New home plans position ICF for affordable, efficient, storm resistant housing

May 4, 2015 | by Gary Wollenhaupt

Four insulated concrete form houses in a low-income housing project in Louisville are among the first built with home plans for affordable housing that could be a game changer for residential construction.

While insulated concrete forms (ICFs) have been popular building options for decades, the technology has generally been confined to custom homes and commercial projects. 

One of the S.A.F.E houses under construction in Sheppard Square. Photo courtesy Indiana Ready Mix

Insulated concrete forms are rigid foam forms that hold concrete in place during curing and remain in place to serve as thermal insulation for concrete walls. The foam blocks or planks are lightweight and result in durable, energy-efficient construction.

However, the affordable ICF homes are part of a revitalization project at Louisville's Sheppard Square development to provide energy-efficient mixed income housing. Sheppard Square was a 70-year-old low-income housing project in the Smoketown section of Louisville, Kentucky's largest city.

The revitalization of the 16.5-acre Sheppard Square is a HUD funded project along with additional local investment and resources to replace public housing built in 1942 with mixed-use, affordable housing developments.

Affordable ICF Home Plans

The low-income housing serves as the debut of the affordable ICF plans by architect Jill Lewis Smith, president of Civic Consultants, a Louisville architectural firm. Smith and her team designed what may be the first set of home plans for affordable housing using insulated concrete forms. Smith calls the plans S.AF.E.:

  • Storm Resilient
  • Affordable
  • Fast Construction
  • Energy Efficient

The affordable ICF home plans are designed to compete with manufactured housing, which is one of the largest segments of the under $150,000 housing market. Smith specifically designed the homes to equal or better the cost of construction and purchase for a storm-resilient ICF home compared to manufactured housing.

The plans for affordable ICF homes may be the culmination of Frank Lloyd Wright's vision for Usonian Homes by designing affordable homes on a massive scale for the American middle class.

"To Wright's vision, we now add the current social and environmental responsibilities and requirements of energy efficiency, long life, low maintenance and safer especially in storms as well as healthier through better indoor air quality," said Robert Fincher, publisher of

Smith said she designed the series of homes to appeal to the manufactured housing homebuyer and or for someone looking to put a safe room on their property.

"These can be fit into infill spaces in the city, or of course on larger lots," Smith said.

Jill Lewis Smith founded Civic Consultants, Inc. in early 1999, under the guiding principle that client service and communication lead to successful project delivery. She served as City Architect for Louisville and was the president of the Kentucky Board of Architects.

Smith received her architecture degree from Tulane University and was deeply affected by the avoidable tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Natural disasters continue to devastate communities and destroy families and their possessions.

After seeing the aftermath of natural disasters, and working with the City of Louisville on projects that had to meet tight city budgets but also serve the residents, Smith brought her knowledge of ICF homes to the affordable segment of the market. She built a number of city projects using ICF construction and was well aware of the building time, cost savings and resiliency compared to traditional framing.

"We designed the S.A.F.E. Homes to provide disaster resistant modular housing packages that provide families with strong, high quality, long lasting, affordable homes for disaster prone areas of the United States," Smith said.

Affordable Mobile Home Alternative

The S.A.F.E plans include 13 single family home designs from 420 square foot studio to single story and two story homes up to 1,830 square feet with 4 bedrooms and three bathrooms. Multifamily plans are also available.

Several plans are designed to fit on infill lots in in inner cities that were historically used for long, narrow shotgun homes. Other homes fit on a singlewide or doublewide mobile home lots. The home could be used for residential housing, student housing, vacation homes, or a retirement community.

"The low cost, traditional design and high quality concrete construction make this an excellent solution to infill vacant city lots and help to revitalize a community," Smith said.

Smith's goal was to design homes that are comparable in price, size, and interior finish quality to a typical manufactured or modular home but also stand up to the worst that Mother Nature has to offer.

"This alternative will protect the lives of the individuals inside during a tornado, hurricane or storm event to a much greater extent than typical construction today," Smith said. "The structure will be durable and a viable residence for at least one hundred years with only minor repairs and finish materials replacement necessary."

The homes will use approximately 75 percent less energy than is used in most new homes today, and could be upgraded to net-zero energy usage with the addition of a renewable energy source such as solar or wind systems.

The plans are designed to use specified equipment for HVAC, water heating and other systems to ensure high performance but can be adapted for local requirements.

The foam forms and plastic webs inside the forms are typically made with a high level of recycled materials. This method of construction naturally provides a tight, energy efficient home with a very low impact on the environment because there's very little job site waste. Exterior and interior finishes can be customized according to the homebuyers' tastes and budget.

Additionally, many of these homes are designed to accommodate a resident in a wheelchair.

"Many of the designs we are producing can accommodate a variety of disabilities and allow for some seniors to care for themselves in the home," Smith said.

During the financial crisis, many home foreclosures were for manufactured homes that did not hold their value and were expensive to operate as homeowners lost jobs. Smith hopes to shift the market from manufactured housing to ICF construction homes that are better built, safer and more energy efficient.

"Most foreclosures are because families choose to pay utility bills before their mortgage, and most manufactured housing is worthless after 20 years," Smith said.

Manufactured homes typically cost more than $70 per square foot, but with Smith's plans the initial construction cost is about the same as a comparable manufactured home.

"The utility bills will be roughly 25 percent of a comparable manufactured home, and the homes will retain value for well over 100 years and be an investment for the owner," Smith said.

To find out home more about ICF home plans go to Safe Homes by Civic.

Read more about insulated concrete forms.

Topics: Building Green , Certification / LEED , Cost of Ownership , Exteriors , Foundations , Going Green , GREAT GREEN HOMES , Home Design & Plans , Indoor Air Quality , Insulated Concrete Forms - ICF , Insulation

Companies: Fox Blocks

Gary Wollenhaupt / Gary Wollenhaupt is an experienced writer and editor, with a background as a daily newspaper reporter as well as corporate and agency public relations and marketing. He is constantly looking for affordable green upgrades to make to his home in eastern Kentucky.
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