Tom Fougerousse

The University of Louisville in Louisville, Ky., took no chances when it came to building their first new residence hall in 31 years. Budget was a priority, of course. But so was a building life, maintenance, interior flexibility, student comfort and engagement, sustainability, and acoustics.

What construction type should it be? Wood? Structural framed steel? Cold-formed steel? Or concrete masonry units?

Answer: None of the above.

“The construction manager’s review determined the least expensive non-combustible option meeting all university requirements was insulated concrete form,” reports Colin Drake, AIA, principal and the project’s design lead for the Lexington, Ky.–based firm JRA Architects.

$34 per Square Foot

At $34 per square foot for building core and shell with precast floors, the structural system cost for insulated concrete forms was persuasive (about 5% less than concrete masonry units and 50% less than cold formed steel). What was convincing was the host of benefits that price is expected to deliver for the next 70-plus years.

The project—the 452-bed Belknap Residence Halls—is a pair of distinctive five-story, 130,000-square-foot, Z-shaped structures housing first-year students. The buildings occupy the heart of the campus, directly across from the Student Activities Center. That coveted real estate proved to be one of the challenges ICF uniquely addressed: minimal campus disruption through construction speed.

Remarkable Speed

“We built two 130,000-square-foot residence halls in the time it took to erect a nearby wood-framed podium residence hall that’s half the size,” Drake says. “Each Belknap Residence Hall took about 13 months to build. That’s a remarkable pace … about a floor a week.”

The ICF project is a first for the university and JRA Architects. “We are very agnostic to construction type. Ironically, when we started the second building the price of lumber spiked. We’re confident ICF was probably even cheaper than wood at the time. Also, concrete was one of the few materials that wasn’t hit by wild price swings,” the architect notes.

Acoustics and More

What else about the project sets it apart? Several things according to Drake:

  • Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The close proximity of three major transportation systems could be a major study distraction as airliners pass by 1,000 feet overhead, trains rumble by 200 yards away and the ceaseless din of a busy interstate highway is just 600 yards away. Fortunately, ICF quiets that cacophony to a barely audible whisper thanks to an STC 50+-rating. What’s more, students are shielded from above and below interior noise by sound-silencing 11-inch-thick precast concrete planks.
  • Cold Weather Friendly. “Not a day of ICF construction was lost due to winter weather,” Drake observes. Even below freezing temperatures don’t stop concrete pours. All that’s required is a thermal blanket across the top of the wall until the concrete is cured.
  • Adaptable Interiors. “If the last two years taught us anything, it’s the value of adaptability,” Drakes says. “Belknap Residence Halls interiors can be configured any way you like. You’re just moving around drywall. No load bearing walls. Nothing to hinder alternate floorplans.”
  • Design-Friendly. Drake points out the residence halls are hybrid structures, integrating steel frame construction to “… celebrate public space with glazed cladding. Marrying two systems together gave us the best of both worlds.”
  • Lucky Seven. The project’s structural engineers—Brown+Kubican—now count Belknap Residence Halls as their seventh higher education residence hall project in Kentucky made with ICF.

Drake knows ICF isn’t right for every project. No building system is. But when it meets the right conditions, it’s a powerful candidate. To prove the point, the JRA team was just awarded contracts for two public school projects using ICF as the basis of design.

Learn more on how ICF may be the right structural system for your next project.