According to the Gig Harbor, Wash.–based Structural Insulated Panel Association (SIPA), about 1 percent to 2 percent of U.S. single-family homes are built with some kind of panelization. If you take into consideration that structural insulated panels (SIPs) are only one type of panelized method, you can see how small a market share they have. This is puzzling to a lot of architects and builders who believe the technology is almost perfect in light of its ease and speed of construction, its strength, and its energy efficiency.
A structural building system made from foam insulation sandwiched between two sheets of oriented strand board (OSB), plywood, or fiber-cement panels, SIPs are strong, lightweight, resource efficient, and fast. Once assembled, SIPs houses are extremely tight—thanks to the way the panels are put together—and energy efficient.
“SIPs give architects and builders an easy way to create an airtight building envelope that will improve the energy efficiency and durability of any home or light-commercial building,” says Bill Wachtler, executive director of SIPA.
The panels operate on the premise that a well-sealed house will not have air infiltration issues and will, therefore, maintain a more constant temperature. And SIPs deliver on the promise: Oakridge National Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tenn., concluded that SIPs have a higher whole-wall insulation value and R-value than a conventional on-site framed stud wall.
Most SIPs are made with OSB, but manufacturers are branching out into other materials. One company, New Orleans–based Oceansafe, says it has created the next generation of SIPs. “Our panels are made with 26-gauge Galvalume skins, so they are structural but lighter in weight,” says vice president Robert Fusco.
Oceansafe’s products feature expanded polystyrene cores and are assembled with a “snap-together system” and then screwed together at 6 inches on center. As a result, they resist winds up to 220 miles per hour.
SIPs aren’t new, and they’re not that complicated. James Hodgson, general manager for Premier SIPs by Insulfoam in Fife, Wash., says the panels free up design professionals to push the envelope. Building with the panels doesn’t require much specialized knowledge either. Manufacturers have perfected the art of translating plans into a buildable format, so an architect or builder may design a house with the panels in mind, but it’s not necessary.
Working with SIPs, however, may not be easy from a business standpoint. Builders do have more issues to consider, such as finding the right panel supplier and doing the foundation work correctly in preparation for the panels. Cost may also be an issue because the price of SIPs varies from region to region. Indeed, the upfront cost for SIPs is high, but proponents say it evens out once you take into consideration all of the time and energy-efficiency benefits.
Most people believe builders are unwilling or hesitant to try SIPs because they are so radically different from what they are used to. “It’s analogous to a regular framing job, but it’s also not something that is easily done the first time,” says architect Toby Long, principal of Toby Long Design and the owner of Clever Homes in Oakland, Calif. “It requires three jobs to get your feet wet, but not until the third house do you really understand the system.”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: New Orleans, LA.