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Insulated Concrete Forms [ICF]

 
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From another topic by Ryan I came across this product which has some advantages.
This video discusses, planning your actual build.
 
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I helped to build quite a few ICF homes in SE Ohio years ago, but they were giant foam LEGO blocks, which once assembled, were filled with concrete. The ones in the video look like some sort of light weight papercrete variation.. which I like better than styrofoam.
 
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I have been in and around the construction industry for almost 50 years. I prefer rammed earth (RE) wall systems over ICF systems for a few key reasons. The first is just a simple reduction of material needed. Re does not need an interior or exterior finish, so no drywall, paint, siding, etc. It adds a thermal heating and cooling mass. Done correctly it`s a minimum 500 year home anywhere on planet earth. For me it`s a no brainer.
 
Ted Abbey
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Max Stadnyk wrote:I have been in and around the construction industry for almost 50 years. I prefer rammed earth (RE) wall systems over ICF systems for a few key reasons. The first is just a simple reduction of material needed. Re does not need an interior or exterior finish, so no drywall, paint, siding, etc. It adds a thermal heating and cooling mass. Done correctly it`s a minimum 500 year home anywhere on planet earth. For me it`s a no brainer.



I agree Max. The biggest benefit I see in earth building, is that when they do fail.. they just return to the earth. I used to live in a ghost town in New Mexico. The old adobe homes that were abandoned, and had no upkeep slowly melted with each passing year. This led to much philosophical pondering on my part about time, and impermanence.
 
John C Daley
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Rammed earth is a bit like eternal life;
- Most want it, few get there
- It takes a lot of labour and machinery
- It takes time
- It can be owner- builder
- you really need suitable soil onsite
ICF;s may give
- some people a suitable home
- its best built by an expert team
 
Max Stadnyk
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JUst for the record, you do not need any special machinery to do rammed earth. Your choice to do either low, medium or high tech.

ALL natural and most unnatural construction takes a lot of labour, and as well a lot of time. Rammed earth takes no more time than a stick built home.

There is suitable soil everywhere on earth...that is one of the main benefits.

ICF's are proprietary, so for that reason alone they are a huge fail because we have many other non-proprietary choices. It's more of a challenge when it comes to choosing for things like an eco computers, phones or fridges....areas like these are riddled with tradeoffs.



 
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I used faswall ICF blocks to build my house last year.

Not inexpensive, but recognized by building code and building officials. Cob/rammed/straw/bag etc is great, but for financing, insurability and resale reasons, I think ICF can be a great option for owner/builders.  

8/10 would recommend
 
Max Stadnyk
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We all know what is recognized by the building industry; all the inferior toxic garbage building materials like laminate flooring, drywall, mdf, osb, (anything made with styrofoam is right at the top) and the list goes on and on.

I am assuming you are North American and not a building professional or you would know that somewhere in the neighbourhood of half the world's housing is earthen and that Rammed Earth in particular is recognized all over the planet as a superior building system.  It is easily financed. It gets consistently less expensive insurance rates. Good luck finding one on the market, as they are easily one of the best resale homes you can build.

If you want to do ICF I wish you luck but it's not the smart choice, heck it's not even the "green" choice. We rate ICF builds below a traditonal stick built house for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important is the "FOAMOCOLYPSE" that will occur during deconstruction. Millions upon millions of tiny pellets entering the ecosystem from millions of structures built with toxic foam.

Second would be the fire issue. When that foam burns it returns first to a liquid, then a gas that is black and deadly, leaving rescue people way less time to get in and get you out; especially if your house is full of other toxic materials. Some foams have hydrogen cyanide gas as their activatiing foaming agent, so when it burns guess what you get, hydrogen cyanide gas again.

These are just the easy reasons to choose Rammed Earth, Cob, Adobe, Straw, Stone, Timber Frame, etc. All vastly superior choices and but not recommended by a toxic mainstream building industry.
 
John C Daley
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Max, I beg to differ.

