Category Archives: MATERIALS + METHODS

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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Things are Heating Up

Sean Meehan, Architect, LEED AP, ADMG

Yes, the June gloom is officially gone as Southern California enters our true summer of extensive sunshine and hot temperatures.  Of course (especially here at the beach), it’s nothing like the recent heat wave which has gripped most of the south and central US.

But it’s not the temperatures I’m referring to in the title of this article.  I’m talking about fire season.  After the recent 1 million+ acres of wildfire in Arizona, including the biggest single wildfire in state history, communities everywhere need to be aware of proper home fire safety.  While most of the population in California doesn’t fall into a Very High Fire Area Severity Zone or a Wildland/Urban Interface Area and the the Code-required construction requirements that go with them, there are basic measures that we can all take on our property to protect it in the case of fire.

The basics of exterior home fire protection are simple:

1.  Defensible Space – ‘Defensible Space’ is defined by CAL FIRE as ‘the buffer you create between a building on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs or any wildland area that surround it’.  This means 30’ of clear area immediately surrounding the home, and in rural areas another 70’ of ‘reduced fuel’ area to give the house 100’ of defensible space.

2.  ‘Harden’ your home – Fires spread to and between structures primarily by burning embers carried by the wind.  ‘Hardening’ your home means using fire-resistant/non-combustible materials for the exterior finishes.  This will resist the ignition of your home in the event of a fire in the area.  The roof and its related elements are the most vulnerable surfaces and non-combustible materials such as clay tile, metal panels or fiberglass shingles are preferred over wood or conventional paper-backed asphalt shingles.

There are many other guidelines, tips and checklists available to help increase wildland fire safety.  Here is a nice, easy to navigate website with home wildfire safety measures from CAL FIRE.

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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!

TRAVEL LODGE HOTEL – http://inhabitat.com/travelodge-shipping-container-hotel/

HOMES – http://designcrave.com/2009-06-22/10-brilliant-boxy-and-sustainable-shipping-container-homes/

HOMES II – http://www.modernhomeidea.com/search/shipping+container+housing

AFFORDABLE HOUSING – http://www.sgblocks.com/project-case-studies/home-depot-foundation/

MILITARY – http://www.sgblocks.com/project-case-studies/fort-bragg/

MULTI-FAMILY – http://www.containernation.com/project-utah.php

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People that Live in Glass Houses…

Glass technologies

Sean Meehan, LEED AP, ADMG

I recently had to move an old 37” cathode-ray tube television set down a couple flights of stairs, and my back is still recovering.  Fortunately, glazing and glass display technologies have made incredible advancements in recent years, and will likely feature heavily (but weigh less) in the built environment of the future.

I keep encountering electrochromic glazing in hotels, allowing users to control the privacy or shading function of their glazing with the flip of a switch.  While ‘smart window’ technology has been around for some time, the low quality and high price of the technology has generally precluded its widespread use.  But as the technology has matured and energy costs have risen, the incentive to make glazing do more for the building is finally becoming persuasive.

Even more innovative ideas appear to be on the horizon.  Smart glazing will likely be advanced so that it won’t just block the sun, but will incorporate solar panels to harness electricity and offset energy costs.  Another potential application is the addition of OLED lighting into glazing, allowing it to serve as a window during the day, and a light fixture at night.  Add in possible uses in the transportation sector – automotive, public transportation and aircraft glazing, and the opportunities appear to be endless.

The one application where we have all experienced recent advancements in glass technology is the touchscreen.  This application in our computing and smartphone devices has revolutionized the efficiency and simplicity of these devices, and touchscreen technologies may have a myriad of uses in the future.  Check out this recent, rather corny video from Corning (pun intended), showing some of the possibilities for the future:

A Day Made of Glass

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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.

http://www.conspectusinc.com/downloads/Documents/publications-download-TT-C1010-3.htm

http://www.steelframing.org/sfa_howto.shtml

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Keeping Up with Materials, Methods, and Everything Else in the AEC World

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA

The other day I found myself in Target to pick up a couple of things.  As I stood and stared blankly at a wall of toilet paper nearly the size of the climbing wall at my local gym, I could not help but feel a bit overwhelmed.  Do we really need 25 different kinds of toilet paper, in 15 different package sizes in order to complete what might be the most basic of human tasks?  Because of my profession this got me thinking about just how many building products there on the market in this day and age, if they are all really needed, and just how to absorb all the information.  It is daunting enough for a full time professional, so what about owners and facility managers who wish to make informed decision for their projects?  Luckily there are some good ways to keep up with the ever growing market.

20 year ago there were not as many options in building materials, let alone methods and techniques for using them. Today many large firms employ full time people, known as ‘Materials and Resources Managers,’ just to oversee this effort.  However, for smaller firms (yes like ADMG) it can become overwhelming and honestly too expensive. Still, it is our goal to always offer our clients the best possible solutions for each project.  We of course like to use new materials and methods technologies where appropriate and cost effective, and have found several good ways to stay on top of this information and make it a manageable task. The following ideas help us, and can also help our clients, keep up with trends in the design and construction industry:

BPM Select, http://www.bpmselect.com/

They claim to be the premier building products search engine and they just might be.  Just type in a word, anything really, and like Google it will pull you up products that match what you are looking for.  It is like a big online Sweets Catalog only better.

 

Hanley Wood University, www.hanleywooduniversity.com

Want to know more in depth information on building products, best practices for use and installation, and life-cycle information?  Look no further.  Hanley Wood University offers courses on all the above.  You can also earn continuing education credits.  Now, the spec book doesn’t become so daunting and you might even give your GC a tip or two.  Best of all it’s free.

Conspectus, Inc., www.conspectusinc.com

These guys are great and one of my personal favorites.  This Company writes specifications and puts out a greatly monthly Tech Tips and News Bulletin that you can subscribe to.  It covers all kinds of things from new methods, proper installation techniques, new products, and even contracts and administration information.  They tell you what works, what doesn’t, and what to avoid.

Finally, publications such as Architect Magazine, JLC (Journal of Light Construction), Construction Superintendent, various trade magazines, and of course, last but not least, this Newsletter you are currently reading also have great information that can help keep you current with all that is going on in the industry. These methods for staying ahead of the game are not only good for smaller offices, tradespersons, but especially for the owner who doesn’t do it every day.  Nothing better than a savvy informed owner to compliment his design and construction team in completing a successful project!  Now the tools are just a click away.

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Holiday Design and Construction How-Tos

During the holiday season, while the real world processes of design and construction frequently slow to a crawl, you can still get your architecture fix by scaling down operations and moving to alternate building materials.  Check out the following links for some useful DIY tips to build holiday cheer away from the office.

Are you sustainability-minded?  Looking to reduce/reuse/recycle some of your old Kenny G CD’s?  No worries, make a holiday wreath out of them:

http://www.diylife.com/2009/12/07/hownow-how-to-make-a-wreath-out-of-old-cds/

Perhaps you have a sweet tooth and have always wanted to design your own home.  Simply construct the holiday classic – how to build a gingerbread house:

http://www.bobvila.com/HowTo_Library/Building_a_Gingerbread_House-Miscellaneous_Decor-A1534.html

Or maybe you are the extreme outdoors type…build yourself a survival shelter out of nothing but frozen precipitation.  How to make an igloo (there is snow up on Mount Baldy):

http://www.thefarm.org/charities/i4at/lib2/igloo.htm

ADMG would like to extend our wishes to all for a happy and healthy holiday season!

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