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By Jeff in Boston, MA on 7/16/2007


I realize that this is a very broad subject matter to cover in a single post but I have some serious questions regarding the various materials available tot he owner-builder. I'm definitely going to be building a structure, as much on my own as I can, so I'm starting the initial process of feeling out the pros and cons of these materials.  This site has several blogs with folks building ICF homes (I have yet to read them, but I'll give them a look), but I've found little on AAC (autoclaved aerated concrete) homes.  Concrete block is...well, concrete block.  I've also searched the Internet for information regarding these materials, but unfortunately most sites are geared towards those in the building industry.  Many sites tout their method as the best, of course... but I want to know real-world owner-builder info.

What are the immediate costs and benefits to the owner-builder when using these methods?  I realize that lifetime savings will vary depending on how well the structure is built, especially the energy savings.  What are the difficulties in building with these units?  What's the best thing about using them?  Anything else that is a major drawback or selling point?  This structure would be built slowly, as you can imagine, seeing as most of it would be done by me.  I'm open to all points of view. 

My level of experience is not terribly high;  I've done construction work, but just the basics.  No cement work, mostly just basic framing, drywall, roofing, flooring, some plumbing, and some wiring.  No major structural work such as slabs, floor joists, masonry, or trusses.

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By Steven in MN on 7/19/2007


I am also looking to build soon.  I was wondering if anyone has experience with iron frame and steel sandwich panel building systems.  Mostly commercial, but I think it might be an affordable way to build a modern industrial residence.  Anyone?

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By Bret in Rhome, TX on 7/20/2007


Steve & Jeff,

I looked into ICF and will probably build my "final" OB house using it, the one I'm currently building is all steel framing from a kit, three truckloads of walls and trusses. I look at a nail and it bends, so steel and an electric drill with self-tapping screws was the way for me to go, I subbed out the slab/rough plumbing and actual asphalt shingles on roof, but everything in between has been me and the wife and a helper periodically. I've got 18 months into it and am dried in, in the process of doing electrical. At about 95% of elec finished, I never built anything except pole barns before this. I wouldn't recommend doing it my way unless you have time, I only get to work on it about one day a week, but I did not need a loan to build and so I have no time constraints. Anyways if I would have had about five guys and a four-wheel drive booming fork lift the whole house could have been framed including trusses in about three to four days.

 

Bret

 


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By Jon in Perrysburg, OH on 7/28/2007


I too am getting ready to build - - just waiting on a loan.  Here is what I am looking at doing:

ICF at least the basement, potentially the 1st and 2nd floor up to the eaves.  I have researched ICF, SIP and spray foam extensively and am in the process of hammering out my comparables.  Comparables are for two different construction  methods. 

1.  ICF all exterior walls excluding garage and bonus room above garage.  Bonus room would get expanded Icenyne foam under, above and around where stick framed.  All exterior walls are then insulated with the forms and hopefully would save me money while the interest clock is ticking.

2.  ICF foundation, stick frame 1st, 2nd and garage 2x4 walls with Icenyne foam all exterior walls above grade.

I really am sold on option #1, but am really making sure that this is cost effective.  I truly believe in energy efficiency - - not because of Al Gore, but saving me money in the long run.  Energy costs will surely go up, but one needs to take into account what time length the pay back will be.

In preliminary terms, this is what I have found:

Option #1 shows to be about 2% higher in cost for my size house as compared to Option # 2.  I am still working on more accurate bids for lumber as if I stick framed.  I designed my house for ICF (11-1/2" ext. walls), and originally only asked the lumberyard for prices for all lumber less the ext. framing package.  I wish that I had him price both out initially.  Why not?  It's a free service.  The salesman doesn't seem to mind, because he knows that I can be swayed if the price is right.

This is what I have noticed thus far when comparing prices:

Stick frame labor is more that ICF labor.  ICF materials are more expensive than stick framing.  In order to have the next best thing to ICF or SIP, I feel that the next step down would be stick framing with spray foam insulation. 

ICF is R-22 with equivalent of R-50 due to no air infiltration.  Spray foam has about R-7 per inch and also drastically reduces air infiltration.  There is no need for 2x6 Studs unless you want R-38 walls.

If you are looking at ICF, I really feel that this is probably the best thing out there.  Every time I see a stick framed house and see all of those studs, corners and headers, all I can think about is energy lost and money out the door.  Spray foam is nice, but ICF is better.  How much you want to invest into is up to you, but here are some things to consider:

