Architect Toby Long, AIA, tends to agree. Long often looks to panelized options such as prefab and modular, but he has a weakness for SIPs. “SIPs is a pretty cool building technology from a construction and resource conservation perspective and from a long-term energy-conservation perspective,” says Long, principal of Toby Long Design and owner of Clever Homes in San Francisco. He adds that clients “tell us that they have been amazingly satisfied with the performance of the panels.”
With SIPs, the building envelope is so tight and the R-value so high “that the house stays at a more constant temperature,” Long says. As such, inhabitants are more comfortable, they save money on utilities, and air conditioners run less.
Camille Urban Jobe, AIA, has been a believer in the panels since 2004 when she built her first SIPs house. “I wasn’t so familiar with it, but the contractor had used it and liked it a lot,” says Jobe, principal of Urban Jobe Architecture in Austin, Texas. She now uses the panelized system whenever the opportunity arises.
SIPs technology also has been endorsed by the people whose job it is to assess the merits of a technology and its relevance to the construction industry. Oakridge National Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for example, has confirmed that SIPs have a higher whole-wall insulation value and R-value than a conventional framed stud wall.
This kind of performance is important to In Site:Architecture in Perry, N.Y. When it was looking at a current LEED project and wanted the best thermal envelope, the firm chose a hybrid system of insulated concrete forms and SIPs. “It had the best R-value for the money,” says project architect Dave Matthews, AIA, LEED AP. “The areas where you would typically have heat loss were minimized.” He says the firm’s considering panelized systems for other projects to see how they might affect construction, labor, insulation value, and energy performance.
Most SIPs are made with oriented strand board skins, but manufacturers are branching out with new developments. 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.
Credit: Courtesy Premier Building Systems
Modern-style buildings with their angular planes and simple construction lend themselves nicely to panelized systems, manufacturers say.
Oceansafe’s products feature expanded polystyrene cores but are assembled with a “snap-together system that makes them highly resistant to the traditional destructive forces of nature,” the company says. The panels are screwed together at 6 inches on center, and can be wind-rated for 156 to 220 mph winds.
InnoVida Holdings in Miami Beach, Fla., has gone even further with its panelized system. The company’s Fiber Composite Panel is a load-bearing insulating foam system whose skins are made from fiber fabrics impregnated with a fire-resistant polymeric epoxy resin. In addition to exterior walls, InnoVida also offers interior walls, beams, columns, profiles, and roofing panels so you could build an entire house with the products.
Panelized systems are easy for architects to incorporate into their work. James Hodgson, general manager for Premier Building Systems in Fife, Wash., says panels allow architects to push the envelope. “Architects love precision and they love to play with longer spans,” he says. “The panels are true and straight and they support heavier loads.” In most cases, the panel supplier will translate plans into a buildable format, Fusco says.
But that’s not to say panels don’t have limitations. Contemporary houses are easier to build, but complex roof lines can be tricky. Also, the cost between on-site framing and panels depend on factors such as labor market, design of the home, and region of the country. Many times, Fusco says, panels cost a bit less but usually on-site framing and panels are about the same price.
Still, Weyerhaeuser’s Parsons says panels solve problems and can benefit architects. “Panels have evolved to the point where they can build anything.”