Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Insulating Concrete Forms: Greatly Improved

Insulating Concrete Forms (ICF’s) are a relatively new method of construction.  ICF’s provide many features which are advantageous to the owner.  ICF is gaining acceptance and use as a method of construction both nationally –here in the US- and internationally.
ICF’s are typically like large hollow rectangular blocks made of Styrofoam type material.  These blocks are stacked and the hollow core is then filled with ready mix concrete (delivered in a concrete truck).  Steel rebar is typically placed in the wall cavity for tensile strength.

The resulting structures are very strong, well insulated, relatively inexpensive and easy to assemble.

Here are some of the benefits of ICF construction, as described by the ICF Builders Network:

Energy related:

High performance R-values

No air infiltration

Permanent performance no downgrading over time

Shifts thermal loading from peak periods

Lower cost to heat and cool

Health related:

No air infiltration means no dust or allergens

No cavity walls for mold, mildew, bugs or rodents

Non-toxic materials

No off-gassing of materials

Structural related:

High wind resistant

Fire rated assembly

Strength is permanent

Will not rot or decay

Resistant to termites (the concrete)

Impact resistant

No maintenance requirements

Comfort related:

High sound attenuating

Enhances steady temperatures

Peace of mind during inclement weather events

Low maintenance structure

May attribute to lower insurance costs

Constructability related:

Design versatility

Energy efficient

Structurally capable

Fire rated

Sound deadening

Quick (depending on installer)

Conducive to Exterior Insulation Finish Systems (EIFS)


Fully code accepted cast-in-place concrete walls

Time tested and proven

ICF construction is indeed advantageous for all those reasons listed above.  However this type of construction can be made even better and this is what I’ll be talking about today.

Problems with ICF

First, thermal mass benefits associated with ICF construction are not truly maximized.  This is because heat is stored in the concrete, where it is subsequently released to the interior space of the building.  In order for this thermal mass effect to be efficient, the heat should be readily transferrable between the concrete of the wall and the interior of the building.  ICF construction insulates between the interior space and the concrete wall.  That is, there is foam insulation on the inside wall; this insulation prevents heat from travelling between the interior space to the concrete wall, and also prevents heat from being released from the wall to the interior space.

As I discussed earlier on this blog, thermal mass benefits are maximized if the exterior surface of a concrete or masonry wall is insulated.  When the inside surface of a wall is insulated, the thermal mass benefits are reduced.  Insulate the outside for maximum efficiency: insulating the inner surface of a wall reduces thermal mass benefits.  ICF methods insulate the inner surface of the wall.

Another shortcoming of ICF technology is its inability to provide an effective roofing system.  Currently ICF technology is only used to make vertical walls.  It is generally not used for roofing.  If ICF technology could be used for roofing systems, the benefits of this technology would, quite simply, extend to the roof. 

Currently, a close cousin to ICF’s can be used for roofing.  This technology is known as Structural Insulated Panels, or SIP’s.  One of the disadvantages of SIP’s is that they are not poured in place, like ICF’s, but are pre-cast, and must be placed with a crane.  A truly integrated system which would bring the ICF approach to roofing would provide a simplified construction, using the same technique for the entire building envelope, including the roof.  With such an approach, all of the benefits associated with ICF construction –as listed toward the beginning of this post- would extend to the entire building structure, including the roof.  SIP's commonly do not incorporate concrete, and are not as strong as the rest of an ICF building: this is a weak link.

A Whole New Approach

What is described below is frankly a much better approach to ICF construction than is currently practiced by industry today.  This method greatly increases thermal efficiency and maximizes thermal mass benefits of a concrete wall by not insulating the interior of the concrete wall.  It also extends the ICF construction method to the roof, and brings all the benefits of ICF construction to the roof.

