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Maximizing Energy Efficiency with Insulated Concrete Forms: A Comprehensive Guide

  • March 27, 2024

There are two things that everyone wants to save: time and money. Insulated concrete forms (ICFs) help you do both.

This guide will share everything you need to know to maximize efficiency in your next commercial project using ICFs. 

Contents:

1. What Are Insulated Concrete Forms?

2. What Are the Benefits of Using ICF?

3. Are There Any Disadvantages to Using ICF?

4. The Best Commercial Applications for ICF

5. The Process of Creating a Structure With Insulated Concrete Forms

6. Conclusion

What Are Insulated Concrete Forms?

ICFs are an alternative to traditional formwork made from polystyrene foam hollow blocks held together with a webbing of plastic, metal, or additional insulation.

The material can either be expanded polystyrene foam or extruded polystyrene foam.

Concrete is poured into these forms to create a robust and insulated structure. 

Unlike traditional wood-frame formwork that is used as a temporary mold for the concrete, these blocks interlock to create a permanent form that is not removed, becoming part of the structure itself. 

The Types of ICF Systems

There are several different categories of insulated concrete form systems that can be used to create an ICF wall. 

Of course, ICF blocks will vary from one manufacturer to the other. Some may offer thicker foam — providing more insulation — but this is reflected in the price.

Other companies have taken the time to create a patented block system emphasizing ease of installation.

Flat

A flat ICF system has the same thickness of concrete throughout the wall. Although it uses more concrete than the other systems, flat walls offer a greater variety of rebar placement.

This means you can adjust your rebar to meet your required structural loading capacity. 

Another benefit of flat systems is the simplicity of window and door frame insulation, since the concrete doesn’t change throughout the wall.

Grid

With a grid system, the ICF walls have a concrete thickness that varies in a waffle pattern. This technique, as well as the post-and-beam system, uses less concrete to fill. However, they require more skill to construct correctly and have more limitations. 

Post-and-Beam

As you would expect, this system consists of posts and beams of concrete encapsulated in foam insulation. Although this provides more EPS insulation, the lack of concrete reduces the thermal mass and strength of the structure. 

What Are the Benefits of Using ICF?

ICF construction offers so many benefits that even homeowners are starting to look into it. However, it best serves the commercial sector for these reasons:

1. Strength and Durability

ICF buildings can withstand higher vertical and horizontal forces, creating a stronger structure than its alternatives.

In fact, ICF structures have been proven to survive more tornados, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Needless to say, ICF structures can easily meet natural disaster-resistant building codes.

For flat wall systems, you can even add more rebar to the interior of the ICF to provide more strength with reinforced concrete.

ICF blocks are also resistant to mold, rot, mildew, pests, and fire, which can’t be said about wood-frame walls.

2. Quicker, Easier Build

ICF forms connect together fast and don’t need to be removed, cutting out steps for both interior and exterior construction.

Most brands are universally interlocking and reversible, meaning that it doesn’t matter which way the form is flipped. This saves even more time in construction over trying to find the right side to connect. 

With ICF forms, there is no need to install an air barrier or vapor barrier. These are included in the blocks themselves. 

However, below-grade ICF walls will require waterproofing, which is usually as simple as applying a peel-and-stick membrane.

ICF blocks are also light, making them easy to transport to the job site and simple to erect.

Steel weld or bolt plates can be installed into the formwork while the concrete is wet so that it is embedded and ready for steel floor joists.

3. Faster, Better Curing

Most poured concrete is difficult to cure in the wintertime. With ICF, you can pour any time of year.

Concrete pours cure faster in an ICF form to provide reinforcement for the rest of the structure, allowing construction to proceed earlier than normal. 

Insulation protects the concrete while it cures, cutting out air bubbles and weaknesses that can cause cracks.

4. Sound Resistance

Due to the high amount of insulation, ICF walls provide a greater sound resistance than other walls. This results in a quieter building and offers greater privacy. 

Hopefully, shouting won’t be a regular part of your business, but if you are working with loud equipment, ICF is one of the best construction materials you can use. 

5. Energy Efficiency

energy-efficiency

The air tightness, thermal mass, and insulation provided by ICF blocks create a higher thermal resistance.

The R-value of ICF is almost 60% higher than wood frame construction. Thicker forms with a higher R-value are available for colder climates.

Thermal bridging from the continuous insulation provides energy savings, which we’ll discuss in detail later.

6. Healthier Air Quality

ICF is made from non-toxic materials, reducing harmful emissions. These blocks are also resistant to mold, which is bad to inhale. 

When installed correctly, ICF walls are air-tight, preventing the infiltration of: 

  • Pollen
  • Dust
  • Dust mites
  • Pollutants

All these factors make the air quality inside an ICF building healthier for humans.

