Finding land today is challenging enough without facing high-impact automobile, airport, and rail noise. How many times is an otherwise fine parcel compromised because it’s too close to a highway, an airport, or an active rail line? What happens when the site is too close to all three … and building is required?

That question makes the Belknap Residence Halls project a compelling lesson for multifamily owners and operators looking to transform once-questionable parcels.

“Ambient noise is concentrated in a way that may be unlike any other spot on earth,” explains Colin Drake, principal and lead architect for JRA Architects, in discussing his firm’s work on an $87 million, 130,000-square-foot pair of twin residence halls on the University of Louisville campus. The buildings opened last year.

Deafening Cacophony

The location is a deafening trifecta of noise. “The site is below the final approach to an international airport serving an overnight delivery service, meaning flights day and night every 15 minutes or so. An active rail line is a block and half away. An elevated interstate highway is four blocks away,” Drake says.

The university needed an affordable way to silence this deafening cacophony for 900 first-year students. Drake’s design team worked with engineers to identify a building system that would affordably seal off noise pollution. “Wood wasn’t an option. So, we carefully investigated structural steel frame, concrete masonry units, and cold-formed steel,” the architect recalls. “ICF proved to be the least expensive option.”

What Noise?

ICF stands for insulated concrete form, a building system that uses lightweight foam blocks stacked Lego-like to form a steel-reinforced cast-in-place concrete wall with remarkable noise-blocking characteristics. So much so, the 452-unit twin structures have rendered exterior noise a non-issue. “There have been zero sound complaints. Most occupants didn’t realize they should even be concerned by low-flying jets, since they never hear it inside,” Drake says.

If all ICF represented was an affordable acoustic solution, it might be enough. For Drake, working with ICF for the first time, it was just the beginning of an array of benefits, including:

  • One Floor/Three Weeks. A 30,000-square-foot floor plate didn’t prevent the general contractor from delivering a floor every three weeks, Drake reports. “That’s amazing. We stayed right on schedule.”
  • Cold Weather Friendly. “Not a day of construction was lost to below freezing temperatures,” he says.
  • Continuity of Value. Using commodity materials with no special fabrication required greatly simplified and accelerated construction, eliminating bottlenecks and delays.
  • Adaptable Interiors. Other than a single row of steel columns, there is nothing inside the buildings. There are no load-bearing walls. “You’re just moving around drywall. The owner can adapt the interior to nearly any future space need,” Drake adds.

ICF isn’t right for every multifamily project. But when the conditions call for an affordable and proven noise mitigation solution, ICF could be a prime option for optimizing net operating income and profitably transforming a challenging location.

Learn how an ICF building system can help you increase your development options.