Insulating concrete form

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This insulated concrete form is cut away to show the inner structure of the formwork and the reinforcing bar (rebar). The cavity is filled with concrete to create the permanent wall.

Insulating concrete form or insulated concrete form (ICF) is a system of formwork for reinforced concrete usually made with a rigid thermal insulation 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 units lock together somewhat like Lego bricks and 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. ICFs may be used with frost protected shallow foundations (FPSF).


The ICF construction technique was first developed in Europe following World War II 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 Schnell 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 it 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.


Insulating concrete forms are manufactured from any of the following materials:

Reinforcing steel bars (rebar) are usually placed inside the forms before concrete is poured to give the concrete flexural strength, similar to bridges and high-rise buildings made of reinforced concrete. Like other concrete formwork, the forms are filled with concrete in 1-foot to 12-foot high "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, depending on materials used:


Energy efficiency[edit]

  • 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 ten times stronger than wood framed structures.
  • Structural integrity for better resistance to forces of nature, compared to framed walls.
  • The components of ICF systems — both the poured concrete and the material used to make the ICF — do not rot when they get wet.

Sound absorption[edit]

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 drywall. The level of sound attenuation achieved is a function of wall thickness, mass, component materials and air tightness.

Fire protection[edit]

ICF walls can have four- to six-hour fire resistance rating and negligible surface burning properties

Indoor air quality[edit]

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

Environmental sensitivity[edit]

ICF walls can be made with a variety of recycled materials that can minimize the environmental impact of the building.

Building process[edit]

ICF construction is less demanding, owing to its modularity. 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[edit]

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 toward the middle of the walls. 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 that can weaken the polystyrene formwork.[5] Structure frames known as bucks are placed around openings to give added strength to the openings and to serve as attachment points for windows and doors.

Interior and exterior finishes and 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 must be covered with drywall panels or other wall coatings.[6] During the first months immediately after construction, minor problems with interior humidity may be evident as the concrete cures, which 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 tiles are installed to eliminate water.

Plumbing and conduit[edit]

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 or routed with simple carpentry tools.


The initial cost of using ICFs rather than conventional construction techniques is sensitive to the price of materials and labor, but building using ICF can generally add 3 to 5 percent in construction cost over building using wood frame.[7] In most cases ICF construction will cost 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, as 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 floor area, 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 tax credits, further lowering the costs.

ICF buildings are less expensive over time, as they require less energy to heat and cool the same size space compared to a variety of other common construction methods. Additionally, insurance costs can be much lower, as ICF homes are much less susceptible to damage from earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fires, and other natural disasters. Maintenance and upkeep costs are also lessened, as ICF buildings do not contain wood, which can rot over time or be attacked by insects and rodents.[10]


  1. ^ "History of ICFs". ICF Mag. Retrieved 8 June 2012. 
  2. ^ Haefs, Brian. "Forms and Function". Green Building Solutions. American Chemistry Council, Inc. Retrieved 2010-05-06. 
  3. ^ "Insulating Concrete Forms". EERE Consumer's Guide. U.S. Department of Energy. 
  4. ^ Panushev, Ivan S.; Pieter A. Vanderwerf (2004). Insulating Concrete Forms Construction. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-143057-1."> Panushev, p. 58
  5. ^ Panushev, p.80
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
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  10. ^ Panushev, p. 16

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