  • Do you have very cold, hot or large temperature swings?  ICF is better for all. 
  • High risk of damaging winds, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.  ICF will reduce insurance rates.
  • Compare lumber prices vs. ICF prices as well as labor.  Get several bids and stay consistent with quality  of materials.
  • Get prices on spray foam.  For me, I saw huge differences in price for foam.  One guy quoted me on closed cell foam (low expansion) at over $3.00 sq/ft.  I had another bid on high expansion Icenyne for as low as $1.65 for 2x4 walls.  What I found to be even nicer is that this company will do spray foam insulation in the attic for about $1000 more than blown insulation.  When insulating think of air infiltration more that just R-value.  Spray foam in the attic will stop most of the heat gain from the attic due to asphalt shingles. +++
  • Energy efficient and low air-infiltration is a good thing despite what  many will tell you.  However, you will need a fresh air source such as an Heat Recovery Ventilator to control your house ventilation efficiently.
  • How  long do you plan to stay at your new home?  ICF will give a longer pay back if found to be more expensive, but should reduce the size and cost of your HVAC.  This will also help balance costs.  If you plan to step up to another house, I doubt that you will get your money out of an ICF house.
  • ICF is nice for placing drywall directly to the wall once wiring is run.  It reduces a step in the process.  You will need to drywall your basement walls to pass inspection for fire code.  Not bad considering you have an instantly insulated and finished wall system.
  • Remember that ICF walls are thicker than stick framing.  You will have deeper window jambs and door jambs, which will be somewhat of an added expense.  Take this wall thickness into account when designing your plans.  Your room sizes can be drastically altered and unacceptable if using ICF walls.  Just make sure to keep this in mind when comparing, make sure the interior square footage is consistent.

I hope this helps you at least get going in how to decide what method to use.  Start early with your comparables.  I am doing some back tracking, which has slowed me down a bit.


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By Terry in Phoenix / Oracle, AZ on 7/31/2007


Jeff:

I very seriously suggest you do not attempt to lay a large quantity of block for a home if you have little or no experience at it.  It is not anywhere near as easy as it looks to make everything come out right and mistakes will be costly in time and materials to fix.  This is not to even mention it is really, really hard work too!

If you decide this is the way to go, you need to really practice up on laying block with someone who knows how before attempting this.  It would be best if you had some help from experienced block layers in any case.

ICUs are relatively easy for someone with limited experience to lay and get right as they dry stack much like toy building blocks.  These should not present a large problem to get right and mistakes generally can be fixed fairly easily.

I don't have any experience with your third suggested method so cannot offer any advice on that (AAC method).


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 8/1/2007


If your cost delta between option #1 and option #2 is only 2%, that decision just became a no-brainer as ICF is far superior to stick-frame construction.

BTW did you recently send me a message through O-B Connections? There is another Jon locally, I think I may have confused you two. My response is relevant, there are just some parts I assumed you were local to me, when clearly you are not.

Rather than an ERV or HRV, I am going to dump this conventional wisdom and recommend that most people would do better with a ventilating dehumidifier such as the Aprilaire or the Thermastor Ultra-Aire APD. There is very little return on investment to an ERV or HRV. However I do agree that you need ventilation, and I also believe that in most environments when you build tight you also need dehumidification. The ventilating dehumidifiers fill both needs, the ERVs and HRVs only fill one, albeit with energy recovery as a bonus.


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By Jon in Perrysburg, OH on 8/9/2007


My cost difference came out to be a little over 3%, as I think that lumber prices have come down with very little construction in my area.  However, that 3%  comes out to be a lot of money.  Of course, the larger the price tag of the house, the larger that 3% becomes.  I must say that I am starting to waver with my logic!  When you start getting into the several thousands of dollars difference, I can't help but question how long it would take for me to get payback.

One more angle that I am going is to check my BTU requirements for sizing our radiant heat boiler -- ICF vs stick and foam.  ICF at this point is 80,000 BTU and regular stick and fiberglass is about 110,000 BTU.  The cost difference is yet to be determined.  Radiant Heat is very expensive and very efficient to begin with.  I just begin to wonder how much is too much with energy efficiency.  After adding up the cost of radiant with a separate cooling system, then installing ICF, and including the added cost of financing - -well, lets just say it adds a very big cost.  Where do you draw the line?

I thought that HRV's did remove moisture from the house?  The company that I have been looking into recommends their product to be placed in all bathrooms, laundry and near the kitchen.  They say that this removes moisture, thus replaces those highly ineffective bathroom fans.  I will look into a ventilating dehumidifier, though.  I have thought of this before, just didn't seem like a good option for using in conjunction with a boiler system.

I did send you a private message.  You seem to be the most knowledgeable person and most experienced with ICF construction, and just wanted to see how your return on investment was paying off.  Thank you for all of your excellent posts, as they have helped me make decisions through our entire process.


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 8/10/2007


HRVs exhaust air, if that air has moisture then HRVs exhaust moisture. However what is that air being replaced with, hot humid outside air in the summertime. The beauty with the ventilating dehumidifiers is that this hot humid outside air is dehumidified before it comes into your house, which an HRV does not do. An ERV does to some extent, but nothing controls humidity better than a dehumidifier or air conditioner. When you don't need cooling, the dehumidifier is necessary. When I thought you were local (in my response), the ventilating dehumidifier is the correct answer. In your locale, perhaps it is not necessary.