7. Cost-Efficient

ICF structures are a smart use of funds because the ongoing expenses to use the building will be cheaper. Since these buildings are so strong and durable, you save money on maintenance and repairs. 

You’ll also spend less on concrete, since ICF requires less of it than traditional concrete walls.

Read more: Mastering Construction Budgeting: A Comprehensive Guide

8. Sustainable

ICF structures are said to last over 100 years. 

Also, paired with solar panels, buildings using insulated concrete forms are considered net-zero, meaning that they produce enough renewable energy that it does not need to use non-renewable sources.

Not only that, but many ICF blocks contain recycled materials. 

Are There Any Disadvantages to Using ICF?

Plainly said, the initial cost of constructing an ICF building is higher than other options. However, this is usually offset by the savings you’ll see in energy bills alone. 

Another disadvantage of choosing insulated concrete forms for your commercial building is that changing the structure in the future, such as adding another window or door, is more complicated. 

The Best Commercial Applications for ICF

Although ICF is a very versatile building material that can be used in almost every industry, there are specific fields that would benefit the most from its unique properties. 

Medical Facilities

medical-facilities

Hospitals, clinics, and treatment facilities benefit significantly from using ICF, especially considering their need for a sterile, quiet, and private environment. 

The insulation keeps the hospital quiet from outdoor traffic, and the improved air quality helps to reduce the spread of toxins, pollen, and other air pollutants to patients. 

Hospitals are often chosen to serve as community shelters during emergencies as well. When built with ICF, these shelters are even more protective than ever. 

Warehouses 

In warehousing where climate control is needed, owners often find it challenging to do so in such a large square-foot building. 

As we’ve discussed, ICF helps to keep the internal temperature from fluctuating, saving business owners both costs in energy expenditure and loss of inventory due to inadequate temperature control. 

Hotels and Apartments

In multi-family domiciles, such as apartments and hotels, ICF reduces noise transfer from one room to the next. 

This allows for more privacy and the ability for comfortable and undisturbed sleeping.  ICF also saves property owners on energy costs and makes residents or customers safer during a fire.

Institutions

Schools, colleges, universities, and churches also greatly benefit from using ICF for their building material. 

With so many people coming in and out, safety is always a priority. In the case of a natural disaster, students will be safer in the institution than anywhere else. 

Also, the noise from so many individuals in different classrooms and settings will be controlled — not to mention the savings to heat and cool such a large space. 

The Process of Creating a Structure With Insulated Concrete Forms

The initial preparation for building with ICF isn’t very different than that of a traditional concrete structure.

  1. First is site prep. This includes excavating, leveling, and compacting the soil. 
  2. Next, you’ll need to install the footing to support the structure and distribute the load across the area.
  3. Then, create a solid level of concrete as a foundation to lay the ICF blocks. 
  4. Stack the first row directly onto the footing, starting with the corners first.
  5. Glue ICF blocks to the footing with spray foam every few feet. Corner blocks come specially shaped to fit into the 90-degree angle in one piece. This provides a more solid corner, preventing cracks and shifting after the concrete is poured. 
  6. Next, place the straight blocks coming from the corner to the middle of the wall. Make sure to connect each block snugly using clips to attach the webbing.
  7. Place horizontal rebar on the top of the webbing of each layer to provide reinforcement. 
  8. Stack the second layer offset by reversing the corner blocks. These corner blocks have one side that is slightly longer than the other.
  9. Stack the second layer onto the first layer like Legos. Always ensure the wall is plumb and level before moving on to the next layer.
  10. Keep stacking and reversing the corner blocks until you have your desired wall height. 
  11. Insert frames for doors and windows at necessary stages by cutting measured sections from blocks and leaving open space. 
  12. Bolt or weld plates will need to be installed where joists will be placed so that a secure connection can be made. The concrete will dry around these plates, providing a firm support to hold joists. 
  13. Next, insert plumbing, gas, and electrical chases or sleeves where needed by cutting holes through the insulation. Once the concrete is poured, these sleeves will provide a way to run pipes and wires into the interior.
  14. Don’t forget to cut holes for the utility boxes. 
  15. You are now ready to install vertical reinforcements and bracing around the entire structure. This bracing holds forms during the pour to keep the walls plumb but also allows for adjustment if the wall does shift.
  16. Pump concrete into the forms, four feet at a time.
  17. Vibrate the concrete internally with a mechanical vibrator to remove any air bubbles. 
  18. Level off the concrete at the top block and wet set anchor bolts to attach trusses to support the roof. 

Conclusion

The benefits of using ICF in commercial construction are numerous and substantial. If you choose to do so, it is imperative that you find an experienced professional to be your builder.

Contact FMP Construction for your next ICF build. We have enjoyed building with ICF and are ready to tackle the ever-growing ICF industry and steps involved.

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