First, an inflatable bladder is set up and inflated.  This bladder provides the formwork, scaffolding and support for the ICF triangular blocks.  This bladder is essentially the size and shape of the interior space of the finished building.  The concrete is poured from the top, and allowed to flow directly against the inflated bladder, which creates the interior surface of the form.  This means that no insulation is wasted to insulate the inner surface of the building.  It also greatly reduces the amount of foam insulation required for ICF construction, increasing thermal mass benefits and efficiency.

Second, ICF forms are assembled around the inflated bladder.   These triangular forms utilize the interlocking design, and are further strengthened and reinforced by the tensile elements (e.g.: steel cable, rebar, etc.) which are woven into the walls and roof as they are assembled.  This approach allows for extensive design flexibility, and can include vertical walls, square corners, cylinders, arches, domes and any combination of these elements.  These shapes will be hollow, and made from foam.  They assemble around the inflated bladder.

The ICF forms shown in this schematic patent illustration are able to be made on a simple two-piece mold without any undercut.  This greatly simplifies their manufacture, and makes them inexpensive to produce, as described in one of my stupid poems.

To make a roof, the bladder is inflated, the blocks are assembled, and concrete is then poured from the top and allowed to flow down to form a consolidated, massive wall.  There are holes in the sides of the triangular foam blocks which allow the concrete to flow between blocks; from the top of the pour to the bottom of the foundation.

If the building’s height is too great to withstand the weight of wet concrete, and a blow-out would result, then the building is simply assembled and poured in smaller vertical sections, so that the head pressure of wet concrete is reduced, preventing a blowout.  Once a section is poured and cured, then additional foam block are added for the next section to be poured.

Once the building has been poured and the concrete has been allowed to properly cure, the bladder is simply deflated and removed, and is ready for another job.  The interior wall of the structure is now exposed concrete, providing increased thermal mass benefits and efficiency.

These bladders are commercially available, and create a very effective scaffolding and formwork: as I described earlier on this blog, here and here.

By using this construction method, what is created is much stronger, faster to assemble, less expensive and able to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other severe structural loading events. 

Currently my company is seeking a partner to bring this technology to market.  Too many ICF manufacturers seem “in love” with their own technology, and are unwilling to see beyond current practice in industry.  This is a huge opportunity for the right organization.  We may just “bootstrap” this technology and launch it ourselves.  It is an exciting time!
I covered a lot with all this.  Questions?  Comments?  Drop me a line.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Very Intriguing Theory: Bricks and DNA?

Yesterday I began a description of arches meeting at right angles, and how this unique arrangement might possibly be found in DNA molecules, in structures known as centromeres and telomeres.  I realized today that I’ve already written about this odd masonry detour back in April, 2010.  So today I borrow from this earlier entry and expand a little, since it is a pretty interesting subject .

The system I described yesterday is some interesting geometry, I think it's fundamental and basic, and may well exist in nature. In particular, I propose that it may exist in features of DNA.

Most of you probably know that DNA is a double helix. Think of the double helix of DNA as forming a big "X". The ends of the 'x' are telomeres, the center of the 'x' is the centromere.

Centromeres are an originating site of DNA replication (copying begins here). Telomeres are a terminating site of DNA replication. It is proposed that the structures of telomeres and centromeres approximate a structure wherein a combination of four right circular cylinder sections (whose 2 axes of rotation are at right angles to each other) of radius = 1; and also of a section of a hemisphere of radius = 1.5. Here the double helix of DNA is viewed as a right circular cylinder of radius = 1.5. Cylinder sections combine (superimpose) with a spherical section through a four-fold axis of rotation. The geometry of this arrangement may create two optimal energy states simultaneously. This arrangement may be seen as a natural attempt to “square the circle.”


A telomere is a region of repetitive DNA at the end of chromosomes, which protects the end of the chromosome from destruction. Derived from the Greek telos (end) and meres (part).

