Author Archives: Ryan Davis

About Ryan Davis

Principal at the ADMG Companies an architecture and construction firm in Orange County, CA. Adventurer, avid reader, country fan, and paratrooper.

Building with Foam Legos – The Debate on Building with Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs)

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

Insulated Concrete Forms

The title of this article is not misleading in the least.  They really do look like giant foam Legos.  Insulated Concrete Forms, or ICFs, have been around for a long time.  Originally developed in post WW II Europe as an inexpensive and durable way to rebuild, the ICF has evolved over the years.  The ICF has really come into prominence in today’s “green building” era and has been used as a successful building component in many modern day structures.

A better understanding of their capabilities, inclusion in most modern building codes, and more choices in manufacturers has contributed to their rising popularity since the 1970’s.  However, classifying them as a sustainable building method/material is widely contested.  Also debatable is their cost effectiveness, practicality, and suitability.  This article aims to explore some of the pros and cons of ICFs as well as explain why there may be no single correct answer.

The ICF is a modular, structural building material much like a concrete masonry unit, the most popular size being 12”-18” high and 48”-96” long.  The thickness varies anywhere from 4”-over 20” depending on concrete fill width and layers/thickness of foam.  The most popular type of ICF is made from polystyrene foam (extruded or expanded), though other materials are available.  Think of a dixie cup, only thicker, and you have the idea.  The blocks are hollow to allow for a solid concrete fill and have webbing inside that provides for a consistent shape and rigidity, while also allowing for the attachment of reinforcing bars and finishes.  The foam is not stripped like traditional concrete forms and remains in place as an assembly component after the concrete is placed inside.

Pros of ICFs

  • They speed up construction in the early phases and can be placed and manipulated much easier than traditional formwork.  They are very easy to handle and transport.
  • The foam increase insulation value or R value.  Polystyrene is far superior to traditional fiberglass type batt insulation in this regard.  The building envelope is also much tighter than traditional framing thus reducing heat loss/gain.
  • Concrete as a building material creates extremely strong, quiet, mold/fire resistant structures that can last hundreds of years.
  • As stated above the use of concrete is superior in areas with earthquake and hurricane concerns.
  • The thermal mass of concrete, or ability to retain and dissipate heat, is much better than in wood or steel.  This is a major factor in sustainable “passive design.”  Simplified:  not using fuels for heating and cooling comfort.
  • Depending on the ICF used you can greatly reduce the comparable amount of concrete needed in a standard poured-in-place monolithic wall.
  • Plumbing and electrical can be done at almost any time in the construction schedule and not just while walls are open.  This may also make remodeling easier.

Cons of ICFs

  • Polystyrene is made up of many different chemicals (mostly petrochemicals) that have a high toxicity level. The fire retardant coating HBDC (hexabromocyclododecane) used on polystyrene has been deemed by the EUs REACH program as chemical of “very high concern.”
  • The thickness of the walls means that on very tight sites (even some not so tight) you are losing interior square footage (and paying for it anyway) by virtue of the walls being thicker than typical 2×6 or 2×4 construction.
  • Embodied energy, or the energy needed to extract, produce, transport, maintain, dispose of and/or replace a given material.  Mining concrete aggregates, transporting concrete and manufacturing foam all consume a lot of energy.  Thus the higher the embodied energy the higher the carbon footprint.
  • There is an argument that the significance of the thermal mass benefits of concrete, when sandwiched between foam, is negligible or not fully realized (see pros above).
  • The recyclability of a reinforced concrete and foam assembly is much less than that of a wood framed assembly.
  • The construction costs for ICF walls as compared to conventional framing can be double in most cases.  The argument is that you make this money back through energy savings or through intangibles such as better overall occupant comfort.
  • Plumbing and electrical costs may increase because of the unconventional way it is installed (see pros above).

As you can see from the above pros and cons there is a big split among experts as to the usefulness and practicality of using ICFs.  The product is most often marketed today as a sustainable building alternative.  This claim is based on the fact that over the building’s lifecycle there is a huge saving in energy costs due to the reduced need for mechanical heating and cooling.  However, green building experts (and pundits) point to the fact that ICFS still have a large carbon footprint by virtue of their embodied energy and also contain harmful chemicals.  How “green” can this really be?  Not to mention there are many other methods of creating a reduced need for fuel consuming mechanical systems.   Using passive design or better conventional building materials and technologies (and craftsmanship) are just some of the ways.