Rammed earth takes no more time than a stick built home.


I have done both and came to a different conclusion than yourself.
I agree all natural building materials take a lot of time and labour, I prefer a post and beam with adobe bricks for my purposes.
Rammed or adobe ;
- are easier to have an excavator / bobcat to break out soil and mix it compared with a shovel.
- adobe can be lifted and laid by hand
- Rammed needs buckets and lifting gear to be mildly efficient
- Rammed needs tampers, human or air driven
Stick buildings
- come out of the ground quickly, walls can be tilted from the floor.
- Finishing can take a while depending on finish choices
- rarely needs lifting gear
 
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I think that all wall assemblies have trade-offs.  I agree with Max on many points, but hope this attempt to reframe the conversation is helpful.
 
If you want to build with ICFs (insulated concrete forms), and you detail the rest of the building well (start with passive solar design, adequately insulate floors and ceilings, air-seal windows and other penetrations, use efficient HVAC, etc.), you’ll at least have an energy efficient structure.  For decades, this is what the conventional building world considered a “green” building.  It was energy efficient, period.  Little thought was given to material embodied energy, toxicity, or end-of-service life disposal.  Thankfully, that is changing, and if you want to build with ICFs you can chose to go beyond the promise of energy efficiency that they offer.

ICF blocks made with virgin polystyrene beads and virgin plastic for the webs are probably the most common and least environmentally friendly.  Some ICFs are better in terms of having a lower embodied energy, more recycled content, storing carbon, or all three.  For example, Rastra makes ICF blocks from recycled foam and plastic, although Portland cement concrete and steel rebar still fills the cores.  Nearly all of the used coffee cups and packaging materials for tools and appliances sold world-wide go into a landfill—so recycling this material into building blocks is a better solution.  Still, recycled content or not, both types of ICFs rely on a petroleum-based foam.  Faswal, Durasol, and now it seems Nexcem are among the ICF brands that use waste wood (presumably from pallets) to form the ICF blocks, but like polystyrene blocks, the cores are still filled with some combination of steel and Portland cement concrete.  The wood chip ICFs store some carbon and offer the option of using rockwool to bump the R-value, but at the expense of strength. Using high fly-ash and other concrete mixes can help lower the embodied energy of any of the ICFs, but these mixes can be harder to find.

Laminate flooring, drywall, MDF, OSB, almost all petroleum-based foam products, fiberglass, caulk, vinyl, etc., are recognized by the conventional building industry as superior by different metrics, that unfortunately do not take into account toxicity or embodied energy.  Many of these conventional building materials contain toxins, or have a very high embodied energy, are difficult to re-purpose at the end of a building’s service life, and worse.  Lower installation cost, ease of manufacturing and transportation, widespread availability, thermal efficiency for a given thickness, and material and technique familiarity among building contractors play a huge role in their success and current dominance in the building world.  

I’d love to see more wall assemblies using plant-based insulation materials like straw, cellulose, wood fiber, cotton, hemp, cork, wool (if you don’t count the middle step of growing on sheep!).  I’d also love to see more distributed thermal massing from 1”-2” thick clay-based interior plasters.

Builders like me try to use more natural, low-embodied, non-toxic, locally sourced materials whenever possible, but we’ll also use conventional materials when there aren’t affordable or viable substitutes for code requirements like subfloor and stem wall insulation (rigid foam), fire blocking between rooms and floors (sheetrock), etc.  

Still, I don’t regard green builders who use foam ICFs and SIPs (structural insulated panels) as “the enemy” even as I hope they rapidly transition towards non-foam alternatives like the above mentioned wood chip ICFs, and soon—block wall systems made with hemp or straw, or even straw SIPs.

Here’s why.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, each year in North America nearly 40% of ALL energy (including manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation sectors) consumed goes to heat, cool, and power buildings. The vast majority of this 40% is for heating and cooling!  Another nearly 10% of ALL energy used in N. America goes to manufacture building materials.