Around here the installers also recommend connecting your exhaust to your bathrooms. Be very careful with this install, as it doesn't have adequate airflow to meet code in my jurisdiction. So even with this install you still need exhaust fans, didn't really save you much on install now did it?

I'll tell you how I drew the line on energy efficiency vs. building the box. My thought is if it is relatively easy to add at a later date, with minimal cost increase, then I left it out. Can you upgrade your 2x4 walls later? Clearly the answer is no. However on my AC, how easy is it to upgrade to a more efficient unit at a later date? Clearly very easy, I  buy a new compressor, perhaps a new a-coil, it is all very accessible (even my line set is easily replaced), HVAC units are routinely replaced and upgraded as they reach the end of their service life. My trade off, I would rather spend more for ICF (which was a cost savings for me, even more no-brainer) and less for AC, because AC can be easily upgraded later.

I would consider leaving out the HRV/ERV and see what cost that gives you. If I build concrete, I would put the vent through the walls, put the makeup air through the walls, perhaps run the ductwork if it is not accessible later, install a $15 scuttle valve on the makeup side, foam the exhaust side, and call it a day. It is easy to install later, if you deem it necessary and you just saved the $1,700 cost of an ERV/HRV. I also left out a five-zone controller (my HVAC is ducted with five distinct zones) although I had the electrician run thermostat wire to each individual zone so it can be added later. What I found was I adjust the zones manually one way for heat, another way for cooling, and don't adjust at all other than twice/year. Chaching, that saved me $1,200 install, and if I determine I need it later my HVAC tech is happy to come install it.

You are correct in that you have to look at this as an investment, with reasonable rates of return. As you get more and more efficient, the incremental costs for additional efficiency get larger and larger, and the incremental savings get smaller and smaller. When I had a mechanical engineer run my numbers based on life cycle cost, he found that the less efficient units had lower life cycle costs because of less complexity, less cost of maintenance, less cost of repairs. Essentially I would save money every month on my utility bills, but I would more than offset that cost on my maintenance and repair bills. That doesn't sound like a good investment to me? OTOH, ICF pays you back regardless of the HVAC you end up installing.

Again let me reiterate, upgrade now what cannot be upgraded later. Trying to retrofit radiant heat is obviously not an option, so you have to install that during construction. Trying to retrofit ICF also not an option, so seriously consider it now (I am a huge supporter of this stuff). Putting the 20 SEER two-stage air conditioner, this is a box that is easy to replace so I would use a less efficient unit to save money. HRV/ERV, also just a box (make sure you have the ductwork though, the ductwork is the cheapest part of the install, yet the most expensive part of the retrofit if it is not there) so easily deleted and added later. Build the box right first, you can fine-tune your energy efficiency later. Build the box wrong, and you will never have energy efficiency regardless of the efficiency of the appliances you install. If it can be easily upgraded later, figure what your rate of return if for the additional investment and make an informed decision based on that.


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By Jon in Perrysburg, OH on 8/18/2007


I totally agree with not sacrificing anything that cannot be easily changed later down the road.  I have discussed this several times with my wife, and for now we think we will hold off on building - - so we don't cut anything out that we know we will regret later.

I will have to do a little more research on the ventilating dehumidifiers.  While it does get very humid in our area during the summers, we rarely use an air conditioner.  Usually, we only use ours, at most, for one month total.   I have often wondered if we were to go with ICF, would we maybe be able to use a dehumidifier to make that one month tolerable.  With installing radiant heat, this would keep us from installing a totally separate high efficiency a/c system, which doubles our HVAC installation cost.  This is a real sticking point for me with using radiant heat - - essentially two separate systems with two big price tags.  That sure takes a chunk out of the budget.

Do you know how well these ventilating dehumidifiers perform?  Do you think this is even an option?


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 8/19/2007


I bucked conventional wisdom, and didn't install an ERV or HRV. Personally I think they are the wrong answer for ventilation, as while they do recover energy they are very expensive units to start with, you have to recover a lot of energy to make these cost effective. I was interested in two things, ventilation and dehumidification. That said, I had a study on controlling humidity in the hot, humid south. Interestingly, the ERV was the worst performer for controlling humidity, although people that had the ERV also rated their satisfaction the highest (something along the lines of if I paid that much for it, it must work?).

I can keep my humidity at a nice constant 40% year round (I can actually keep it less, but 40% is nice). My concern was that for a couple of weeks/year (which just happens to be now) we get daytime temperatures over 100-degrees (not a problem though, the A/C removes serious humidity in these conditions) and nighttime temperatures drop to the low 80s with 100% humidity. Now at an outside temperature of 80 F, exactly how much time is your AC operating? In my old house, you would wake up cool and clammy, really unpleasant. However in my current house, you wake up at a nice dry 40% relative humidity, very nice.

Now then, these need the same amount of ductwork as your ERV/HRV (OK no exhaust, but you might install it now in case you decide you want to switch later), and the installed cost is slightly less as long as you use the Aprilaire (the Thermastor is much nicer, but also about twice the price, I made the decision that it wasn't worth the premium).