If you take the sustainability factor out of the equation and look at ICFs from a practical standpoint there is still no clear winner.  It comes down to one of the basic tenants of architecture and that is, the design, material and methods must be appropriate to the site and the end user.  You can debate all day as to the virtues and evils of ICFs but the fact is they are useful in CERTAIN circumstances.  They have been proven to greatly increase energy savings, withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes, and without a doubt create a structurally sound and quiet living environment that can last a very long time.

Consulting a professional is the first step in any good building design.  Contractors tend to build with what they are comfortable with and make them money and manufacturers, of course, want to sell their products.  A good architect’s highest priority should be that of protecting the owner’s best interests and designing in a responsible effective manner.  This priority would definitely include deciding whether using ICFs is appropriate for you and your next project!

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Restaurant Design Considerations: Front-of-the-house

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

Great restaurant design is a delicate and thoughtful balance of design ideas, technical considerations, and operational concerns.  Each is orchestrated and integrated in order to create an overall customer experience, from the minute he or she sets sight on the building to the moment when they step back outside.  The following are some points to consider when thinking about the design of your facility.

Exterior Image

  • Preconditioned expectations can be overcome by presenting an image that is beyond expectation.  Just because you are a cafeteria style establishment doesn’t mean you need to look like a high school cafeteria!
  • The façade must stand out.  Use of iconic elements such as a particular roof style, particular colors, use of images and symbols make your establishment stand out and memorable.  The gambrel roof of Dairy Queen or the Pizza Hut red roof is recognizable no matter where you are.  What is your icon?
  • The importance of signage is paramount.  With today’s printing and manufacturing technologies signage is affordable and just about anything imaginable in possible.  Signage if often the most recognizable element of any establishment.  Make sure it is given careful consideration from the start.
  • Landscaping can communicate levels of formality.  Appropriateness is determined by image, price level, screening needs, and climate of the establishment.


  • Solid facades vs. opaque or transparent.  Glass doors vs. solid wood and the hardware used. Graphics, vestibules, detailing.  Each offers a very distinct impression and all play an important role in your customer’s arrival experience.


  • The placement of a hostess immediately upon entry is not always the answer.  The customer expectation of greeting is linked to the psychology of service type and must be carefully considered.  Whether or not a waiting area included is another consideration, and whether or not it is just for waiting or used as a secondary sales area.  Lighting and temperature control must be thoughtful especially in colder climates.

Seating, Tabletop, Napery, Flatware, China, Glassware

  • All must be appropriate to the aesthetic, service level, durability, workflow, the list goes on.  Ergonomics are of utmost importance, especially at the bar.  Careful considerations of dining sight lines, floor materials, table mix, and materials are the keys to success.  Avoid gimmicks and novelties and leave room for flexibility and change as operations evolve!

Walls, Ceilings, Floors and Lighting

  • The walls define space, provide interest and function in areas of acoustics, display and storage.  Consider materials, colors, detailing and heights carefully, as well as durability and protection.  Ceilings are too often neglected and must be thoughtful.  Carefully weigh material decisions with mechanical and lighting requirements, acoustics, and space/volume considerations.  Ceilings can have a dramatic effect when done properly. Flooring should be easily cleaned and maintained, be safe and durable while still aesthetically pleasing.  Consider life cycle costs, acoustics, and safety!  Finally lighting; direct vs. indirect, zoning, ease of operation, energy efficiency and power requirements must be analyzed.  Not to mention the possibility of breaking the budget if you are not careful!

Above are some basic points to consider when working with the design team on your next dining establishment.  The points are basic at best and hopefully provoke thought.  The most important thing to remember is that each is important and must be considered, weighed, balanced and integrated to ensure the success of your operations!


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ADMG Completes Unique High-End Sports Bar

Sportswatch Bar and Grill designed by ADMG in affiliation with Curtis Architecture, Phoenix, AZ.   The project is a tenant improvement of a 8,100 SF retail space in San Manuel Village, Highland, CA.  The one of a kind restaurant was constructed by Near-Cal Corp. General Contractors.

The following post if from:

San Manuel Village, neighbor to San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino, is adding some iron and grit to its restaurant scene. The Sportswatch Bar & Grill is opening its doors, and turning on its giant screens Saturday, June 18 at 11 a.m.

The 8,000 square-foot restaurant is aiming to become the premier sports watching venue, outside of the actually stadium, in the I.E. The bar and grill boasts 54 HDTVs, of which four are larger than 100 inches. The main dining room will seat 300 people, with an additional 32 at the bar, 40 on the patio, and a 32 seat private dining room.

