A dream home needs the right setting. John Cavanagh’s new home is no exception. His 2,600 sq.ft. home in Rye, NH, is within yards of the booming surf of the Atlantic with sweeping views of the white-capped horizon.

"I’m very fortunate to have this piece of land. We have a spectacular location," he admits.

But locating a home right on the coast is not without its challenges. The house is continually buffeted by strong offshore easterly winds and there is the problem of salt spray and dampness, which can corrode electronics within a home.

But Cavanagh hasn’t experienced any of these problems, thanks to a high performance, super tight home.

"The first thing we noticed, even during construction, is how sound proof this house is," Cavanagh says. "Literally we have to look outside to see what kind of weather we have, because you can’t hear it. We determine what to wear by how much the trees are blowing."

When Cavanagh went shopping for ways to construct his dream house, he was primarily interested in this type of performance. So after considering scores of solutions and building materials, Cavanagh opted to have his dream home constructed with structural insulated panels, or SIPs as they are more commonly known.

"I am very interested in the latest technologies and that is a result of my educational background and the fact that I work for the utility company here in New Hampshire," Cavanagh says. "After I reviewed my options, what attracted me to SIPs was not only their energy efficiency, but also the speed of construction as opposed to traditional stick. The home went up remarkably fast. Panel Pros (Keene, NH) constructed it and they did a excellent job. There were really no design limitations going with SIPs either. There is, in fact, a lot of flexibility.

As a custom designed house there are a lot of nooks and crannies and sharp roof angles. Panel Pros were able to do it all with panels." Cavanagh outfitted his house with a host of other high performance systems as well, including a whole house ventilation system that controls humidity and a geothermal heat pump.

"I wanted to have the most efficient house as possible," Cavanagh says. This he has achieved. Last January was extremely cold in New Hampshire and Cavanagh’s heating and hot water bill was only $135.

Merits Fueling Growth
The results of home buyers like Cavanagh are being repeated across the nation, as positive word of mouth among buyers are fueling an increase in the use of SIPs systems over more traditional building techniques. Many are drawn by the products simple construction style that requires fewer skilled laborers. Panels combine the structural system, wall and roof sheathing and insulation in a single step—setting a panel. This is often useful in areas plagued by a diminishing pool of talented craftsman.

"We see a lot of clients very interested in their quality of life in their new home," says Bob Tortorice, co-owner with his wife Kathe of Building Alternatives (Chester, NH), which offers construction management and full turnkey construction. "Since 9/11 we have seen quite a few clients more interested in the performance of their homes. And that comes down to the energy efficiency and how fast it can be assembled. SIPs fit very nicely into that mix."

It’s this equal mixture of confidence in their product and the fervor of the convert that’s pushing up SIP sales nationwide. SIP production has climbed more than 50% in five years, according to a recent study.

The volume of single-family homes constructed with SIPs has increased from 8,000 homes in 1997 to 12,000 homes in 2002. This makes SIPs the fastest growing building system when compared to the growth rate of log, modular and other forms of panelization, according to the results from the annual production survey conducted by the Structural Insulated Panel Association or SIPA (Gig Harbor, WA).

"The growth rate of the SIPs industry continues to be strong as more and more builders and homeowners are preferring the high, energy-efficient performance and lost cost of home ownership associated with living in a SIP home," says Bill Wachtler, executive director.

Is the savings quantifiable? Fortunately SIPs easily live up to the hype. SIPs offer home owners unsurpassed energy efficiency, reducing heating and cooling costs by as much as 60 percent over conventional 2×4 construction, according to multiple studies by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Even where wall thickness is the same, SIPs out-perform stick framing on whole wall energy performance by 40 to 60 percent.

A SIP-enclosed home is so air tight that many producers and builders recommend using an air-to-air exchanger in the HVAC system, which ensures healthy indoor air while maintaining energy efficiency. SIPs also provide high bearing and shear strength. The industry is awash in examples where SIP built homes have withstood earthquakes and tornadoes when surrounding stick buildings were destroyed.

SIPs are also an environmentally friendly building material since the components come from renewable resources. The insulation is a form of plastic. OSB is made from fast-growing trees and shrubs once considered waste by the lumber industry. SIPs also conserve natural resources by eliminating the redundancy of 2×4 lumber to enclose your home.

SIP builders and manufacturers agree that growing consumer awareness about the merits of the product is fueling much of this growth. Builders also report that clients coming to them seeking the SIP system already have a basic grasp of the product and its advantages. No longer are SIP builders, fabricators or manufacturers educating consumers about the basics. Any questions that do arise are more informed and detailed, say those in the industry.

