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SIPA Conference Wrap Up

by Nic Darling on April 27, 2009 · 5 comments

in Building Science,envelope,event,Press and News

While I didn’t announce this on the blog, those that follow me on Twitter know I was in Chicago for the SIPA (Structurally Insulated Panel Association) Annual Meeting and Conference this past week. I was asked to come and present on the 100k House project and was kindly allowed to attend some of the conferences sessions. I also had an opportunity to meet Neil Shipley, the man behind our Suretight Panels, and talk a bit about the future over a couple of beers.

The sessions I sat in on were impressive for what is actually a fairly modest conference. Particularly interesting were the presentations by Jeff Christian of Oakridge National Lab and Alex Lukacho of Building Science Corporation. Jeff spoke about his experiments with SIPs and advanced framing techniques in an effort to build affordable net-zero homes. He has done several side-by-side comparisons of different envelopes in the course of this study which makes for incredibly useful information. Alex presented techniques and information from the Builders Guide to Structurally Insulated Panels, a book to which he was a major contributor. He focused primarily on water management which is a key challenge when building an incredibly tight home.

My own talk was very well received by the conference attendees. Like many construction related industries, the SIPs providers and their material suppliers are struggling a bit in this economy. Their challenge right now seems to be finding their way into a larger market then the one into which they have been cornered. The relatively high upfront cost of SIPs (an issue we have been heard to complain about) has limited the adoption of the building system. Their current users tend toward higher cost, one-off projects for builders with a specific interest in panelized construction, air tightness and/or true insulation values. So, our project’s relatively low price point and high performance were appealing. In the 100k House some of the audience saw a larger market opportunity.

The presentation was a fairly short (30 minutes) overview of the 100k Project. I gave them the specs on the building, the design considerations, thoughts on LEED and other standards and some of the philosophy behind our choices. I also talked a bit about the importance of marketing throughout the project from conception to sale. In the end their were a number of questions and the usual amount of friendly disbelief.

Throughout the conference (including the comments and questions that followed my talk) I heard SIPs providers say that they needed a way into the first time home buyer market and other low cost segments. I would like to suggest a few ways in which the industry could interest developers/builders in that market. I will, for the moment, exclude the SIPs industries convincing arguments on performance because, while compelling, they haven’t yet overcome the builder’s resistance to change and higher upfront cost.

1. Lower Prices – This isn’t necessarily possible at the moment, but it is important to keep in mind that this is a key deterrent to SIPs adoption. Perhaps increased volume will eventually result in lower prices, but if there is any way to cut costs now it could spark a major transition. The system is great, thinks a builder/developer, but that doesn’t matter if I can’t make the numbers work.

2. Training – There is training available for SIPs but I think it could be delivered more conveniently. On-site training by the manufacturer delivering the panels could be a great way to make sure the first experience a crew has with SIPs is a good one. Even for one-off homes this could be a good practice in the beginning as each build reflects on the overall image of the system.

3. Online Materials – There are plenty of materials online that seek to teach about SIPs, but the good ones aren’t always easy to find and they don’t make great use of the technology available. I would love to see more video tutorials and explanations. I would also love to see an end to downloadable PDFs which are not web optimized and to which I can’t effectively link. This will help people work with the system and, better yet, it will help them discover it in the first place.

4. Design Interaction – This ties in with several of the previous points. Proper design of a building can make SIPs more effective and easier to install. I have heard SIPs proponents brag that any building can be built with SIPs, but I assume there are dimensions and details that would make for an easier panel creation and assembly. Manufacturers should insist on being involved in the design discussion to reduce cost and complexity where possible.

5. Partner Wisely – To the manufacturers: The right marketing savvy developers and builders can, with the right product, make a lot of good noise for SIPs. Find those people who are using SIPs most effectively and champion their cause. Even if the panels in the project aren’t your own, the publicity is bound to positively effect your sales. (A little selfish perhaps, but I do think this is important)

Many of these things are already done and none of them are earth shattering revelations, but after the conference I thought it might be useful to start this list.

Now it’s your turn. Part of my presentation was about the community that reads and comments on this blog and the level to which they have contributed to our designs and ideas. Prove me right by giving some more tips or by expanding on what I have above. How can SIPs appeal to a broader market?

Comment Time!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 tlynch April 27, 2009 at 1:16 pm

I think that the SIP industry would benefit greatly from thoroughly documenting of best practices and how existing building materials should be used with a SIP built house.