I think it’s more constructive to look at ICFs as being on a continuum.  If well-designed and built, an ICF building can be incredibly energy efficient, and thus help lower that 40% of all energy used in N. America.  Those ICFs that also have a lower embodied energy further nibble away at the 10% of annual energy expended on building materials, and some are also less toxic or non-toxic, plus they store carbon.  

We don’t have a lot of time to make a difference in the climate change picture.  Some people think it’s already too late.  I’m casting my lot with those who believe that it’s not, that we may have ten or twenty years to try to make a difference in the built environment.  

The first thing we must do is build energy efficient buildings.  If that’s all we do, and use mostly conventional materials to do it, we can at least stop using so much energy just to heat, cool, and light buildings. But we’ll reach our end goal much faster if we also substitute low-embodied energy, carbon storing building materials like wood, straw, hemp, cotton, bamboo, and use more lower embodied energy materials like clay.  And to do that, we need to ramp up efforts to make designing and building with these materials easy and accessible.  

Right now we don’t have enough knowledgeable and experienced designers, or builders, or even a sufficiently developed supply chain to support a rapid transition towards building with all- or mostly-natural materials. Until that happens, we need these “green” if not-natural building materials so long as they do in fact produce energy efficient buildings.

If we build energy inefficient all-natural buildings we really haven’t solved the problem beyond reducing toxins in our environment and reducing the embodied energy of our buildings.  And that’s where I have a more nuanced view of the role that earthen buildings (rammed earth, cob, adobe, etc.) can play.  Absolutely they are part of the answer to this challenge.  These thermally massed structures perform very well in areas like the American Southwest, characterized by warm summers, relatively mild winters, and most importantly, consistently sunny days and cool nights that drive a diurnal temperature swing. Our ancestors in these places discovered that thick-walled (thermally massed) structures made from earthen materials were surprisingly comfortable almost year-round—a lucky coincidence of human ingenuity, diurnal temperature fluctuations, and locally available building materials. (Humans in other places found other building materials and techniques suited to their climates, too...think igloos for Eskimos, animal skins for Great Plains Native Americans, etc.) The thick earthen massed walls helped moderate interior temperatures as day temperatures soared and night temperatures plummeted. Cool in summer, not terribly cold in winter so long as mostly-sunny days help offset cold nights. Moving further away from the equator north or south we find that buildings of all kinds required more supplemental heat to maintain comfortable interior temperatures, and that’s still true. Today, that heat usually comes from burning either wood or fossil fuels.

If we could instantly replace all the housing in North America (and other parts of the world where they currently don’t use earthen materials for walls) with earthen buildings, we’d be burning A LOT of fossil fuels and wood to keep them warm.  Or adjust our expectations and behaviors and wear more insulative clothing while indoors.

That shift towards more earthen walled materials might reduce the amount of energy we currently spend to manufacture modern building materials, but I think we’d need as much or more energy to keep those buildings warm during the winter.  In most temperate and extreme cold climates, a structure that relies on thermal mass alone (concrete, cob, rammed earth, adobe, etc.) is quite uncomfortable during the winter unless it uses lots and lots of energy for heat—much, much more than if those buildings were also well insulated.

In summary, it’s not so simple as convincing nearly everyone to build with rammed earth or any other type of massed wall system.  

Just yesterday I returned from the California Straw Building Association’s West Coast Natural Building Conference held near Nevada City, California. The conference site was a campus with many, if not most structures built by modern day earth building advocates David Easton and Nader Khalili (sadly, both no longer alive).  Superadobe and rammed earth walls everywhere!  Fantastic, inspiring, beautiful...and cold in early April without lots of supplemental heat.  Rammed earth (and cob, adobe, super adobe, et. al.) is not a great solution in many temperate and most cold and extreme cold climates.  

Jim Reiland
Many Hands Builders
 
John C Daley
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Jim, thank you for your enlightment about heating earth buildings.
I had never given the thoughts to it that you have.
Its opened my eyes.
 
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