If I were only using AC one month/year, I would install ductwork now, install some pretty serious thermal mass to to see if I could keep my flywheel stable, and install dehumidification. I have also wondered about using your hydronic system with cold water (not ideal, but for one month/year perhaps passable). I am with you on hydronic, my next house will definitely have it. However paying for two separate, redundant systems made hydronic an expense I cut out on this build. I don't regret it, I know we will be building again and I will include it then.


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By Jon in Perrysburg, OH on 8/29/2007


I can see where ventilating dehumidifiers are very effective for 1, Fresh Air, and 2, Good quality and efficient ventilation. This is really something that every house does need, including my current 75 year old house that I can't possibly fix anything else on.

However, have you considered the theory of "balanced ventilation", and if so - without having an air exhaust and having an extremely tight house, have you found that your house has become "pressurized" to an extent?

In other words, by injecting air into a house without giving a place for the stale air in the home to go, aren't you in a sense recycling that old air and then bringing in untempered air - thus creating an unbalanced ventilation? 

I mentioned untempered air, though I am not totally sure that this is accurate with the ventilating dehumidifier. Does the air get tempered with these? If not, do you feel that there is any significant energy loss vs the HRV or ERV which tempers the incoming air at a 80-90% efficiency?

As for hydronic cooling, I get a little nervous using my boiler pipes for cooling in a humid environment. But now, controlling the internal humidity with a ventilating dehumidifier, I wonder if this would be possible. Cold pipes in a warm humid environment causes the pipes to sweat - -just like the plumbing pipes in most peoples basements. This may be something worth looking into for either of us.


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 8/30/2007


Don't assume that just because I don't have an ERV or HRV providing my exhaust that I don't have exhaust elsewhere in the house. IMHO, houses generally have sufficient exhaust. Do you have bathroom exhaust, clothes dryer, laundry room exhaust, hot water heater flue (actually mine is closed combustion, so a two-pipe system just like the 90+ furnaces), kitchen ventilation? All of these methods allow you to exhaust air (and any of them can be set up on timers), and they all also throw your ERV or HRV out of balance as well because as I understand them, ERVs or HRVs exchange air, they don't makeup air lost through these exhaust channels. Yes I know that some ERVs/HRVs are made to exhaust from these locations constantly, but I find the relatively low flow of an ERV/HRV insufficient to remove the bathroom humidity while I am showering (OTOH install a builder's grade fan and that is insufficient as well). And in the kitchen, I have 500 cfm and I would like a bit more exhaust power, and this is far beyond the largest ERV/HRV I have seen.

Yes I run positive pressure. It gives you much better control over indoor air quality than negative pressure. Look closely at your inswing doors and think about it, they will seal better under positive pressure and not allow infiltration (they are being pressed against the seals, under negative pressure they are being sucked away from the seals and will allow uncontrolled infiltration). Think about your double-hung windows, they will also seal better under positive pressure and again allow uncontrolled infiltration under negative pressure. Buy and maintain good doors and windows, and you can minimize this. But why fight negative pressure when positive pressure allows you to win?

I am with you on cooling through hydronic. The dehumidification I can address, eliminating the sweating problem. However cooling your floor isn't the most efficient way to cool your house, if you installed hydronic ceiling panels it would be far more efficient, but then you just doubled the cost of your installation, not quite fitting within my furnace/AC forced air system where one set of ductwork handles both chores. For unbalanced uses, I could deal with inefficiency in one side at the expense of efficiency on the main use, but I have relatively balanced heating and cooling loads.

I do know one person running hydronic cooling, pipes run up near the ceiling in a tray, and he is using an Arkla natural gas powered water chiller (search Arkla, Arkla doesn't exactly exist any longer). The pipes sweating are actually his dehumidification system, this water is collected in the trays and drained just like your typical A-coil in a normal system. He has been running this system for 30+ years, and claims extraordinary efficiency (and I have seen his bills) and comfort has never been a problem when I have been at his house. Problem is the enormous complexity of the system, it was installed and maintained by the same person the entire time it has been in operation, but this person recently retired and took all of hiw knowledge with him. I have never seen another installation like this, you can imagine finding a new person to service it is challenging at best. To his credit, he hired an engineer to draw up a set of as-built drawings so at least he has a set of engineering drawings showing how it all works and ties together, making it easier to service (and interestingly while doing this found that one of his valves had been installed backwards for over 30 years). I know it can work, but that doesn't mean I understand how it works or can design a new system with it working.


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By Jon in Perrysburg, OH on 9/2/2007


Well put.  I definitely would rather have positive pressure over negative pressure for many reasons, and you have even mentioned many more than I had thought of.  Providing adequate bathroom fans were actually installed, and kitchen duct work was actually vented out of the structure, positive pressure would probably enhance the effectiveness of the fans when used.  I have also questioned the effectiveness of balancing a HRV system in order to equalize the pressures.

