How to Assess Contractors for Building with ICFs
One of the biggest issues currently facing the country is the lack of skilled labor to build residential and commercial projects. The demand has influenced the overall market for not only labor costs but on the quality of work.
Finding a contractor is the initial hard step, but the next step, before you commit to a contract, is to evaluate their skillset. Can this contractor do the job?
For any construction project the key elements are cost, time, and quality. In today's hectic marketplace all three of these key elements may fluctuate, to the disadvantage of the client or owner. In the best case, everything goes smoothly, and everyone walks away happy. The question is how you can make this happen for either one, two, or all three of these elements?
The most asked question from anyone wanting to build with ICFs is how to find an ICF contractor. Even though ICFs have been around for 60 years, many contractors/builders are reluctant to change their methods from traditional wood framing or concrete block construction. There are numerous reasons why, but the main crux, sorry to say, is the old saying – ‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, however, that’s not necessarily true.
There have been substantial changes in building codes on the requirements and methodology of building walls, which has forced contractors to understand more and more about how to build walls and how to utilize new materials in making homes and buildings perform properly to these newer higher standards. Therefore, to build right, a good contracting crew must learn, on the fly, how to make the walls structurally sound, resilient, well-insulated, and sealed against air and water intrusion.
The main goal of every ICF manufacturer is to have their products installed correctly and safely. Installation guidelines and training is available in all formats, either as classroom, on-site, online, or video. Residential building codes include specifications and engineering tables for ICFs.
How to Find ICF Contractors
Evaluating a contractor is actually a job interview, and the appropriate questions should be asked, even if you only have one candidate. Building with ICFs is different and requires that the installation follow specific guides, in addition to the correct application and design of the concrete and rebar. A contractor with construction experience building walls that are square, plumb, and straight can easily comprehend the simplicity of building with ICF modular blocks. Concrete design, placement and consolidation becomes the main difference, and if not followed creates the most problems.
If, as the building owner, you do your research and make the decision to build with ICFs, the next step is to select which product you prefer, and then find a dealer. This will help with finding a contractor because ICF dealers, as part of their scope of sales, will have a list of trained ICF contractors in their region. Like an ICF manufacturer, the dealers want to recommend contractors that will use the product correctly to satisfy the customers.
It is incumbent on all ICF manufacturers to provide installation instructions for their dealers and contractors to ensure the product is installed to their specifications. Contractor training sessions are organized through the ICF dealers or the ICF manufacturers. The first question to ask the dealer about their recommended ICF contractors is their experience, training, and building history.
There are typically three types of general contractors that may respond to your request.
A contractor that:
Builds traditional construction with no ICF experience
Experience building only one project with ICFs
Has built numerous projects with ICFs
Contractor with No ICF Experience
The traditional wood or masonry builder/contractor with no ICF experience may say that it’s not a problem, that they can build anything. Your question is - would you allow a DIY contractor with no experience in framing a house, handle your investment and build your home?
A conventional contractor may try to switch you back to traditional wood framing. A forward-thinking carpentry or masonry contractor may see the opportunity to expand their skill set and learn about ICF installations. If you feel comfortable with that, recommend that the crew take an ICF training program online to fully understand the scope on how to install the product correctly.
Contractor with a Singular ICF Experience
The contractor that has built before may have had a good or bad experience. If he is not using ICFs on a regular basis, the question is why not? Contractors that have experienced a bad install typically blame the ICF. There are many reasons and excuses related to bad installations.
Experienced analysis shows the main issue for problems may be the result of contractors not following installation instructions, wrong concrete mix, aggressive concrete placement, over consolidation or no consolidation, poor bracing and/or strapping techniques, etc.
If the build was over 15 to 20 years ago, then the ICF product itself may have had some quality control issues. A lot of elements of ICFs have substantially changed in quality, testing and standards, as well as installation techniques of the products for todays’ market.
The general consensus of first time contractors is that ICFs are a great innovation and they want to keep using them whenever possible.
Contractor with Extensive ICF Experience
The contractor that has experience building with ICFs is your best candidate. In most cases they may recommend their ICF of choice, which is one that they build with and have a relationship with the dealer. It may be different than the material that you have chosen, so it may require more research on your part, to understand and accept any change or stick with your choice. An experienced ICF contractor has, over the years, generally built using different ICF manufacturer’s blocks and has settled on one they prefer. That being said, they should be able to switch per the client's request and still do a great job.
Checklist for Evaluating ICF Contractors
For any large purchase, like a car, you want to look under the hood, kick the tires, check the maintenance and accident history, etc. Similarly, in hiring a contractor to build your project, you must follow the same criteria. Check or ask about the following:
Have they ever built with ICFs?
Have they completed an ICF installation course as a Certified Installer?
Do they have a project history for foundations, above grade for any build, pictures, testimonials?
Are they affiliated with a dealer or a specific ICF manufacturer?
Do they own or rent ICF bracing and/or know how to use ICF bracing?
Which ICFs do they have experience with?
Which ICF products do they prefer to use and why?
In a review of the ICF social media chat pages there is always someone asking to find an ICF contractor in their area. The recommended first recommendation for a search should be using your preferred ICF product manufacturer’s website.
Most of the major ICF manufacturers (members of the ICFMA) have a database on their website listing dealers in your area. Those dealers will have a list of recommended ICF contractors. As a starting point, find and contact a dealer or the ICF company for recommended contractors in your area.
Find the Best ICF Training and Product with Fox Blocks
Installation guidelines and training is available in all formats - live classroom, on-site, online or video.
Fox Blocks, with years of experience in ICF construction, both residential and commercial, has developed, free, comprehensive multi-level Installer training courses in all formats. They provide the successful participants with a wallet card as certification.
For more information about Fox Blocks, education, and installer training, check out the Fox Blocks Integrated Learning Center today.