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ICF vs SIP – A True Cost Analysis
The use of ICF construction and SIP walls is hotly debated in the sustainable construction industry. Both wall systems are very energy efficient and create super insulated walls that meet LEED accreditation standards developed by the US Green Building Council. Both products will create an airtight space that requires a heat recovery ventilation system to create airflow. These systems must be carefully installed to eliminate thermal breaks in super-insulated spaces. Traditional stick framing can claim up to R-20 walls. However, this only considers the highest rated component of the wall, insulation. Other wood and utility members in the wall contribute to thermal bridging which is a major factor in heat gain and loss. Both ICF and SIP wall sections contain solid insulation materials that effectively eliminate conduction and convection within the building. Apart from energy efficiency, the biggest advantage of both systems is the ability to build quickly and accurately.
It’s clear that both of these wall systems provide durable construction, but when it comes time to build them, which one should you use? As most construction decisions are ultimately made, it all comes down to cost. When analyzing the cost of these wall systems, it is important to understand that the cost varies with each design, availability and installation. This topic is discussed on the Internet by company representatives. I’m not a salesman for SIP or ICF, so consider this a fair analysis.
Cost per square foot?
Estimating costs based on square footage is very difficult. There are many factors involved that can only be accounted for in the precise specifications of the architect’s plans. A general cost per square foot of gross wall area may be attractive as a theoretical feasibility estimate, but more design-wise factors must be included to make an accurate estimate. One can research and find a wide range of cost estimates from vendors and builders. These values should not be considered as an average price estimate as they are from people trying to sell you the product. Instead, I have analyzed the trend of these values to see what the differences between these prices indicate SIP construction costs 5-10% less per square foot than ICF construction.
When fabricators cut into panels or forms, the location and size of windows and doors must be considered. The process generates waste while adding labor to the cost. In some cases, cost can be optimized in house design by strategically sizing the house with window sizes and wall lengths as suggested dimensions in multiples of panel or form sizes.
Many manufacturers consider structural live and dead load analysis of the design when estimating cost. This analysis of the plans will more accurately explain where and how much thickness is needed. Materials for ICF are more expensive; per square foot of concrete. Also, the prefabricated product is not delivered to the site so labor costs are higher until ICF walls are installed. The total cost of materials and installation of an ICF wall system is about 30% higher than conventional poured walls.
In comparison, an ICF wall must be thicker than a SIP wall to achieve the same R-value. Thicker walls mean more material which contributes to higher costs compared to SIP construction.
Local availability may contribute to price differences and levels of green construction. Not all contractors build with SIP or ICF, but both will become less expensive as this construction and product becomes more popular. Contractors and manufacturers are abundant in the Midwest and Southwest of the United States, making these regions the cheapest to build using SIPs and ICFs. Check which contractor and manufacturer (SIP or ICF) is more local; This makes the project more sustainable and will likely offer lower costs. However, beware of inexperienced contractors as this is a new building practice. Accordingly, more experienced contractors can generally charge less.
Sustainable building is encouraged through return investment. An airtight, superinsulated home built with either of these wall systems allows for lower operational costs due to monthly utility bills. Additionally, the HVAC equipment needed to heat and cool this superinsulated home doesn’t have to be as powerful, saving you hundreds or even thousands of dollars on initial HVAC costs. Although these savings are similar in the two systems, other returns are not. Homeowners insurance savings for ICF construction range between 15-25% due to fire safety ratings and disaster resistance. However, when it comes time to sell, equity does not have any serious benefits. At this time, tax benefits for building LEED projects do not exist, but are expected to in the future. When considering the LEED scorecard in your decision, SIP will receive higher scores because it is a prefabricated panel assembly.
SIP construction is generally considered less expensive when deciding which sustainable building envelope to use. However, the cost of each varies according to the design specifications of each project. The design can be optimized according to the standard dimensions of each wall system to promote lower costs. Any product produced closer to the site is more durable and will cost less than the average price per unit. Considering this, the price difference between the two may increase or decrease. ICFs may cost more but they generally offer more returns in terms of insurance deductibles. Overall, it is important to study all these aspects while deciding which one will be less expensive.
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