Setting records, making history

A record-setting project in North Carolina is redefining what can be done with structural insulated panels and challenging the creative abilities of a leading expert in the SIPs world. But in the long run, it may change the way the construction industry views SIPs.

Al Cobb, who wears two kinds of SIPs hats — one as owner of PanelWrights, a full service SIPs distributor and installer and the other as director of SIPschool in Shenandoah Junction, W. Va., — is up to his eyeballs in what is probably the largest SIP project ever — a nearly 500,000 square-foot school complex.

SIPs-Cherokee5.jpg“It’s hard to tell if my nose is above the water or not,” Cobb laughs as he talks about the challenge of supplying and installing 120 tractor trailer loads of panels to a K-12 school complex belonging to the Eastern Band Cherokee Indian Nation in Cherokee, N.C. On November 1, Cobb’s installers, on-site since July, were halfway through the job of receiving and installing five to seven truckloads of material a week. “It’s daunting and impressive at the same time,” says Cobb of the sheer size of the project.

The school, currently ahead of its scheduled 2009 final completion target, is a 16-structure complex that will educate 1,900 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in separate “pods” connected by walkways. The complex, says Cobb, includes an auditorium that “rivals Kennedy Center and athletic locker facilities that are NFL caliber.”

Many hands, plenty of work
Because Cobb directs the SIPschool, he has access to a wealth of trained installers and expects to “peak out” in December at 30 people on site, with workers coming from Minnesota, California, Mississippi, Virginia and Maryland as well as North Carolina.

Without a doubt the largest job PanelWrights has ever done, it’s a long way from the days “when we were new and hungry, had to fight for work and would go anywhere there was a job,” Cobb recalls.

PanelWrights project manager Wayne Hess adds that SIPs were selected for the school because of their green building characteristics that will help the project architects reach the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver level rating.

SIPs reduce the overall building time, says Hess. “The panels are large and go into place quickly. A small, well-trained crew can cover a lot of space in a day.”

Multi-level buildings with steel frames, each of the 16 separate pods present challenges not normally encountered in a school building project. Integrating the wiring and electrical, fire protection sprinkler systems, geothermal heating, water supply and other services are challenging not only Cobb’s installers, but professionals in other trades as well.

PanelWrights crews install prefabricated jumbo panels, some as large as 8×24-feet, over the structural steel frames. In place of a drop ceiling, all HVAC, sprinkler systems and lighting are installed directly to an exposed SIP ceiling. All electrical wiring, including data lines, run through the exterior SIP walls using precut channels or “chases.” Hess says this demonstrates the flexibility of structural insulated panels in accommodating various mechanical and electrical schemes.

Learning as we go
“We knew off the bat from the electrical contractor that he thought it was going to be a nightmare (to install wiring work in SIPs-built exterior walls),” Cobb says, “so we spent a lot of time on markings and labels. We had a lot of eyes looking at this. The success of the electrical rough-in is based on how well the installer does at the panel prep.”

Feedback from the electrical contractor, Cobb says, is that the challenge is not as great as he’d feared. “We’ve got a learning curve in understanding how one system integrates with the others” Cobb says. “It’s a training curve we can deal with and it seems to be working.”

“The reservation is a sovereign nation, so there is flexibility with standard building codes. That’s a key element to point out,” Cobb says. “We cannot build a public school using SIPs because of the wood-based mandate of a Type 2 foundation, so the average kid goes to school in a block, steel and glass building that is not as energy-efficient.”

“The reservation does not have to abide by the code mandates” that govern builders in the rest of the United States, Cobb continues. That gives this project leeway to build structures that are more energy-efficient and, as one result, is helping educate the rest of the state and nation on viable building alternatives.

Silver in their future
Cherokee School is aiming to achieve LEED Silver status, and the project “will make it, no doubt,” Cobb says.

“Once this certification is achieved, the Cherokee Central School facility will be the largest LEED Certified school project east of the Mississippi River,” says BE&K Building Group’s web site, which also lists the main facility as having a conventional steel structure with concrete foundations. It features a combination of standing seam metal roofing and single-ply thermoplastic membrane roofing.

Exterior veneers on the SIPs classroom buildings, explains, include patterned cement stucco system, native stone veneer wainscot, fiber cement lap siding and fiber cement board trim.

The school complex consists of an elementary school, middle school and high school. Other buildings include a sports arena, auditorium, media centers, several gymnasiums, cafeterias and kitchens, plus soccer field with track, softball/baseball complex, playgrounds, walking trails, asphalt paving and parking areas. Cherokee School is scheduled to open in 2009.

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