Do you cringe each month when your utility bill arrives in the mail? If high energy costs are getting you down, don't blame your electronic devices. Heating and cooling are the largest energy expense for most homes, reports the U.S. Department of Energy.
If you dream of building a new, custom home, you must make some fundamental decisions about how the home will be built in order to avoid thousands of dollars in wasted energy costs each year.
When you picture your dream home under construction, you likely think of hundreds of wall studs (the skeleton of a building) creating the frame of your home, as that is how many U.S. homes are built — from tract homes to custom-built mansions. So-called "stick framing" has been the standard practice in home building since the 1800s. Yet, this method is notoriously difficult and expensive to make energy efficient, leading to high heating and cooling bills.
More custom home builders have discovered an advanced method of building that can help reduce a home's heating and cooling energy consumption up to 60 percent compared to stick framing. The system is structural insulated panels (SIPs), which can be used to form walls, roofs and floors in big sections (24 ft. each) that install quickly and easily. SIPs panels are made when structural wood sheathing is laminated to a rigid foam core for superior strength and insulation. Compared to traditional two-by-four stud walls, SIPs have thicker and more continuous insulation for exceptional insulating power, and have far fewer gaps where heated indoor air can leak out.
"Making a home airtight is the most critical thing you can do for high energy efficiency," says Garrett Strong, president of Tall Pines Construction, Inc., in Park City, Utah. In one custom home Strong built for the O'Meara family in the snowy foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, the large SIP panels leave few spaces for gaps and help super-insulate the home. This high efficiency allowed the home to supply 90 percent of its heating and cooling needs through passive solar energy.
Likewise, when it came time to design her own home, Montana architect Becki D. Miller, AIA, used SIPs to help create a structure that she estimates is about 30 times more airtight than a conventional home. In addition to being energy efficient, Miller notes that SIPs help simplify and speed construction. "In one step, you can have the walls up and they're insulated and sheathed," says Miller. "With SIPs, we had the walls up in only two days."
"While SIPs are an advanced building method, they're not new," says James Hodgson, general manager of Premier SIPs, a manufacturer based near Tacoma, Washington. "SIP homes have been built in the U.S. since the 1960s, but with new interest in energy-efficient construction, more people are asking for SIPs." Hodgson notes that manufacturers continue to innovate with SIPs, including new types of insulating cores. His company's Platinum SIPs, for example, use a new type of insulation that increases the panels' insulating power by more than 20 percent.
Scott Bergford, another custom home builder, based in Olympia, Washington, focuses almost exclusively on SIP construction. "Everyone is so amazed by the energy efficiency SIPs provide," says Bergford. "It only costs an average of $200 to $300 a year to heat one of my homes. That's anywhere from one-fifth to one-sixth the typical costs for this region, so the savings are pretty significant, and the homeowners love that."