James Cummings doesn’t like straight lines. As an artist his forms, whether sculptures or paintings, are distinctively lacking in right angles.
And so is his studio. Every wall is curved. And beneath the earthy stucco exterior lie industrial-strength walls made out of plastic foam blocks filled with concrete.
Within this super-insulated and soundproof studio steps from his northeast Santa Rosa home, Cummings, who also is a composer, can also play piano in relative silence to the outside world.
“It’s crazy, but the insulation is five times the insulation needed. So if it’s 100 degrees out or 30 degrees, it pretty much stays 68 degrees inside without putting on the heating or cooling,” said Arlette Cummings, who designed the creative retreat for her father and equipped it with radiant heat in the floors that he almost never turns on.
What are commonly called “Insulated Concrete Forms” have been around for nearly 50 years. They were patented in North America in 1967 by Canadian Werner Gregori, a general contractor who was inspired while vacationing.
“We had one of those foam plastic coolers to keep the drink cold. When I saw kids on the beach playing with the sand, I realized that if concrete blocks could be formed using that foam plastic, many construction costs and hours of labor could be eliminated,” he said in an interview with ICF Builder Magazine. He secured a U.S. patent in 1968.
Arlette, who grew up in Santa Rosa, earned her degree in architecture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and now has her own architectural design studio out of Laguna Beach, began working with it more than 20 years ago. But they’re more commonly used in larger commercial construction, particularly in desert areas or the cold of Canada. They are only slowly being adopted for smaller-scale residential construction as more homeowners seek out green alternatives.
ICF’s are hollow polystyrene foam blocks that are stacked and then filled with steel-reinforced concrete. The finished structure combines the strength of concrete with the insulating properties of foam.
The Cummings artful home studio recently was named second runner-up in the small residential category in the ICF Builder Awards, a national competition for construction projects that use the stackable, concrete-filled foam blocks.
A number of different companies manufacture and market the blocks. Cummings chose Fox Blocks, made by Airlite Plastics of Omaha, Neb.
“Obviously this isn’t going to stand there and take the force of all that weight. So they have steel bracing to keep them from falling over,” James Cummings explained.
The concrete is poured all at once but in several layers, starting at the bottom. Once the drywall is applied in the inside and a layer of stucco on the outside, the walls are 13 1/5” thick, creating a super-insulated and soundproof structure that also is fireproof, a major plus in a forested area like the Cummings’.
The Insulating Concrete Form Association estimates that ICF construction costs 5-10 percent more than regular timber frame construction, something Arlette Cummings attributes to the fewer numbers of contractors trained to work with the material. But she believes that will change as interest and demand grows and green becomes more mainstream.
The additional price upfront is offset by the energy savings and durability, she maintained.
The most striking feature of the 922-square-foot studio, which includes a gallery for James’ marble sculptures studio, a central work area and an office for composition and drawing, is the organic form of the walls, reflecting the serpentine forms of James' sculptures. It’s not as hard to do as it may appear. Arlette said the lightweight blocks can be cut to order at the factory or during the construction process.