The construction industry is slow to change. With more than three decades in the field, Gene Becker, owner of Great Building Concepts in Hortonville, should know. “I start-ed framing homes after I graduated from Hortonville High School in 1981. When construction got slow, I went into sales.”
Years later, he ran into an old friend who had a home-building business and went to work for him. Becker intended to do framing for just one summer, but 30 days later, he was running crews. “I saw that nothing had changed in the industry while I was out of it. All other industries had been changing very rapidly. That propelled me to say, ‘What are alternative methods I could find to build houses that are commercially viable?’ ”
Within about three years of getting back into framing, Becker branched out and started working with ICF (insulated concrete form) technology. ICFs replace wood for framing buildings. Forms are created using expanded polystyrene (commercially known as Styrofoam). “We have 2½ inches of Styrofoam on each side of the wall and a tie, made of recycled plastic and vinyl, that goes in between,” Becker said. “That tie is a fastening point every 8 inches throughout the wall. The Styrofoam is softer so it can accept a nail. You can hand-nail your siding right to the side of the house and screw your drywall right to the inside. There’s no more wood in the wall structure.” After the forms are in place, concrete is poured into them to create a sound structure.
In 1995 he started EZ Heat Concrete Homes, which was rechristened in 2014 to Great Building Concepts, to use ICF technology to build houses. The first one he built was his own home. Other than having windowsills that are about twice the depth of the traditional ones, homes built with ICF construction look like conventional houses. However, the construction is superior to wood-framed houses, Becker said.
The ICFs have an advantage over wood frames because they are not affected by moisture or insect damage, plus they make buildings very energy efficient.
“The big difference is we’re using physics in our favor, he said. “We have mass effect walls. Once the mass is heated, it stays heated, once it is cooled, it stays cool for a long time. You use a lot less air conditioning in the summertime and a lot less heat in the winter. You get more consistent temperatures throughout the entire house.” In Becker’s model home, he said the cost to heat and cool the structure is about $30 per month.
“I look at what the true cost is of home ownership,” Becker said. “What causes houses to fail? Moisture is the big issue. Moisture damage to wood can happen incredibly quickly. The remodeling industry is billions of dollars each year and the majority of it is moisture problems. With the ICF houses I built, if I ever go back to remodel, I know it’s just as straight and square as the day I built it. No expansion, no contraction, no shifting, no moving. Your heating and cooling systems operate a lot less so they have a longer lifespan.
“We’re doing a lot of things different than conventional builders besides the ICF,” he said. “On our lower levels, instead of digging the foundation down and then up to allow for the footing and then four inches of stone, I dig straight across and I put 8 inches of stone. I put more stone along my walls. There’s a dim-pled waterproofing membrane that allows water to drop down to the footing and get pumped away. So, we have drier basements. We use more rebar (steel reinforcing rods) in the walls so they move and shift less.”
In an average year, Becker builds eight to 10 houses. He has what he calls an open-book policy. “Most people going through the home-building process don’t have any idea how their money is being spent,” he said. “Everybody has a budget. Our clients get to see all the expenditures, I don’t hide any numbers. I do it on a fixed cost so they can tell me what their budget is and we design around it. With transparency, you get to see everything, you know what products are being picked, there’s no surprises with cost overruns.”
After 25 years of using ICF technology, Becker said that he’s cost competitive with wood frame homes. “I’m on the board of directors with the Winnegamie Home Builders Association so I get first-hand conversations with other contractors and, knowing my com-petition, I’m almost dollar for dollar.”
Like most business owners in the current economy, Becker finds it hard to get subs to work on his properties, but he noted that work-ing with ICFs is easier on a person’s body than wood framing because workers don’t have to lift heavy walls. The concrete is poured into the forms with a pump, so the job is more ergonomic than conventional framing.
Becker trains on the use of ICF technology for the National Builders Association. “I’ve done training for (various) builders associations. Architects and engineers love the product.” Even though this technology has been around since the 1960s, it still hasn’t become the norm. Becker said it’s not about the money, because it is cost-competitive, but people, especially older builders, don’t like change.
Embracing change has made Becker a successful builder. “I love what I do,” he said. “I’ve never had anybody who didn’t love their home and the feel of the house. That’s part of why I like building different than the standard where they have cold spots that you can’t prevent because of the materials you’re using. Here the temperature is consistent throughout so everyone’s comfortable. Homeowners stay in our houses a lot longer. I’ve only had a couple that have sold in the 25 years that I’ve been doing this.”