Chef Joe Ledesma adds his own twist on the classic sport bar menu, taking the traditional American dishes, and adding high end products to them, such as his Lobster Corn Dogs. The bar will house 32 taps, with 26 micro-brews, including a local favorite from Redlands, Hangar 24.

In addition to great food, drinks, and of course, the live sports, the bar will be decorated with rare memorabilia from SoCal sports teams, like the Dodgers, Lakers, USC, UCLA, and even some items from Inland high schools.

The Sportswatch Bar & Grill will be open 7 days a week, with the kitchen open until midnight Sunday through Wednesday, and 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Saturday’s grand opening will feature a t-shirt give-away and coupons for future visits. Fernando Valenzuela, legendary Dodgers pitcher, will be there to sign autographs for guests at 11:30 a.m.

The Sportswatch Bar & Grill is located at 27961 Highland Avenue in the San Manuel Village, just down the road from San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino.


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So You Want to Become a Licensed Architect Eh?

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

Recently I was discussing professions with a couple close friends of mine.  It is understood by most, if not all, that professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers undergo rigorous education and testing to attain the right to practice their respective professions.  The Bar Exam or medical boards come to mind.  What most people don’t know is that architects do the same.  It can even be argued maybe a little more than most.

The process of becoming a licensed architect starts with an education and a degree in architecture.  Professional undergraduate degrees consist of five years of college study.  That’s right, five years, not your typical 4.  Licensing usually requires a Master’s degree as well (unless you complete more intern hours, see below) so that’s another two years (or three if you only have a four year degree) so you are looking at a total of six-seven years of university study.

So now you have graduated with your degree and want to take a licensing exam to be an architect, but wait, not so fast.  First you must fulfill the requirements of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).  This consists of working under the direct supervision of a licensed architect for a time to gain the necessary experience.  It is much like a residency in medicine.   The requirements are currently 5,600 hours of intern work divided over many different training area requirements (see image).  You can double those hours if you only have a four year degree…

All of the hours required above must be thoroughly documented and signed off and submitted to the Board for review and compilation.  Once you have worked for the necessary number of years and fulfilled your hours, NCAARB will let you take your exams.  Yes, I said exams plural.  There are currently seven exams (eight if you live in California).

The exams are lengthy and costly.  They can be taken in any order.  If you fail one you wait at least six months to re-test, thus pushing your dream of licensure back even more.  The required exams are:  Programming, Planning & Practice (4 hours), Site Planning & Design (4.5 hours), Building Design & Construction Systems (5.5 hours), Schematic Design (6 hours), Structural Systems (5.5 hours), Building Systems (4 hours), Construction Documents & Services (4 hours), California Supplemental Exam (3.5 hours) TOTAL = 37 HOURS OF EXAMS.

Now, you have your degree, fulfilled thousands of intern hours, taken 37 hours of examinations and passed; now you can apply for licensure in California.  This process can take many people 5-10 years to complete. Now you can start making the big bucks.  Not quite. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that starting salaries for architects is often 50% lower as compared to other professionals (lawyers, etc.).  That said, it is a long road to the top for the design professional.

A quick side note:  my general contractor’s license exams took me a total of three hours, two exams taken the same day and passed the same day.  I submitted one experience form to the State showing my construction experience.  No degree was required.  I was a licensed contractor in a matter of months.  Recently ENR released the top construction firms and Bechtel topped the list with $19.7 billion in 2010 revenues.  The top architecture firm came in at about 9% of that of that number… good luck with those architecture school student loans!


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Mi Cocina Restaurant Opens

ADMG Design Creates Unique Dining Experience

A little over a year from starting initial design studies, Mi Cocina Restaurant opens in San Manuel Village, Highland, CA.

Please see linked article for details.

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Shipping Container Architecture

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

You have seen it before.  We are talking about the intermodal container or standard steel shipping container.  Today these common reusable freight containers are being used as single family homes, hotels, multi-family housing, barracks, classrooms, and emergency relief structures with unbelievable results.  Although this is not a new concept, it has been slow to catch on in the United States, especially in the private commercial sector.

A typical shipping container is 8’ wide x 8’ high x 20’ or 40’ long (320 SF of floor area at 40’ lengths) and stackable up to 9 units high.  They also come in dimensions up to 56’ long and heights up to 9’-6”.  The price for a typical sized container is only $1,500 making it very economical for construction purposes.  Their inherent strength, earthquake resistance, weatherproof nature and availability makes them an ideal modular structural component or as a whole standard accommodation unit.

