compliant alternate construction.

Reduced Operating Costs
In both the short term and the long term, ICF construction saves the commercial/industrial owner/investor money. Cost can be saved in the primary building cost. But additionally, the operating cost of an ICF structure is also substantially less than other building systems, leading to long term cost savings. The high energy efficiency of an ICF structure, as noted above, will allow the operating costs to be substantially reduced over the life of the structure. For applications such as distribution centers, the conditioned space within the structure will require minimal ancillary heating and cooling to maintain the optimum space condition.

Tall Wall Construction
Using ICF for tall wall construction has become the system of choice for many structures, including cinemas. Free standing tall walls up to 40 feet high are frequently incorporated into cinema construction. Additionally, mid-rise multi-story structures using platform framing are an easy build with ICF. Ten-story structures and taller are feasible with ICF construction, which significantly exceeds the permitted height of wood framed structures.

An 8-inch core ICF wall is approximately 12x stronger in shear than a wood-framed wall. This allows for more adventurous architectural design, affording the flexibility of more and/or larger openings, and also placing openings where wood framing would make it very difficult.

Safe Construction with Improved Security
We have seen over and over again in recent years where whole communities have been ravaged and destroyed by fire. Santa Rosa in California, Paradise in California, and more recently, Phoenix and Talent in Oregon, and Lahaina in Hawaii are just a few. While nothing can be called absolutely fireproof, without doubt ICF construction is non-combustible. When an ICF structure is subjected to a fire, it has a much greater chance of withstanding that fire, protecting the occupants, and increasing the time to allow for safe egress. An 8-inch concrete core within an ICF form has a code-rated fire resistance of 3 hours.

Fire may not be the issue, maybe it’s earthquake, tornado, or hurricane. Again, due to the incredible strength of an ICF structure, it rarely succumbs to these natural disasters, and again protects both the contents and the occupants.

And quite literally, ICF construction is bullet proof! Eight inches of reinforced concrete affords a virtually unequaled protection to gunfire attack. While that may not be something most people worry about, there are some locations and applications where this is of paramount importance, and provides a very cost-effective solution to that localized problem.

High STC Rating
A significant benefit of ICF construction is the quietness of the enclosed space. Noise from wind, traffic, rain, airplanes, and even neighbors, is virtually eliminated. Frequently, sitting inside an ICF structure with a raging wind outside, the only way to tell that the wind is blowing is the bending of the trees!

Mentioned above, ICF construction is frequently used for cinemas. Each multiplex cinema module is required to be sound insulated from the adjacent modules. ICFs high STC value achieves this.

For multi-family, multi-story projects built with ICF, there is an enormous advantage for the tenants, in that they are “soundproofed” from their neighbors! This leads to a quality of living above the norm. And for the owner/landlord, there is an opportunity for enhanced rents as a result of the quieter tenant environment.

Net Zero Energy
There’s a distinct and required move towards net zero energy in all construction, both residential and commercial. California introduced the requirement for all new residential construction to be rated at net zero energy back in 2020. The current intent is to apply the same standard to all new commercial construction in California by 2030! Net zero energy is a laudable goal. Energy conservation should be of paramount importance in all new construction. The high energy efficiency of ICF construction gives a project an excellent basis to achieve net zero energy.
In conclusion, it is becoming increasingly more apparent to commercial and industrial developers that ICF construction is the system of choice. I fully expect this trend to increase steadily over the coming years.

In the 51 years since graduating from London University in the United Kingdom, Dave Gowers has acquired extensive experience in concrete construction through diverse commercial, residential, and industrial projects, up to $1-billion in value, in several countries. Dave resides in Southern Oregon with his wife and business partner, Jennifer. Dave holds a PE license in 14 states/territories and is the principal of Dave Gowers Engineering LLC, and co-principal of Cascade ICF LLC. He can be reached at 541-660-9661 or dave@dgengineering.com.