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Insulating concrete forms

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Title: Insulating concrete forms  
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Insulating concrete forms

Insulating Concrete Form (ICF) is a system of formwork for reinforced concrete that stays in place as a permanent interior and exterior substrate for walls, floors, and roofs. The forms are interlocking modular units that are dry-stacked (without mortar) and filled with concrete. The forms lock together somewhat like Lego bricks and serve to create a form for the structural walls or floors of a building. ICF construction has become commonplace for both low rise commercial and high performance residential construction as more stringent energy efficiency and natural disaster resistant building codes are adopted.


The ICF construction technique was first developed in Europe following the second world war as an inexpensive and durable way to rebuild damaged structures. The first patent for an insulated stay-in-place formwork for concrete was registered in the early 1940s using recycled waste wood and cement as the insulating material. This patent was registered by August Shnell and Alex Bosshard in Switzerland. The first polystyrene ICF forms were developed in the late 1960s with the expiration of the original patent and the advent of modern foam plastics. Canadian contractor Werner Gregori filed the first patent for a foam concrete form in 1966 with a block "measuring 16 inches high by 48 inches long with a tongue-and-groove interlock, metal ties, and a waffle-grid core."[1]

The adoption of ICF construction has steadily increased since the 1970s though adoption was initially hampered by lack of awareness, building codes, and confusion caused by many different manufacturers selling slightly different ICF designs rather than focusing on industry standardization. ICF construction is now part of most building codes and accepted in most jurisdictions in the developed world.


ICFs are currently manufactured from any of the following materials:

Concrete is then pumped into the cavity to form the structural element of the walls. Usually reinforcing steel (rebar) is added before concrete placement to give the concrete flexural strength, similar to bridges and high-rise buildings made of concrete (see Reinforced concrete). Like other concrete formwork, the forms are filled with concrete in 1-foot to 12-foot "lifts" to manage the concrete pressure and reduce the risk of blowouts.

After the concrete has cured, the forms are left in place permanently, to provide a variety of benefits (which depends on material used):


Energy Efficiency

  • Minimal, if any, air leaks, which improves comfort and reduces heat loss compared to walls without a solid air barrier
  • High Thermal resistance (R-value) typically above 3 K·m²/W (in American customary units: R-17[3]); this results in saving energy compared with uninsulated masonry (see comparison)
  • Continuous Insulation without Thermal Bridges or 'insulation gaps' as is common in framed construction
  • Thermal mass, when used well and combined with passive solar design, can play an important role in further reductions in energy use, especially in climates where it's common to have outside temperatures swing above inside temperatures during the day and below at night


  • Insulating Concrete Forms create a structural concrete wall (either monolithic or post and beam) that is up to 10 times stronger than wood framed structures.
  • Structural integrity for better resistance to forces of nature, compared with framed walls.
  • The components of ICF systems (both the poured concrete and the material used to make the ICF itself) do not rot when they get wet.

Sound Absorption

ICF walls have much lower rates of acoustic transmission. Standard thickness ICF walls have shown sound transmission coefficients (STC) between 46 and 72 compared to 36 for standard fiberglass insulation and gypsum walls. The level of sound attenuation achieved is a function of wall thickness, mass, component materials and air tightness.

Fire Protection

ICF walls can have 4–6 hour fire resistance rating and negligible surface burning properties

Indoor Air Quality

ICF walls can regulate humidity levels, mitigate the potential for mold and facilitate a more comfortable interior while maintaining high thermal performance.

Environmentally Sensitive

ICF walls can be made with a variety of recycled materials that can lower the carbon footprint of the structure and minimize the environmental impact of the building.

Building process

ICF construction is less demanding to build with owing to its modular design. Less skilled labor can be employed to lay the ICF forms though careful consideration must be made when pouring the concrete to make sure it consolidates fully and cures evenly without cracking. Unlike traditional wood beam construction, no additional structural support other than temporary scaffolding is required for openings, doors, windows, or utilities though modifying the structure after the concrete cures requires special concrete cutting tools.

Floors and Foundations

ICF walls are conventionally placed on a monolithic slab with embedded rebar dowels connecting the walls to the foundation.

ICF decking is becoming an increasingly popular addition to general ICF wall construction. ICF decking weighs up to 40% less than standard concrete flooring and provides superior insulation. ICF decking can also be designed in conjunction with ICF walls to form a continuous monolithic structure joined together by rebar. ICF deck roofs are less common as it is difficult to pour concrete on an angled surface.[4]


ICF walls are constructed one row at a time, usually starting at the corners and working outward. End blocks are then cut to fit so as to waste the least material possible. As the wall rises blocks are staggered to avoid long vertical seams which can weaken the polystyrene formwork.[5] Structure frames known as bucks are placed around openings to give added strength to the openings and serve as attachment points for windows and doors.

Interior and exterior finishes/facades are affixed directly to the ICF surface or tie ends, depending on the type of ICF. Brick and masonry facades require an extended ledge or shelf angle at the main floor level, but otherwise no modifications are necessary. Interior ICF polystyrene wall surfaces have to be covered with gypsum drywall or other wall coatings.[6] During the first months immediately after construction, minor problems with interior humidity and polystyrene ICFs may be evident as the concrete cures and can damage the drywall. Dehumidification can be accomplished with small residential dehumidifiers or using the building's air conditioning system.

Depending on the experience of the contractor and their quality of work, improperly installed exterior foam insulation could be easy access for groundwater and insects. To help prevent these problems, some manufacturers make insecticide-treated foam blocks and promote installation of drainage sheeting and other methods for waterproofing. Drain tile is installed to eliminate any water problems.

Plumbing and conduit

Plumbing and electrical conduit can be placed inside the forms and poured into place, though settling problems could cause pipes to break, creating costly repairs. For this reason, plumbing and conduit are usually embedded directly into the foam before the wall coverings are applied. A hot knife is commonly used to create openings in the foam to lay piping and cabling, while ICFs made from other materials are typically cut/routered with simple carpentry tools.


The initial costs of using ICFs rather than conventional construction techniques is sensitive to the price of materials and labor but generally building using ICF can add 3 to 5 percent in construction cost over building using wood frame.[7] In most cases ICF construction will come in about 40% less than conventional (basement) construction because of the labor savings from combining multiple steps into one step. Above grade, ICF construction is typically more expensive, but when adding large openings, ICF construction becomes very cost effective. Large openings in conventional construction require large headers and supporting posts, whereas ICF construction reduces the cost because only reinforcing steel is needed directly around the opening.

ICF construction can allow up to 60% smaller heating and cooling units to service the same square footage which can cut the cost of the final house by an estimated $0.75 per square foot. So, the estimated net extra cost can be as much as $0.25 to $3.25.[8][9] ICF homes can also qualify for green tax incentives further lowering the costs through tax credits.

ICF houses are less expensive over time as they are more energy-efficient requiring less energy to heat and cool the same size space. Additionally insurance costs can be much lower as ICF homes are much less susceptible to earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fires, and other natural disasters. Maintenance and upkeep costs are also lessened as ICF homes do not contain wood which can rot over time.[10]


External links

  • Insulating Concrete Form Association (North America)
  • Insulating Concrete Formwork Association (UK)
  • US Housing and Urban Development on cost and benefit of ICF
  • ICF Insulated Concrete Home Construction
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