I am familiar with the hydronic ceiling panels.  There is a radiant heat designer in New York that will design your system, send you a "boiler in a box" system.  You install everything else and make the final connections.  The owner is about the only person that seemed knowledgeable to begin with.  When talking with him, he had mentioned he was working on designing a ceiling tray system for cooling.  The company is called AIM Radiant Heating.  Anyone who is interested in them can find them online pretty easily.  I found them through Bob Vila's website some time ago.

As much as we want radiant heat, there is no real efficient way of putting in an AC System without paying for two systems.  It's a shame to double your cost just for putting an AC system in that will probably only run for a month total out of the year.  A whole house fan will take care of all the other summer months.  If I were to do it right now, I would probably just run the duct work for the AC and install at a later date.

I'm sure that in your area, you do not have quite as cold weather as in Ohio.  One thing in my previous post, I had mentioned the fresh air intake from your dehumidifier.  Does this air coming in get somewhat tempered, or if the air outside is 10 deg F, does the air get distributed at 10 deg F?  This for us, would be a critical time to not only dehumidify, but provide fresh air.


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By Jeff in Boston, MA on 10/12/2007


Thanks for the advice, I would definitely consider going to some sort of "course" provided by an ICF manufacturer to learn what I can should I choose to go that route.  Currently, for the style of building I'd like to make, CMUs seem to be the most cost effective way to go.  They're cheaper than ICF by a long shot, but to bring them closer to the insulation value provided by ICF would make the cost almost the same.  The benefit would be the fact that I could do most of the work myself, and that should be an equal or better cost savings than subbing out an ICF build. I'm luckily not pressed for time, but that could all change for any reason. 

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By Dale in Richland, AZ on 1/6/2008


There are a few questions you should answer before making your choice:
1) cost or quality?
2) speed or quality?
3) wall thickness?
4) DIY or subbed?
5) skills needed?
6) engineering needed?
7) availabliity of materials?
8) access to tech support during construction?
9) ease of design?
10) desired R-Value
11) what is the impact on plumbing, elctrical and mechanical installation?

After those questions are answered I would consider AAC,  SIP or ICF long way before looking at CMU.

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By John in Giddings, TX on 2/21/2008


AAC provides less insulation that ICF or SIP.

CMU provides virtually no insulation.

AAC and CMU are heavy and slow to build with, and you will have to put some thought into how to run your electrical wiring to plugs and outlets.

SIP provides good insulation.

SIP is more expensive than ICF unless your building 30 identcal homes. Not cost effective for 1-of-a-kind custom homes. SIP's have all the mold, fire, and termite problems associated with any wood product external wall system.

ICF's are my choice. They come in small lite blocks and go together like legos. Hire a consultant to help you if you've never built with ICF before.


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By Jeff in Boston, MA on 2/21/2008


Thanks Dale, John, for the additional info.  Since writing the original post I've done a lot of additional research on the available construction materials, as well as more planning on the type of building I'd like to create.  CMUs are still an option as they require less technical knowledge on my part to assemble and can be laid down over a longer timespan, but the drawbacks are that in order to properly insulate it one has to essentially build a stick-built house inside the shell, building the house twice it seems, and only saving on the outer skin of a stick house.  Not entirely true on that count either if you wanted a real stone facade or anything more attractive than split-faced block...

ICF's drawback is the higher knowledge required and time constraints involved in having exposed foam surfaces to the elements if construction takes a while.

Basically what it's going to boil down to is budget; what can be built best in the time allowed by the money available.  I appreciate that a consultant may be a good route to go, but money in the consultant's pocket is money that postpones the completion date.  Of course, the upside is that a consultant could prevent a costly mistake on my part that pays for his fees easily.

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By Jelly in Baton Rouge, LA on 5/22/2008


Jeff, I've been researching all of the same green building methods you have discussed as well, as I am very close to building my own house, too. And I have also come to the conclusion that CMU is probably the most affordable route in terms of bottom line material costs. Unfortunately there are a lot of misconceptions about CMU, but if it's insulated properly then it will be just as efficient as an ICF structure.

You mentioned having to build a stick structure inside to insulate. But in most cases the insulation should go on the outside - you're conditioning the inside of the structure so you'll benefit from having the thermal mass there inside where you need it. The simplest method is to screw styrofoam board to the exterior of the CMU with large plastic washers. Then goes a layer of polymer-modified stucco with fiberglass mesh, then another layer of polymer-modified stucco, and it's done. The stucco can be tinted to your desired color.

CMU also does not need to be mortared - you can drystack it and surface bond it or fill all the cells with grout. You don't need the skills of a mason after the first course is laid.

Now the decision to weigh is how much is your time worth - it will take a lot longer to dry-in a CMU structure than SIPS, for example, and it will take a lot more heavy lifting. So if you've got time and strength, then CMU may be the most affordable route. If you need to get dried-in faster, then you might consider another method.

