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Concrete Homes
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

The new movie thriller, ?Panic Room,? provides a sightline dead on tract testimonial to the ?Safe Room??a room fortified with steel doors and anchored to a home?s foundation for protection against security breaches and natural weather disasters. While the action in ?Panic Room? moves at lightening pace against the backdrop of an old and luxurious four-story upper West Side New York house, the true story about the construction industry that builds safe rooms and safe houses reads more like a lonely stroll down a country road. In fact, a budding building industry just waits for the public to come even though plenty of buying incentives are in place and new products are being made available.

?It?s a very slow industry,? said Randall Hall at Royal Oaks Custom Homes. ?I think most of the people out in the rural areas, where they?re much more susceptible to tornadoes, have accepted it more than the ones in the city. And builders don?t want to change. They are selling everything they can build right now in a wood frame construction. So, why should they try to go with something different? Unless consumer demands it, they?re not changing.?

So goes the story of ICF?insulating concrete forms?basically a sandwich block of expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam), which accommodates rebar (steel poles) every 16 inches or so and poured concrete. ICF walls can withstand the tornado like impacts of Two-by-Four?s shot from a canon, in simulation tests at Texas Tech, according to Hall. And Internet testimonials by homeowners describe the hurricanes and tornadoes that their ICF homes have stood up against.

However, for Hall, an ICF distributor who came to Dallas about six years ago to join other ICF product distributors in the area, business remains about the same year after year. Yet, his enthusiasm for the product never wavers.

?If I built a home, that?s what I would build,? Hall said. ?It?s just so much more superior, long term, that it?s got to be the way to go.?

?It?s an incredible construction, one that we?re considering for ourselves,? said Travis Wilson, State Farm Insurance agent that offers premium discounts for ICF homeowners.

?It?s very, very simple to install these forms,? Hall said. ?We generally would hold a training session of about four hours before they (construction crew) start. The forms snap together almost like Legos and interlock like a brick with the course on top overlapping the joint below it.? ICF comes in various thickness of concrete, 4-inch wall, 6-inch wall, 8-inch wall or 12-inch wall. Add 2 and 5/8th inches of polystyrene on the inside and outside of the concrete, and what you have is a wall between 9 inches and 17 inches thick?before adding brick, stone, or any other type siding.

?Outside, nobody would ever know the difference,? Hall said. ?It?s just a matter of designing the house and allowing for the extra thickness of the walls. But you?re only talking about the outside walls.? Interior walls may be conventional or ICF.

Construction time for ICF walls, depending on the size of the house, is comparable to it?s wood frame counterpart?a day and a half or so for a small house, maybe a week for a large house with lots of corners and turns, according to Hall. Cost, however, is about 5% more.

?I think maybe in long term, they?re going to be cheaper,? Hall said. ?But when you go to a high efficiency air conditioning unit, it?s always more expensive at first. Later on it starts paying back.?

The first payback is a 20% savings on a homeowner?s State Farm Insurance policy, according to Wilson. Then start adding up the heating/cooling energy savings.

?I?ve talked to several people who have homes 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, built on the same construction, and their highest bill in the summer is $80,? Travis said. ?It?s like living in an igloo. In fact, the savings are so great that homeowners using ICF built construction can qualify for a larger home simply because of the low cost energy, which is taken into account for calculating the mortgage.

Energy Efficient Mortgages are available for most home loans, including government FHA and VA, conventional, Portfolio and Jumbo, and they are available through the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae, and GMAC according to the Cement and Concrete Promotion Council of Texas. And there is more good news with a pending Energy Efficiency Tax Credit in Congress, according to RESNET (Residential Energy Services Network).

With so many incentives for ICF building, indeed, there are homes?some very large?that have been built in the Park Cities, Preston Hollow, and North Dallas. Many of these homes have steel frame construction, according to Hall. Almost every roof, however, has been constructed with wood frame or steel frame construction

As far as tornado and hurricane safety is concerned, Jerry Cleveland, president of Nuway Construction, Inc., would like to build fewer of these hybrid homes, as he calls them, and more all-concrete ICF homes with ICF roofs. So, he is experimenting.

?I?ve got this roof system that is brand new,? Cleveland said. Using e-Form blocks by Reward Wall (, concrete waterproofed with Admix by Zypex (, Miracle Coating waterproof exterior surface, and a waterproof sealer to cover the Miracle Coating, Cleveland says he can successfully pour a concrete roof up to a maximum slope of 45-degrees. Cleveland has yet to build such a total-concrete home in Dallas but has plans for a sloped roof on a large ICF home in Houston and a flat Santa Fe style roof for an ICF house at Lake Possum Kingdom.

After several tornadoes hit the Dallas area (even before the premiere of ?Panic Room), a variety of ICF rooms have become popular.

?We?re finding some people buying these forms to use them to build basements,? Hall said. ?Basements have always been hard thing to build (in the Dallas area). But ICF allows crews to pour a basement that?s water proof and then leave it in place.?

?If you?re building a safe room, it would probably be a little difficult to put one of these rooms into an existing house,? Hall said. ?But if you were building a new house, this would be the way to go?build all four walls of a room or closet, or the room could be used as a wine cellar. It becomes a purpose room for certain things that would be ideal to have that type of control over. But it becomes a safe room when you need it.?

So, consider the idea of sipping a glass of wine in an ICF wine cellar/safe room or watching a movie in an ICF home theater/ Panic-Room. By the way, ICF soundproofs rooms, completely.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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