During cell division, the enzymes that duplicate the chromosome and its DNA can't continue their duplication all the way to the end of the chromosome. If cells divided without telomeres, they would lose the end of their chromosomes, and the necessary information it contains. (In 1972, James Watson named this phenomenon the "end replication problem.") The telomere is a disposable buffer, which is consumed during cell division and is replenished by an enzyme, the telomerase reverse transcriptase.

This mechanism usually limits cells to a fixed number of divisions, and animal studies suggest that this is responsible for aging on the cellular level and affects lifespan. Telomeres protect a cell's chromosomes from fusing with each other or rearranging. These chromosome abnormalities can lead to cancer, so cells are normally destroyed when telomeres are consumed. Most cancer is the result of cells bypassing this destruction. Biologists speculate that this mechanism is a tradeoff between aging and cancer.

I propose that the following geometry may be present in a telomere:

The centromere is a region, often found in the middle of the chromosome, involved in cell division and the control of gene expression. I propose that this geometry may be present in a centromere:

Why bother with this? Centromeres are largely responsible for cell reproduction, when centromeres malfunction genetic disease results; telomeres are largely responsible for aging. Any insight into the functionality of these structures is important to science and medicine.

Here's an interesting article on how geometry can have a direct effect on gene expression. I owe this reference to Alan Michelson, who brought it to my attention, as if to say: "maybe you're not so crazy Pete." Thanks Alan. Here's the article.

Yesterday I began trying to describe the possibility that a particular helicity of cylindrical sections meeting at right angles -into a larger sphere- may be found in structural sections of DNA known as telomeres and centromeres. To summarize this theory with images, a telomere may have a "turn-in" type structure:

A centromere may have a "turn-out" type structure, shown as:

The important aspect of this arrangement is not the individual triangular units, but the helicity and the larger spherical section of the larger assembled structure. It seems that nature is attempting to square the circle with this arrangement.

Below is a view of a telomere, looking at the end of a section of DNA, essentially looking down the "cylinder" of the double helix of DNA. The helicity of DNA changes as a chromosome replicates itself, and it seems that this helicity is what is described in those right angle intersections shown above. Here is a view of a telomere, note the quadrature, or squaring of the structure:

Below is a view of a centromere, with a view of the entire chromosome. This illustration shows how four cylinder sections intersect at a right angle. Centromere is shown as feature 2.

I propose that DNA, through telomere and centromere sites, may utilize this geometry. The ‘turn in’ corresponds to a telomere, and the ‘turn out’ to a centromere. The cylinders may be taken as base sections, or spindle poles. These arrangements may provide an intermediate energy state; somewhat analogous to a catalysis reaction.

A catalyst works by providing an alternative reaction pathway to the reaction product. The rate of the reaction is increased as this alternative route has a lower activation energy than the reaction route not mediated by the catalyst. The geometry described here is analogous to providing an alternative route with lower activation energy.

The centromere and telomere structure are similar to fullerene molecules in a few striking ways. The presence of hexagons and pentagons within the base sections is a feature the telomere shares with fullerenes. Cylinder and sphere sections are found in both centromes & telomeres and fullerenes. It is proposed that centromeres & telomeres create a lowering of thermodynamic or activation energy ‘threshold’: the same is true of fullerenes as evidenced by their existence in nature.

Currently the vast majority of genetic research is empirical, not theoretical. That is, functions of genomes are determined by seeing what effect manipulating (e.g. removing, etc.) a particular genome has on the design/function of the organism it describes. This approach disregards the geometry of DNA, and does not allow certain theoretical insights, which may otherwise be gained. Consideration of geometry may indicate thermodynamic ‘net gains’ that might point to functionality of chemical states.

Close examination of DNA geometry seems to have slowed immensely since Watson and Crick discovered the double helix. DNA is more than a ‘blueprint’; it is the blueprint, architect, engineer, construction worker and building inspector. It is more than these analogs; it is the actual thing itself. This appears to merit a close inspection of its structure and geometry in order to more fully understand it. If this theoretical (geometrical) approach is coupled with the knowledge gained from the empirical approach (i.e.- mapping of the human genome) then a much deeper level of understanding may be obtained.