For instance, on the web I find many threads discussing using Hardie panels as siding over sips as you did. There is much discussion over how to attach the panels because of fear of voiding the warranty of Hardie panels.

I am interested in spray foam roofing, but have been unable to find official documentation of its use over a SIP roof. One spray foam manufacturer suggested that it could be sprayed directly onto the exterior OSB, but the possibility of roof failure causing major structural damage to the structural SIP worried me greatly.

I am interested in low-cost plywood siding and am considering its use with SIPS, directly over 30# felt, but although I am sure it would work, I am unable to find existing examples to copy, or best practices to follow.

I think that these documents could easily be created by a joint effort between SIPA and leading manufacturers such as Hardie.

2 chad April 27, 2009 at 2:24 pm

If you’re going for plywood siding, I would recommend using Marine Grade Ply. I’ve seen a very slick example of this application online, but can’t quite remember where it was now.

3 Roo April 27, 2009 at 4:57 pm

my dad built our family home around 17 years ago out of SIPs; he was an “early adopter” of the concept. It saved us SO much on utility bills over the years- we’d pay around half of what our neighbors on either side of us paid for A/C during the hot summer Texas months, and the house was alwasy cool and comfortable. Same deal (but with heat) in winter time.

I think your suggestions are all good and the SIP industry would do well to follow them.
I know it’s probably not what they want to hear, but upfront cost is a HUGE issue. I work in the hopitality design industry now, and I run across so many cool materials everyday, but if it’s not in the budget, no one even gives it a second glance. Architects and designers have a hard enough time trying to convince owners to use novel materials in the design without overcoming the hurdle of trying to sell them on a higher price tag, too.
Owners and developers who actually have the patience and foresight to think about total life cycle cost are still rare. Everyone assumes that the end user will assume the daily operating costs in the end, so why should they inflate their construction budget for a “good deed” or money saving product when all the client cares about during the construction phase of the building is construction cost?
One option to fight this is to get your sales force out on the ground, educating as many owner/developers as you can about the benefits of the project. I have hope that the entire industry working to increase owner education and awareness of the long-term benefits of sustainable products will eventually change the way money’s spent, but in the short run- lowering the price will get you more sales than spending money on seminars and marketing collateral.

Another thing to look at is trying to target owner/developers with skin in the game, someone who will inhabit or operate in the space once it’s built. If they have a stake in the daily operating costs, they’re more likely to think about investing upfront- or at least more likely to sit still for 10 minutes while you give your sales pitch. Go for the commercial owner/operator sector- or maybe the government sector- they tend to hang on to a property for a long time after purchase or construction without bothering to renovate, so having a product that lasts and lasts and continues saving money year after year would be of undeniable value there.

4 Chris Dolan- SIP Manufacturer April 28, 2009 at 4:08 pm

Great Blog, lot’s of good ideas on how we as manufacturers can improve our exposure and market share. Our industry is very regulated and testing is a top priority because our product is structural. Anytime you change a part of a traditional SIP Panel OSB x2 and EPS core) there needs to be significant and expensive test data behind it. I would love to just change outer or inner skins but it’s not that easy. You can add many things to the panels once up and that’s a way to get around things.

Nic did a great job presenting the 100K house, wish we had hundreds more builders with his vision.

One of the most important things to remember about SIP’s came from Roo’s post above. They saved his family SO Much money on the heating and cooling. I don’t think energy cost are going down in the future??? The little bit extra up front will pay for itself in a very short period. You can’t build a more energy efficient house than a SIP shell, period.

If anyone is looking for a panel manufacturer in and around Columbus, Ohio, please drop me a line or look us up.

Chris D

5 Peter L April 28, 2009 at 7:09 pm

It may not be the marine plywood example Chad was thinking of, but there was an interesting house in the Summer 2008 issue of Fine Homebuilding (page 64) that used marine plywood as part of its siding solution: http://www.hkpa.com/projects/residential/MasonRoth/index.htm

I have to differ with Nic on PDFs. I think PDFs are much easier to use than web pages. PDFs can be downloaded, used offline, and printed. Web pages are often ill-formatted when printed out (do you expect to bring a computer to a construction site and hand it to a worker?) and depend on the particular flavor of browser one uses.

I think Nic is right on the money with #4. There is no shame (and lots to gain) through providing guidelines, tools, etc. to tailor a design to reduce SIP costs and improve manufacturing.

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