Have you looked at Steel SIPS? All the problems that OSB SIPS share with woodframe construction are non-existant with Steel SIPS. It is also much lighter than OSB so you don't need a crane. And if you do it yourself then the cost is probably not quite as low as CMU and foamboard, but getting down in that neighborhood.

These are my opinions of course, based upon a lot of research, number crunching, and discussion with green building professionals. I don't want to imply that I have all the answers! I'm still learning and hoping to share some knowledge. How are you coming along?
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By Jeff in Boston, MA on 5/22/2008


Thanks for the info, Jelly. 

I'm personally still on the fence between CMU and ICF, both are within the sphere of my ability to assemble and use, especially the CMU.  I've done some of the same research you have, but it never ocurred to me to insulate the exterior of the CMU - as soon as you mentioned using the mass of the block for thermal capacity it immediately made sense.  As much as I'm waffling, CMU will likely be the choice as it can go up at any speed, can be dried in rapidly with very little interior work, and can remain unprotected on the exterior for an indefinite period until some form of material can be applied, whether it be stucco or whatever; and lastly I can do much of the grunt blocklaying myself, whether it be dry or mortared.   SIP's I honestly don't think will work for my application, though there are parts where it might be useful.

There's also a part of me that wants to throw conventional building to the wind and do a dirt cheap self-built slipform house, which is kindof starting to look attractive due to the decreasing financial stability of my chosen job field (airlines), and may be the only thing I'll be able to afford! 

Otherwise, progress mainly at this point is revolving around trying out various self-created home designs using Google's Sketchup and figuring layouts, square footage figures, and materials to be used.

I'm narrowing in on 1 or 2 designs that will likely be the final candidates, each designed to be assembled in stages on a minimal budget with as much emphasis on "green" as practical, from low VOC materials to solar hot water.

Best of luck with your build; if you start a blog here I'd like to hear about what you choose and how well it goes up, whether by your hand or a sub's.

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By Jelly in Baton Rouge, LA on 5/23/2008


Tell me why you think SIPS might not work for your application - who knows maybe there is something I haven't thought about and it won't work for me either! I won't consider OSB SIPS - no way in Louisiana, but Steel SIPS is looking pretty good to me. Being dried-in in 5 days is very tempting.

Whether I use CMU or not is hinging upon the cost of styrofoam boards. They're looking pretty expensive lately, and if they drive up the total cost close to the other methods then it doesn't look as attractive. But I do like the idea of concrete - because I would like to be able to crank my Fender Twin without noise complaints from the neighbors! AAC would be nice because of the ability to easily rout the utilites - but there is the shipping to deal with and it might drive the cost up. CMU is always produced locally - one big plus for it.

Maybe it's time to give a close look at my ICF numbers again. I think ICF looks easier than it really is. I hang out on a green building forum, and those ICF pros have a LOT of specialized knowledge.


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By Jeff in Boston, MA on 5/23/2008


I'm not 100% sure the SIPs won't work as far as overall construction, but as far as DIY it simply isn't the right material for me.  Rapidity of construction isn't a huge factor for me, but costs are.  Also I'm without a doubt wanting a stone facade, so CMU would much more readily accept stone and mortar than the prep work needed for a SIP or ICF exterior.  That's also part of the reason why it never ocurred to me to put the foam insulation on the outside.   Otherwise, ICF is the better choice for me if I have to create an exterior capable of supporting a stone exterior on a foam base.. 

  My home is completely unconventional and a section will likely be 3 floors high - I honestly haven't a clue as to what cost factors go into engineering SIP segments that would be able to support such a structure - but anything that requires more engineering and strength usually costs more.

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By Jelly in Baton Rouge, LA on 5/24/2008


Steel SIPS can be "balloon-framed" up to 5 stories high. Compared to OSB SIPS they are much easier to construct - much lighter with way more inherent strength. You set them in a channel and each panel friction-fits into a groove in the next. No splines, no carpentry, light enough for two men to lift. Each floor is simply hung from the inside skin of the panels.

I've seen them with stone facades, it's applied the same way stucco is. But you're right - there would be more prep work than putting a stone facade straight on a CMU wall.

I probably sound like a Steel SIPS salesman! I'm not, but I'm really just amazed at all their pluses. Of all the methods I think they would probably be the easiest to construct.

I'm trying to work out the difference in price between them and block, and whether the simplicity will make that difference up. For example once the Steel SIPS are up, they don't even have to be externally finished. They would not be pretty like that, but they could sit bare for two years and still be occupied and meet code.

I'm also very interested in sound control. Steel SIPS supposedly are quieter than OSB SIPS as well as frame construction. But with concrete you KNOW it's going to be quiet, no matter what.


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By Jeff in Boston, MA on 5/26/2008


Jelly,

     I did some looking for information on steel SIPs.  They are considerably different than OSB, and apparently some manufacturers sell the steel SIPs in block sizes that would allow an owner-builder to put them up without use of a crane (something I didn't want to pay for).  I think though that you already know this, there's a "Jelly" on the site I found the info on.  Anything that would allow a builder more DIY-ability to keep costs down along with the lack of a rush to get the exterior finished is a big help. 

