If you are interested in building green, one method that promises to grow in popularity is structural insulated panels. Although currently capturing a very small percentage of the U.S. market, SIP buildings are gaining converts as the push for green brings forward new building codes and incentives.
Steve Urban and son Will, owners of Urban Building LLC, Fairmont, Minn., know first hand the benefits, and while only a small percentage of their business is currently SIP, Steve is confident it will only continue to grow. “They’re catching on. They’re a great idea. We believe in them,” he says.
They believe in them so highly they became SIP dealers through Energy Panel Structures about six years ago. Will’s home was not an EPS system, but they choose EPS because they liked the company’s diversity, such as the availability of EPS trusses.
“EPS and their on-staff engineers have been a big help in making additions work out well,” he says.
It was Will who first introduced the father and son team to SIP. “My son’s home we put up with SIPS,” Urban explains. That first winter, the new 2,200 square foot SIP home consumed half as much energy as the 1,100 square foot conventional home Steve had retrofit for energy efficiency.
As the Structural Insulated Panel Association describes them, SIPS is a panel system used in floors, walls, and roofs consisting of an insulating foam core sandwiched between two structural facings, typically oriented strand board. They are manufactured under factory-controlled conditions and can be fabricated to fit nearly any building design. Once completing a project, it looks like any other building.
“When we first started doing it, people had the misconception that it was some type of prefab rather than a complete building system. It’s just like a conventional building package only you replace the exterior wall with the SIPs panels,” Urban says.
Currently SIPS is selling to a specialized audience, such as high-end homeowners, farmers and commercial businesses. For the average consumer, “It’s somewhat of a tough sell because they’re a little higher priced,” Urban explains.
“They’re more expensive to buy but cheaper to own,” he continues, adding that the average consumer comes in with a budget tight to his lending capacity and lending companies don’t take long-term energy benefits into consideration.
He sees the SIPS market growing stronger, however. “We do several shows with EPS over the course of the year and we do a couple of home shows for ourselves, and in talking with people, the word is getting out there that foam is a better insulator than fiberglass. They know that foam’s better, but when we tell them how much better you sometimes get this ‘oh yeah?’”
The best argument for disbelievers is word-of-mouth testimonials from SIP building owners who are enjoying the energy benefits.
A case in point is a 34 x 56 foot double office addition the Urbans completed for a client. It contained a vaulted room and stone fireplace where the customer planned to include a sophisticated wood burner insert. After the first winter, without the wood burner insert, the building stayed a consistent 70 degrees through passive heat alone, so they redefined their plans. They felt the wood burner would make the room too hot. They went with natural gas instead.
Urban points out that this particular customer was also able to take advantage of energy-use incentives. “They had infloor heat with an electric boiler. They put this on a separate meter as the local electric company gave them a reduced rate for their heat,” he said, explaining: “It is important for builders and customers to check for incentives and rebates as they are continually changing and available from many agencies.”
The work Urban does uses a truss system, although SIP roofing panels are typically used on larger projects. “Any plan you bring in we can work with. If you find a plan you like online I can take that to EPS and they can get that to work.”
Urban did not find working with SIPS difficult. “I enjoy working with SIPS,” he says. We have a building crew we sub to, and they just love doing a SIPS, too. They tell us, ‘bid all of them you want.’”
It doesn’t take a lot of special tools or equipment. “They will make some pretty good sized panels,” Urban says, “but typically on a residential project two guys can handle them quite easy. If you do a roof system it’s almost imperative to have a lift for that. Otherwise, on my son’s home, I did probably a third of the first story walls myself one day… I don’t know I’d want to do that every day but that particular day I did.”
Urban believes Americans are on a ‘honeymoon’ with energy costs, but in the long run, “I don’t think we’re going to see it any better, so any kind of efficiency you can build in is going to have some worth.”
When stacking up all the available efficiency options, from SIPS to triple pane windows to geothermal and more, a net-zero energy building is possible, but at some point “you start losing time for them to pay themselves off,” Urban advises. For that reason, he feels SIPS is one of the most cost-effective options. “For the money you put in, with SIPS you probably get the most payback,” he says, and as more consumers discover this, builders should be prepared for a future when SIPS will be the norm, not the exception. “I just think builders need to keep these things in mind and be ready and go with them,” he concludes, “because [SIPS] are going to catch on at some point and I don’t doubt they will some day be the typical build.”