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?