     I saw a few 3-story plans as well, even a corbeled turret, (faceted though, not the best look JMO), so that's pretty impressive for a Lego block type construction method.  I'll definitely have to take the steel SIP method under consideration, I'd pretty much written SIPs off.  The costs affecting it's choice for use in a final decision would be the determining factor, same as the other materials.  Things like transportation costs, specialized tools, and the ability to create the type structure that I want. 

     As always, it's really hard to get a good estimate or even a wild "guesstimate" as to costs with the information on the web.  By far, one of the most frustrating things about trying to initially price construction costs to narrow down your materials is the manufacturer's and distributor's complete unwillingness to publicly post reliable cost information.  CMU is easy, you can call the local cement plant and they'll give you a cost per block; the more you buy, the cheaper it is.  The ICF or SIP community has so many variables and salesmen that it really muddies the waters.

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By Ivan in Houston, TX on 8/1/2008


Jelly,

Liteblok may be the best option for you.  It's aerated (but different to AAC), lightweight, interlocking, mortarless and steel reinforced. The aerated concrete absorbs sound whereas regular concrete only reflects it back. Liteblok is cheaper to build than 2x4 and you can get it from Houston at Cresco Concrete Products.

Ivan

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By Jelly in Baton Rouge, LA on 8/2/2008


The problem with LiteBlok is that it seems to cost twice as much as AAC. At least my quotes reflect that.

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By Ivan in Houston, TX on 8/4/2008


Jelly,

That's not correct.  When you are considering wall costs you need to add up all of your material costs plus your labor costs not just block costs.  You will mislead yourself if you only consider block costs.  For example, with CMU home construction, the CMUs themselves are often only about 10% of the total wall cost. AAC wall costs are more than 2x6. Liteblok wall costs are less than 2x4.

Ivan

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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/4/2008


Excellent insights with great food for thought.  I'm also in a hot/humid environment.  I'm going to look into the ventilating dehumidifiers.  This could be the solution I've been looking for.  With what I presume will be relatively effective passive cooling I'll probably save more emoney from dehumidifying the air than from direct energy recovery.  I'm likely to follow your advice and leave the ERV for later, but prep for a future install as justified.

Likewise, I like the idea of prepping for my HVAC zones without installing the controls, but pre-wiring etc...

With my significant thermal mass throughout my building, and my expected passive convection air flow thought he house, the temperatures may be fairly well balanced on their own.  Perhaps, like you, I will need to make manual seasonal adjustments twice a year.  If it proves too cumbersome I can add in the electronic zone controls later.  I'm REALLY glad you suggested this.  It will likely save me a significant amount of money that I can use to finish other parts of the house for a greater equity return on investment!

Regards,

Grant


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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/4/2008


Because I plan on investing in a high efficiency geothermal heat pump, because we have moderately mild winters in NE Alabama, and because much of my household heat will be provided via passive solar gain anyway, I will have very little opportunity for return on investment with energy efficient hydronic radiant heat in the floors.  I really like this technology, particularly in conjunction with a solar water heater, but I don't think there is enough of an opportunity for return on investment for my house to even justify taking the time to do a cost/benefit analysis. 

I probably will put in a less energy efficient, but apparently much less expensive to install, electrical radiant floor system in my commonly used bathrooms just for additional "comfort."  They will be on timers to prevent energy waste.

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Grant


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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/4/2008


Jeff,

Many of the regional salesmen for the ICF systems will function as your consultant in order to earn the sale.  In Atlanta we have a TRULY EXPERT ICF representative who helps lay out all of the jobs and consults with your contractor.  If for whatever reason I decide to shift from the AllWall System that I currently prefer (and the owner/inventor, John Griffin, PE, is a professional engineer with structural engineering expertise who answers his own company phone line and has already given excellent "consultations" to me on roofing systems as well as his own products), it will be ICF and I will purchase via that Rep in Atlanta for his ability to provide expert consultation at no additional cost.

Regards,

Grant


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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/4/2008


Jelly,

Considering you like the thermal mass of CMUs and you like the construction advantages of steel SIPs, have you looked at the AllWall System?  The panels can be produced at a facility in Mississippi (currently the closest to me here in Alabama and possibly the closest to you as well.)  To me, it seems like the best of both worlds and is probably what I will end up building with... 

Regards,

Grant


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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/4/2008


OK, I realize I'm probably starting to sound like an AllWall sales person about right now, but honestly I have no affiliation other than as a prospective customer...

The AllWall is essentially a concrete fiber board on the outside and the inside with foam insulation sandwich in between and concrete poured inside like an ICF.  You get the speed of install of a SIP, the thermal mass of a CMU, and still get comparable insulation to ICF or SIPs.  With the cement fiber board surfaces on the interior and exterior you can skip straight to stuccoing or mortaring stone directly to the AllWall saving on additional materials and prep, and apparently without sacrificing the insulation ability of the wall.  There is one small surface area of steel that bridges from the inside cement fiber board to the outside cement fiber board that probably makes it a little more thermally conductive than an ICF wall, but the usable thermal mass MORE THAN COMPENSATES for this weakness.  The post-construction energy efficiency testing down in Florida has been impressive. 

