The decision to build a home with insulating concrete forms was not a difficult one for Bill Hahn.
As the building crew scrambled around, inserting steel rebar and working the first day of the concrete pour for Hahn's new home, he observed approvingly and even chipped in a little.
``This is a much better building method if you ask me,'' Hahn said.
The entire project is a microcosm of what is happening in construction, telling the tale of why a building method that has been around for the better part of four decades just now seems to be picking up the necessary momentum to make the jump from niche to mainstream.
The benefits of ICF structures are obvious, and if the idea catches fire, it will be plastic, not lumber, that provides the backbone for most construction in North America.
People like Hahn, who are telling builders they want their homes made with ICFs, are driving growth in the Great Lakes region. Greater demand for storm- and fire-resistant, energy-efficient structures - as well as for homes that can withstand seismic activity - is driving ICF building in places like Florida, Texas and California.
Yet in 2006, homes built with ICFs made up less than 2 percent of the new housing stock.
Joe Lyman, executive director of the Glenview, Ill.-based Insulating Concrete Form Association, said in a recent telephone interview that the industry is projected to grow 20 percent a year for the foreseeable future.
According to the association's data, about 105 million square feet of new construction - both residential and commercial - was built with ICFs in 2006.
``Over a sustained period of time, that 20 percent, by volume, becomes larger and larger,'' Lyman said.
ICFs are made from two molded panels of expanded polystyrene connected by a web - often an injection molded polypropylene part. Those new molded parts, a substitute for steel webs, have provided logistical advantages for builders, including predetermined slots for rebar and in some cases, the flexibility to fold flat. The flexibility at least doubles the amount of ICFs that can be shipped at once. ICFs typically are about 16 inches tall and about 4 feet wide.
Walls are built with ICFs in an almost Legolike fashion. Once the exterior wall is erected, concrete is poured down its mostly hollow center. The concrete and steel reinforcement creates walls that builders estimate can last up to 200 years. The EPS forms stay in place and provide fire-resistant, energy-efficient insulation that proponents say will pay for itself many times over in energy savings over the life of a structure.
Hahn said he is paying 14 percent more for his ICF home in Ohio than he would have paid for an identical wood-built version. Because there are so few builders building with ICFs, customers who want them often have to pay a premium. ICF homes tend to cost 5-20 percent more than their wood-framed counterparts, industry officials estimate, but those numbers will come down as the construction method becomes less specialized and more mainstream.
``I'm not complaining,'' Hahn said. ``I know it's going to start paying me back immediately.''
Hahn's satisfaction aside, the shortage of qualified ICF home builders and installers is presenting a growth obstacle for the industry, Lyman said.
``We've left a lot of money on the table because we didn't have enough installers,'' he said. ``That's unfortunate when we have so much interest in the ICF industry.''
Uniontown-based custom home builder Danmark Construction took on Hahn's ICF home project having no experience with the material.
Danmark owner Daniel Enos credits Medway, Ohio-based ICF dealer Holdfast Technologies LLC for streamlining the process.
Holdfast claims to be the largest U.S. dealer of ICFs. The company distributes concrete forms manufactured by Barrie, Ontario-based Nudura Corp. Enos said the distributor offered a training course and always had someone on the construction site as to ensure the ICFs were installed properly.
``My main reason for giving it a try is that I had a customer interested in it as an option,'' Enos said. ``If a customer is interested, I'm going to look into it.''
Danmark already has an order for another ICF home, Enos said.
``It's a relatively easy, logical process,'' he said. ``The process is very efficient. And as far as the quality of the home ... you have a superior home.''
The ICF walls are something akin to PS coffee cups in terms of their insulating properties, Enos said, adding, ``with a good lid on it.''
``You probably double the life span of the house,'' he said.
Lyman said Enos' experience is indicative of what's happening throughout the residential construction industry. Until a major tract builder gets on board, homeowners will continue to pay a premium for ICF homes.
``When any of the big builders do something, they rely on the fact they are going to do it in volume. But they don't have enough subcontractors to put the ICFs up,'' Lyman said. ``We have to wait for the larger market to come around. Be assured, a major tract builder is not going to allow profits to go down 30 percent because of a learning curve.''
Unlike many manufactured parts and products, there is very little difference from a quality perspective among the various ICF products on the market.