A cell creates itself and closes itself off. It has genesis and distinction (becoming distinct, having a boundary within which it exists). This geometric model works for the combination of origin (sphere) and growth (cylinders). This is somewhat analogous to the thermodynamic conditions necessary for nucleation and growth in crystal formation. Duplication results in 2 spheres as distinct cells. The separation and distinction of 2 from 1 embodies or relates directly to the activation energy threshold.

We've had a look at one possible role of geometry, to try and show that geometry can play an important role in how things work.

Today there was an interesting article posted by on carbon tubes and water.  This remains a fascinating topic which merits further investigation.
I am unaware of anyone who may have stumbled across, or is investigating, or is even aware of the geometrical structure which I propose exists in the centromere and telomere structures of DNA.  I think this is worth looking at.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Arches at Ninety Degrees

Back in 2000, I had an insight into vaulted arches.  I had been developing triangular interlocking block as a masonry system, and had devised of a method for making cylinders from these triangular blocks.

A cylindrical section can be turned horizontally to create a vaulted arch, like a roman or circular or barrel vault.  

People are largely used to living in a square-cornered building or house.  There is something fundamental to the human psyche that looks to straight walls and square corners within a living space as a standard which sets people at ease.  Domes and round buildings make up a tiny fraction of habitable structures: almost all buildings have straight walls and square corners.  As you read this now, look around you at the building you are in.  I'd be willing to bet that it has straight walls and square corners.  If not, you are in a very tiny minority, living in an "alternative" structure.

It is a challenge to make a vaulted arch roof system sit atop a square cornered building.  In my own masonry approach, which uses triangular block to assemble a cylinder or arch, the triangles can be assembled to provide a helical or spiral edge.  A helix or spiral has translation and rotation, and the 'helicity' or angle of 'spiralness' can be varied.  Think of stretching a slinky: the spiral angle of translation and rotation can be varied, from shallow to steep angles of helicity.

If the translation versus rotation of a given cylindrical section is equal to the radius of the cylinder versus 90 degrees, then this helicicty can be placed atop a right-angled base.  It is thus possible to place vaulted arches atop a right-angled structure.  The right angle can be a "turn-in" as shown below, where the angle between walls is simply 90 degrees, as shown below. (taken from one of my patents)

Below is shown a structure where the vaulted arches are shown as a "turn out" where the walls meet at 270 degrees.  In the case of both a "turn-in" and a "turn-out" a gap is created between the helical edges of the abutting arches where they meet at a corner.  This gap is satisfied by a larger spherical section.  Specifically, if the arches are taken as having a raius of 1.0, then the larger spherical section that fills the gap has a radius of 1.5  (If you'd like to see these images better, just click on them to see a larger view).
This sort of arrangement provides extensive design flexibility.  One, two, three or four vaulted arches can meet at right angles to each other, merging seamlessly into a larger dome or spherical section.

This arrangement creates some very interesting possibilities far outside the realm of masonry.  Could this arrangement have something to do with the structure of DNA and the "magic" of reproduction?  We'll take a look at this next time, including a discussion of centromeres and telomeres.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

brick & mortar

Brick & mortar” has come to mean a real, built thing; as opposed to a virtual or digital thing.

Masonry is real, it is meant to last over time.  Masonry construction reflects a confidence in the future.  It is not temporary.
Markets rise and fall; sometimes dramatically.  This is temporary.

Planning for masonry construction during such times displays confidence in a real outcome with an actual brick & mortar result.  In today’s economy, long term thinking and planning are often at odds with quarterly results.

Those with foresight have chosen masonry construction throughout history.  We are left with testament to their optimism with everything from the Pantheon to the Brooklyn Bridge; the Hagia Sophia and Notre Dame Cathedral, all brick & mortar.