Arrival Signs
Much of this information can be traced to exposure in the mainstream media. Consumers are soaking up hours of construction and remodeling shows on cable and SIPs have been frequently featured. TV shows like This Old House and Bob Vila’s Home Again have reported extensively on SIPs, as have consumer shelter magazines, like Home and Country. Another media outlet dubbed SIPs "the Pentium chip of the construction industry."

Producers of the Montel Williams Show chose SIPs for their strength and thermal performance to help family of seven whose home was destroyed by a Tornado. In October the family, whose children range from 8-16 years of age, appeared on the show to gratefully accept the help and express their thanks to organizers.

FischerSIPs (Louisville, KY) with AmeriPanel (Boca Raton, FL) donated the SIP package for the 1,440 sq.ft. home. Robert Rowan Fine Homes donated the labor in October to build the home in Jackson, Tennessee, in conjunction with Operation Hope Ministries. "A lot of people contributed to this deal to get this family a home," says Robert Rowan. "We’ve got the panels coming in for the main part of the house. We will conventionally frame the garage. I’ve got a report from AmeriPanel. They are sending a kit with 36"x40" panels. I’ve never built with panels before but I’ve very interested in the process."

Marc Bronstein, president of AmeriPanel, says once a builder or developer tries SIPs, they’ll never go back. "There is just such an amazing labor savings and you can’t beat how well insulated the homes are," Bronstein says. "Because it’s such a simple system to put up, more and more of our customers are do-it-yourselfers. It’s a great system for those with very little construction experience."

Bronstein has scores of customer testimonials from DIYers. "The system was pretty easy to put up. I built it for resale," says a client in Monterey, TN. "A tiny little heater worked for heating the whole house in the winter when they were building it. The homeowners got a $400 rebate from the electrical company because they were using SIPs. I recommend it to people all the time."

But perhaps the industry’s greatest windfall in exposure is in SIPs use in construction of affordable homes for Habitat for Humanity International. The organization dedicated to providing low cost housing has 1,200 affiliates throughout the U.S. and many are expressing a strong interest in using SIPs in construction, largely because of the resulting energy efficient homes and the fact the homes can be constructed quickly with the use of unskilled labor.

"I’ve budgeted two and a half hours to construct the shell," SIP builder Dennis Warren says in describing a recent 30-hour quick-build of a 1,200-sq.ft. habitat home in Jackson, MS. "But I really think I’ll only need two. I&rsquove left that 30-minute window for any screw-ups and drinking coffee.

"These local contractors are really intrigued with the SIPs. They tell me, ‘Every time we come up with a problem, with the layout or the floor system, you’ve got a solution. I tell them I’m not that sharp, it’s the thought and planning that’s already gone into the system."

Investments In Technology, Quality
As the industry matures, manufacturers and fabricators are investing in technology and quality control to help speed design, processing and reduce lead time.

For example, manufacturers are investing in high tech machines that can cut and process panels in a fraction of the time that it can be done by hand. Having information travel directly from the computer to the computer controlled cutting equipment dramatically reduces human error at the factory, in missed cuts and angles. This in turn speeds on-site construction, decreases callbacks and increases quality.

Team Industries (Grand Rapids, MI) and Big Sky Insulations (Belgrade, MT) have recently acquired Hundegger PBA machines for each facility. A first-of-its-kind for the Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) industry in the United States, the machines receive dimensional data directly from a computer and then create high-quality SIPs that are precise and low-cost. "We’ve eliminated the potential for human error and opened the way for sharing information," says Tim Feagan, Team Industries president.

Team Industries and Big Sky Insulations are founding members of the R-Control Building Systems, a group of 13 companies who manufacture SIPs for the construction industry. The German-manufactured Hundegger PBA is the first machine in the United States that converts drawings into computer-readable files and sends them directly to the machine, which consequently cuts the SIP panel according to the exact measurements. Doorways, windows and electrical outlets are automatically cut, for example.

At Energreen Building Systems (Aldergrove, BC), the company has invested in a five-point quality control program on every single panel it produces. "We instituted this because we learned some very expensive and painful lessons," says Scott Folk, president. The company has been seeing record growth in SIP sales, doubling every year for the past three years, and the quality control program was needed to ensure builders, developers and DIYers were getting the exact package they requested, Folk says.

"We tackle the kind of projects many other SIP manufacturers don’t want to touch—complicated compound miter cuts, difficult hips and valleys, and dormers, with all fabrication done here, including inserting structural lumber where required," Folk says.

The quality control program starts in engineering and design, ensuring that the design is the most panel efficient and that they angles required are possible. Then five different people sign off on each stage of panel manufacturing and fabrication, ensuring the panels meet design requirements.

"It may seem like over kill because it goes well above and beyond what a third party inspection system would require. But we instituted this QC program because I don’t want to loose sleep over a panel package going out to Japan, Alaska or California and the panels not fitting exactly right."