Of course, the thermal losses across the AllWall would probably be worse in a much colder environment than in a hot environment (higher delta T).  I intend to use insulated vinyl siding on the exterior which should eliminate this one weakness of the AllWall during cold winters.  If your climate isn't "too" cold, you can probably mortar the stone directly to the AllWall without much reduction in the R-value over ICF.  You will have MUCH better R-value than the CMU's without insulation!

Regards,

Grant


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By Jelly in Baton Rouge, LA on 8/5/2008


Ivan, it would be interesting to see how you break down the total wall price. Because my total wall cost break down places CMU the cheapest, then AAC, with LiteBlok being the most expensive.

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By Jelly in Baton Rouge, LA on 8/5/2008


Grant, I'll look into AllWall. I like the idea of a cement board SIP, but I'm guessing you'd still have to use a truss roof? Another major important element is the ability to use the technology myself - if it's a proprietary system then I can't afford the labor. Thanks for the tip.

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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/6/2008


They suggest the standard roofing structures, but I'm probably going to use a metal SIP roof, and there should be no conflict.

They claim that any crew that knows standard framing can learn how to install the AllWalls with about one hour of training.  It's apparently not hat complicated.  So it's not proprietary labor.  The panel system is proprietary and they have manufacturers that have the "rights" to make panels for them.

Regards,

Grant


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By Steven in MN on 8/6/2008


What kind of thermal bridging is there with AllWall metal studs between concrete wythes and how do they handle it?   I live in MN and that is very important.

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By Ivan in Houston, TX on 8/6/2008


Jelly,

Here are my estimates for unfinished walls:
CMU (per sq ft): $12 materials + $7 labor = $19
Includes CMUs, sheetrock, metal studwall, insulation and their installation

AAC (per sq ft): $5 materials + $7 labor = $12
Includes blocks, special mortar, threaded steel etc. and special skilled labor to install

Liteblok (per sq ft): $7 materials +$1 labor = $8
Includes blocks, rebar, grout and labor to install

Regards,
Ivan

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By Jelly in Baton Rouge, LA on 8/6/2008


Ivan, if one has to pay the labor to install then you may very well be correct about which costs more. Remember though this is a DIY project. The labor is on me.

So that leaves us with material costs. Even your numbers reflect that AAC is cheaper. And if these numbers are for unfinished walls, then you need to remove the sheetrock and metal studwall from the CMU numbers (and the metal studwall isn't necessary even for a finished wall).

I'm sure LiteBlok is very appropriate and cost-effective for certain applications, but it doesn't pencil out in my case.

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By Ivan in Houston, TX on 8/7/2008


Jelly, yes, one benefit of Liteblok is the reduction of contractor time and expense. For a DIY job you should be looking at material cost and excluding contractor cost.  But, does saving your own time have a value? An unfinished wall means getting it ready for the stucco, siding, or veneer. For CMU you need insulation. How are you going to add insulation and enclose it? With AAC, you also have to consider that you will need special tools (not cheap) and the skill to lay the blocks with the glue.

Ivan

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By Jelly in Baton Rouge, LA on 8/7/2008


The best place for insulation with a CMU wall is EPS foam board on the exterior. It gets screwed in place and stucco goes on top of it. I think AAC and LiteBlok would both benefit from a thin layer of it, too.

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By Ivan in Houston, TX on 8/7/2008


Jelly,

AAC and Liteblok are all about R-18 to R-22 by the coast. What do you think the installation of EPS costs? How would you finish the inside?

Ivan

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By Jelly in Baton Rouge, LA on 8/7/2008


Again, if you're talking about labor I have no idea. Otherwise it's just material costs.

There are a variety of methods for finishing the inside, from plaster to placing paperless sheetrock directly to the CMU, or even just paint (wouldn't be my favorite though).

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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/7/2008


In a little more study, I found an article at blog.nola.com/more_concrete_in_the_mix.html

(Yes! I finally figured out how to post a link properly!)

Apparently it costs about $2,000 (and four hours) to get trained and licenced to make the panels yourself.  According to AllWall owner John Griffin, (as quoted in the article) "Cost of professional installation runs about $10.50 a square foot, he says, while do-it-yourselfers can build and install the panels at a materials-only cost of about $7.75 per square foot."

This looks like a fairly attractive price, BUT I think it is for the "panel installation" only, and likely does not include the concrete pour!

It should also be noted that the AllWalls can be directly stuccoed with no additional prep costs.

Considering the strength of the system and the TRUE R-value including the effect of the thermal mass, this would seem to be competitive pricing for what you are getting.  And you can actually DIY... but the labor is such a small part of the cost that it will likely only save you a little over $2.50 per sf.

Regards,

Grant


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