ICF construction gaining ground after tornado
Source: The Joplin Globe - By Debby Woodin
JOPLIN, Mo. (January 31, 2012) - From the outside, Joplin’s west-side Kingdom Hall looks like a traditional building.
The brick exterior gives no hint of the use of a construction method called Insulating Concrete Forms, or ICF. Though it has been around for decades, it is gaining ground in Joplin since the May 22 tornado because of what advocates say is its ability to offer protection during a tornado, as well as its energy efficiency.
ICF construction uses Polyfoam blocks stacked together like Legos and reinforced with rebar and concrete. It can be seen before an exterior finish is applied at a house being built for tornado survivor Greg Palmersheim at 2827 E. 19th St.
Palmersheim said he isn’t using ICF construction strictly because of its ability to withstand tornadic winds. Its primary advantages are energy savings and sound deafening, he said, but it also can be used to build tornado-tough safe rooms or storm shelters.
“I was looking for lower operating costs,” Palmersheim said. He said the house also will be equipped with ground-source heating to further reduce his utility bills.
Kingdom Hall sold its former meeting site at 601 S. Schifferdecker Ave. to build a larger building at 1201 S. Schifferdecker Ave. to accommodate the increasing size of its two Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations.
A regional building committee for the Kingdom Halls across southern Missouri selects and oversees construction projects and remodeling. Tom Moore, an elder with the local congregation, said the committee chose ICF construction.
The committee has brought volunteers to Joplin every weekend since the historic May 22 storm to help with cleanup and recovery. The group chose ICF construction, Moore said, “because they saw all the destruction.”
Peace of mind
Also, the group uses volunteers for all construction projects, and the ICF method is one that can be handled by trained volunteers. Max Reser, who represents Sprouls Construction of Lamar, the area’s distributor for ARXX ICF products, trained the volunteers to construct the building. They started groundwork in October and had the building up to hold their first meeting in it on Jan. 1.
Inside, the congregation’s board room was constructed as a storm shelter with the ICF walls, a 6-inch concrete roof reinforced with two layers of steel and a steel door.
“It cost a little more but, for the peace of mind, we thought it was worth the little extra bit of money,” Moore said.
Building materials cost $300,000, and Moore said he believes that the ICF construction added only about $10,000 to the price, or a little more than 3 percent.
Palmersheim’s contractor, Morris Roberts of Premier Builders, has built houses for 35 years. The bulk of his business is traditional stick-built houses, but he has constructed about a dozen ICF houses in recent years.
A Carthage builder, Bob Cummins of Greninger Construction, has been an ICF builder for at least a decade. He has built an ICF garage at 20th Street and Florida Avenue in Joplin for a client who also will build a house there using ICF.
Cummins said he became sold on ICF when he was looking for new building products years ago.
“We were interested in the fact it’s what they now call a ‘green’ product,” he said. “It’s not a timber resource, which those resources are becoming harder to come by. We were looking for alternates, and with the energy savings, it’s a smart way to go.”
And, he’s seeing more interest as a result of the Joplin tornado and rising energy costs. “Everybody’s looking for something a little more stable, and this product meets that criteria,” Cummins said.
Used in Greensburg
Roberts said that while ICF is relatively new to the southern U.S. — gaining in popularity since it was used to rebuild homes in Greensburg, Kan., after a tornado in 2007 — it has been used in the North and in Canada for years.
Fire may be the downside of the construction method, according to the experts. Roberts said that if the foam burns or melts, it creates an odor that, even if the building could be repaired, can make it uninhabitable.
And ICF does cost more than traditional construction — from 2 percent to 10 percent, they say — but Roberts and Reser argue that the energy savings because of its insulating value recoup the added cost within five to 10 years. Utility bills can be reduced by up to half, Reser said.
The building technique is suitable for all types of commercial buildings, including hotels, office buildings and schools.
Moore said the Kingdom Hall headquarters wants to see the local congregation’s utility bills as time goes on.
He said there was no problem with building permits or inspections using the method.
“The city was very enthused,” he said. “They have been a dream to work with. They helped immensely.”
ERNST KIESLING, a professor of civil engineering at Texas Tech University, said that because of openings for windows and doors, it’s not advisable for the occupants of even a concrete home to assume that the entire home offers adequate protection during a tornado. He advocates putting a safe room or shelter into all homes, including those built with concrete. He also said that traditional stick-built homes, when built to Federal Emergency Management Agency standards and coupled with a safe room or shelter, will provide a “high degree” of safety for occupants.
BUT KIESLING AND OTHER EXPERTS also noted that one of the dangers from tornadoes is flying debris. His lab at Texas Tech has simulated the impact of an EF-5 tornado on residential structures by firing 15-pound two-by-fours into walls at 100 mph.
“ALL OF THE ONES WE’VE TESTED successfully passed the debris impact tests,” he said of the concrete homes.
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