By Leigh Overland and Gene Braunstein
In the 1967 Oscar-winning movie, “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock, played by a very young Dustin Hoffman, reluctantly attends the big college graduation party his parents throw for him. A family friend takes Ben aside and offers him some sage financial advice. “One word,” the man pointedly tells him, “Plastics.”
If that conversation were to take place today, Ben might very likely be told “Plastics…and concrete.” While it doesn’t sound like the kind of investment that would rocket anyone to the top one percent, it is the blueprint for constructing new housing that is many more times hurricane resistant than the default method of just using wood. It’s called ICF, or Insulated Concrete Forms.
How much better than traditional wood framing is an ICF house? When super storm Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, the beachfront houses in Union Beach, NJ, as in countless other communities, were irretrievably destroyed– ripped apart, flattened by rising tides and the nearly 80 mph winds. Where nice houses once stood, condemned property and foundations remained. Only one building was left intact–an ICF home with the owners and their family safely inside. Their home withstood the rising tide and would have been able to weather more than twice the wind speed that caused so much destruction around them. Although some damage was done to the exterior of the house, it was minor and easily repaired.1
While the degree with which we have been able to predict and track storms has given us more than ample prep and/or evacuation time, there has been very little talk about minimizing or even preventing the catastrophic aftermath. There’s not only the physical toll. There’s the emotional, psychological and financial ones as well. Other than nailing 4×8 foot plywood sheets over our windows and doors, the only options at this point are still pretty much fight or flight.
Hope is not a strategy, but unfortunately, that’s all that many victims have left to cling to. They want to rebuild, but the specter of more super storms will linger. Clearly, it’s time to rethink our castle-making and take a serious look at Insulated Concrete Forms.
The key to the effectiveness and strength inherent in an ICF-built home is its simple, ingenious technology, which has been used in Europe since shortly after WWII.
The insulated concrete forms start out as two rectangular pieces of 2.5-inch thick, high-density Styrofoam. The two pieces are connected side-by-side by plastic spacers leaving a 6- to 8-inch gap, depending on their placement in the structure. These hollow blocks lock together, end to end, forming the foundation and exterior walls, creating a “shell” of the house or building. Once all the blocks are locked in place, the entire gap is filled with concrete. Think of ICF as a concrete sandwich consisting of two slabs of Styrofoam “bread” with concrete in the middle. And hold the mayo.
It’s no wonder that there’s always such widespread, heart-wrenching devastation after an extreme weather assault. Wood-based structures simply can’t hold up under such extreme conditions, which, scientists tell us, are going to increase in frequency and intensity.
One can only imagine a more positive outcome if Houston, Florida and its Keys, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other devastated areas had had ICF homes. Pain and suffering on many levels could have been avoided. Lives could have been spared. Hopefully, those who are going to rebuild will opt for the more durable, hurricane-tested ICF system for their new homes and buildings. At least then we’d know what the aftermath of the next super storms won’t look like.
There are other advantages to using Insulated Concrete Forms. Since the beginning of 2017, the number of civilian home fire deaths topped 1500, with the remainder of the year still to go.2
Wood not only burns, it also sags, cracks, absorbs moisture, rots, grows mold, and is a highly sought-after menu item for termites and other insects. Wood and insulation are also delicacies for rodents as they chew their way into our attics, basements and walls where it’s warm and safe from predators. ICF has none of those deficits.
An ICF home or office building can be made into any shape or design for the same price or less than conventional 2×6 exterior wood framing. Plus, any style of finish can be used–brick, stucco, siding and so on. Yes, even wood.
Fiberglass and other types of insulation are not required. The dense Styrofoam-concrete combination insulates so efficiently that savings of 50% – 70% on heating and cooling bills are the norm. You’ll be warmer longer in the winter and cooler longer in summer for less money. ICF also means using smaller, less expensive HVAC units to maintain the desired environment in your home or office building.
Normally, indoor air is less healthy than we’d like to believe. With ICF, air is cleaner and healthier due to the controlled and filtered outside air infiltration.
Structures are quieter, too. In fact, ICF is five times quieter than wood- or metal-framed housing.
Insulated Concrete Forms also provide an environmental advantage. For every house that’s built with ICF, approximately 10 trees are saved.
Additional benefits include higher property value; meeting and/or exceeding building codes; lower insurance rates due to a more resistant, less vulnerable structure with fewer likely replacement costs.
The one sacrifice you may have to accept with Insulated Concrete Forms, at least for now, is that your home is limited to a height of 30 stories.
No structure is guaranteed to go unscathed after exposure to the fury of Mother Nature. But the ability to ward off total or even partial destruction can be drastically reduced, and very possibly eliminated when you build with ICF.
Should you ever attend a college student’s graduation party and want to give the grad some sage investment advice, just say, “Three letters. ICF.”
For more information, contact Leigh Overland Architect at info@LDOverland.com
1 – http://www.sustainableconcrete.org/project/new-jersey-icf-home/
2 – U.S. Fire Administration, https://apps.usfa.fema.gov/civilian-fatalities/incident/reportMap