On the construction side, projects utilizing containers have shown to cut construction time by 40% and costs up to 20% or more.  They are particularly suited to tight urban areas and infill projects.  The container can be clad with any standard building material making them virtually undetectable as containers!  If that is not enough, they work well for temporary sites as they can easily be dismantled, moved, and reassembled.

The ‘green’ side of the story is that by reusing some of the millions of used containers worldwide you can save energy and resources by recycling and reusing the container.  The alternative is to dispose of re-melt these containers using vast amounts of energy and/or land resources. Many of the projects utilizing the containers achieve very high LEED ratings compared to standard construction.

Given the high price of land in SoCal and the limited amount of it that is available, it may make sense to utilize the modular container method of construction.  The ability to build fast, cheap, and green, while still being able to have an appealing aesthetic, makes it almost a no brainer.  Not to mention the Port of Long Beach contains thousands of these containers every day!

The concept is far from mainstream.  Compared to the relative number of architects and engineers in Southern California, those utilizing the container concept are very small and may contribute to the lack of use.  ADMG will begin further research into the feasibility of such methods for its clients this summer.

While the jury is still out on containers, we have included links to some outstanding projects utilizing the modular container method for you to decide!








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Programming – Criteria Development Consultant

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

What does my proposed new facility need to include?  This is one of the most daunting questions an owner has to answer. The problem is that most organizations and businesses do not have the ability to allocate the required time and resources into exploring this question. Or, they do not have staff that is trained in preparing and organizing this type of technical information. The end result is usually a lot of wasted time (and dollars) spent with a design professional starting at square one to develop the standard from the bottom up.  Worse yet, is getting to opening with a building that does not fully meet your needs!

At the heart of the question lie all the requirements for a building to function properly for its intended end use.  These requirements do not only include the structural and aesthetic considerations, but more importantly the “programmatic elements” or the various pieces, such as different functional spaces that make up the “whole.”

A client may approach an architect or engineer and spend a lot of time trying to determine the spaces a building requires, their sizes, the seating, storage, the adjacency and circulation to other spaces, the mechanical, electrical and plumbing requirements, audio visual and the list goes on.  Figuring out what each pieces is, what its requirements are, how it fits in to the puzzle, and that it includes everything you intend is where a Criteria Development Consultant can come in.

The solution to this problem is to have a written standard of requirements, “criteria”, used as a guideline standard for your organization or business.  By doing this you can ensure all stakeholders have their say in the design process and that nothing is left out when it may be too late, too costly to redesign or even rebuild.

Before starting a new building project it may be a cost effective solution for your organization to talk with a Criteria Development Consultant. Handing off an approved written standard to a designer is a lot easier than trying to get all stakeholders on the same page, let alone the same room during design and construction.   Doing so just might save you a lot of time, money, and headaches down the road!


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Check Your Steel Studs

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

When it comes to steel stud framing for interior non-load bearing partitions it might be worth your time as an owner to take a second look at what your designer or contractor has specified.  It could save you some headaches down the road.  Throwing around 25 GA (18 mils) flimsy steel studs for your partitions is not always the right answer, and most often times not!

A junior project manager or draftsmen might take wall details and notes off an old set of drawings for a simple T.I. project that might not necessarily be what is correct for yours.  Something that is commonly overlooked is specifying the correct steel stud thickness, size, and spacing.

As an owner you might want to think about the following: Are my walls full height, demising or just above the ceiling?  What is the wall finish going to be; paint, stone veneer, how many layers of drywall?  What kind of sound attenuation am I seeking?  Does the wall contain any mechanical or plumbing?

Typically for any material other than a single layer of drywall each side you are going to want to go with something thicker than 25 GA (18 Mil). We usually specify nothing less than 20 GA (33 mils) for high end interiors. Also, Check to make sure the studs have the appropriate corrosion protection as required (galvanizing, G40, 60, 90) ASTM A653.  There are also many stud options, smooth, dimpled, high performance, each affecting strength, sound attenuation, and of course cost.  Finally make sure walls have the appropriate stud spacing.  Not all steel stud walls are 24” O.C. as some like to believe!

The specification of your steel stud framing can have dramatic effects on project cost, whether or not that expensive stone veneer on your wall cracks, whether or not can hear a conversation in the next room, and if you see a nice ghosting line on your expensive wall paint.  When it comes to steel stud framing it pays to be informed.

Here are some links for more information on steel stud framing.


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