Other manufacturers are instituting similar measure. At Insulspan (Blissfield, MI) the company has recently instituted a ISO 9000 quality control program, complete with a quality control manager Hal Holueik. "Everybody is talking about quality in the home building industry. But you can’t build quality homes without a quality assurance program," Frank Baker, president of Insulspan, observes. Insulspan is also increasing the amount of materials in its packages to make its system more builder-friendly.

"We’re taking a systems approach, offering a more complete package and a more complete shell through our distribution network," Baker says. "We think this will make it more easier for builders and do-it-yourselfers to utilize this system. Our packages are fully fabricated with all the parts and pieces, splines installed, fasteners and sealants and support beams. This includes roof and wall systems and interior partition systems. As a result, we think this will require a lot less on-site labor for the builder and will spur increased acceptance of this system," says Baker, who reports SIP sales are up by 10% this year over last.

Cost Efficiencies
All home building has been hit hard by cost increases in lumber, particularly dimensional lumber and oriented strand board. The SIP industry is no exception. Although manufacturers report their panel packages are still running about about five percent more than conventionally framing materials. Ideally, the home should be designed with SIP construction in mind to make the most efficient use of each panel, which will then control costs and minimize waste.

The demand for structures built with SIPs is increasing so rapidly that there just aren’t enough builders to fill the need. If you want in on this energy and labor efficient building system, then contact manufacturers listed in our SIPs Callbook. Many of these companies are looking for builders interested in turnkeying both residential and commercial projects.

Another good place to start is to join the Structural Insulated Panel Association or SIPA.

SIPA is looking for a few great builders—and offering significant incentives to attract them. In an effort to find a large number of qualified builders quickly, SIPA is offering a package of major benefits worth literally thousands of dollars for just $99. Builders and remodelers who join SIPA now will receive a free copy of the book, Building with Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS), plus a complimentary subscription to Building Systems Magazine, consumer brochures and ad slicks to use in local advertising. Builders will also gain access to job information posted online by manufacturers looking for installers. Details call 253-858-7472 or visit www.sips.org to sign up online.

SIPA Village At IBS

To educate builders and developers to the advantages of SIPs, members of the Structural Insulated Panel Association (SIPA) created a 2,600 sq.ft. SIP village inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the International Builders’ Show. Designed by architect Bill Chaleff of Chaleff & Rogers (New York, NY) the exhibit featured a southwestern motif this year.

The perimeter was be made from SIPs. But the SIPA Village included more cutaways and other interactive demonstrations so builders could grasp how homes are wired and plumbed, says Bill Wachtler with SIPA.

Home By Design At IBS

SIPs 101
Structural Insulated Panels or SIPs got their start in the 1950s, when Alden B. Dow, architect and brother of the Dow Chemical founder, first used SIPs in residential construction with Styrofoam cores sandwiched between sheets of plywood.

Today’s SIPs share the same premise, with Oriented Strand Board (OSB) being most commonly used exterior "skin." The foam core being used today can be made from expanded polystyrene, extruded polystyrene, polyurethane or Styrofoam.

Today’s product mix includes numerous variations on this theme, including steel, gypsum board and waferboard for skins, or steel or wood frame panels surrounded by foam insulation.

Like other building systems technology, SIPs are manufactured in factories under controlled conditions to standardize quality. Some manufacturers inject the foam between two facing boards while others use strong adhesives that make a SIP much stronger than the sum of its parts. Both methods produce panels of varying sizes and thicknesses, depending on the snow and wind loads required.

SIPs Used In Other Systems
During the energy crunch of the 1970s SIPs gained widespread appeal with timber framers, as a way to quickly enclose shells and make the resulting homes energy efficient. But now SIPs are on the menu of other building systems, proving popular for many of the same reasons.

A growing number of log homes are being topped with SIPs, particularly in mountainous terrain where snow loads are in excess of 110 pounds per square foot. But it’s not just loggies or timber framers that are attracted to this form of construction.

BarVista Homes (Berthoud, CO), a modular home manufacturing operation launched by Mick Barker and a group of investors a year ago this fall, has adopted the use of SIPs in its operation. BarVista is a distributor for SIPs from Premier Building Systems (Renton, WA). BarVista also is employing SIPs in their structures, particularly for dormers, to handle the heavy snow loads of Colorado.

Fabricators Increase Ease of Use
The emergence of third-party fabricators, such as Panel Pros in New Hampshire and Better Building Systems in Northern California, has strengthened the industry by making the SIP building system more accessible to both buyers and builders. After designing a home to make the most efficient use of panels, fabricators take manufacturers generic panels and pre-cut and number them for easy on-site erection of the structure’s shell. Many fabricators educate fellow builders to the advantages of SIP building, walking them through their first projects at little or no cost to the builder.