As one manufacturer said, EPS is EPS.
``When all the blocks are installed and filled with concrete, they're all going to basically be the same,'' said Dave Watson, national sales manager for Albuquerque, N.M.-based American PolySteel LLC, in an interview at the International Builders' Show in February. ``Local support and service is how to differentiate.''
Lyman concurred. ``The companies that succeed in the future are the ones that will solve the client problems the best way,'' he said.
Another market force benefiting ICF makers is fluctuating lumber costs vs. the relatively stable costs of PS, Watson said.
Cobourg, Ontario-based ICF maker Arxx Building Products Inc. has invested a lot of time developing the commercial market.
It is a matter of educating architects and engineers, said Tom Patton, Arxx manager of commercial support and development.
Once they realize that the foam isn't designed to be structural, but simply a form that doubles as built-in insulation, they are easily converted, he said.
``We're almost there,'' he said.
Pat Boeshart, president of South Sioux City, Neb.-based ICF maker Lite-Form International, said growing awareness of the industry eventually will change the face of it.
``Devastating weather will have a huge impact,'' Boeshart said in February, just days after a flurry of tornadoes killed 21 people and damaged 1,500 homes in the Orlando, Fla., area. ``Just watch what happens once a government body comes out and mandates this kind of construction.''
Toledo, Ohio-based Owens Corning has contracted Lite-Form to manufacture an ICF for the building products giant. OC is the first of the major building products makers to invest in the technology. Boeshart said OC won't be the last, and thus ICF manufacturers need to have a plan for what he predicts is an unavoidable future.
``It's a $4 commodity plastic selling for $15,'' he said. ``It's a commodity, it works, it holds concrete. I full well expect that 10-15 years from now, the brands you see will all be a mere memory because brands like OC are going to get involved.''
OC has no immediate plans to bring ICF manufacturing in-house, but Jeff Van Sloun, OC's business manager for its ICF product, Fold-Form, wouldn't rule out the possibility.
Dan Hilty, president of ICF distributor Holdfast, said treating ICFs as a commodity could be a mistake.
``I don't think anyone knows right now what it's going to be,'' he said. ``It's going to be really interesting to see how the market maintains the distribution process.
``The growth of the industry itself is certainly there, but it's a product that has not faired well when treated as a commodity. It's better when treated as a system.''
OC wants a piece of that consumer-driven growth.
``There are concrete reasons to build with ICFs,'' Van Sloun said. ``Right now we're trying to build the market. It's a product that is catching on.''
Despite being around for decades, many code officials in municipalities throughout the country remain unfamiliar with the product. That is among the obstacles to growth.
``That's an area where we have an opportunity as a company to lead the way,'' Van Sloun said. ``We're ready for that.''
While not optimistic about the future of ICF manufacturing in its current business model, Boeshart is extremely bullish on the product itself.
``It could fundamentally change the way the industry builds,'' he said. ``Polystyrene, polypropylene and concrete could be involved in every building in the world.''
While above-grade residential construction provides the most boom potential for the ICF industry, basement walls and commercial construction will continue to drive growth for the near future.
``It's a lot easier to do repeat business,'' Lyman said. ``We haven't got up to Wal-Mart or Sam's Club, but where we are seeing it - architects and engineers working on churches, hospitality resorts and schools - we're starting to see a lot of people continue to use ICF as a project solution. That's where we'll see continued growth over the next several years.
``ICFs are still just a speck in the big picture. We have to understand we're a fledgling industry.''
Industry officials said there are no design limitations when building with ICFs. It's possible to build two houses - one of traditional lumber, and the other from ICFs - and they would look identical from outside.
However, because the walls are built with concrete and steel, adding or relocating windows or doors is both difficult and expensive once the initial pour is complete.
It is a process that requires builders do it right the first time. When that happens, proponents say the results are unmatched in construction.
``You immediately know that something different is going on when you get inside,'' Hahn said. ``Maybe you're standing inside looking out the window and someone is mowing the lawn 8 feet from your window - but you can't hear it.
``I wanted something better than standard, stock construction. It's a cool system.''
ICFs have been a seemingly well-kept secret for 40 years. But makers say their time is now.
``We tried to keep it a secret and did a really good job,'' Watson quipped. ``Now the word's getting out.''