Tuesday, January 11, 2011

SIPs Offer Rural Growth Potential

In spite of being originally conceived and incorporated into a durable home as far back as 1937, stressed skin and structural insulated panels only gained significant attention in the 1970s.  Even then, widespread acceptance of this building design component did not occur, and remains more of an anomaly than a conventional, commonplace technology.
In part, the higher materials cost for SIPs versus stick frame construction deters many builders, much like the higher capital cost of energy-efficient homes and alternative energy systems deters homeowners from converting their old natural gas furnaces, hot water systems and electric power sources into cutting edge systems. 
However, capital cost versus ongoing operating expense analyses consistently show that there is a considerable saving achieved through using EPS/OSB structural panels.  Offsetting initial materials cost is a general reduction in construction and assembly costs by onsite labourers.  The more airtight format of the SIPs means greater energy savings.  SIP construction also provides greater axial strength than stick frame building.
Several successful building concepts and projects, however, have been developed using SIPs as the core of the design innovations.  One company – Britco – has a huge array of building options, from hotels & motels to seniors housing, offices, residences and schools that they have built using SIP technology.  In 2010, Britco’s modular unit system that comprised the Whistler Athlete’s Lodge during the Olympics was presented with the top award for design excellence in North America.  Build to LEED standards, it provided optimum energy efficiency, versatility and comfort for the athletes.
In 2004, a Northern Village modular building that was constructed with SIP panelling was tested in the harsh Nunavut environment (far north Arctic), and was so airtight that an opening had to be temporarily provided so that the airflow tests would register.
In spite of the significant performance record of SIP construction, relatively few firms have been established that focus on SIP production.  This opens a huge door for many rural communities, strategically situated within striking distance of lumber mills and forestry operations.  Whether the emphasis simply is on engineered SIPs for resale to the construction industry, or on finished products such as pre-manufactured homes, apartment complex modules, restaurants & kiosks or even temporary shelters, the array of available products for sale is substantial. 
There are several advantages to constructing SIPs and SIP-integrated buildings in the rural communities near logging plants.  EPS and rigid foam insulation is light, with reduced transportation costs.  Moving the OSB or plywood panelling to another site would still require shipping EPS to that assembly area, as well, meaning that there is no significant advantage to outsourcing SIP assembly away from the nearby mills.  Sip panels can be constructed to template requirements, including window & door openings and electrical & plumbing channels cut into place, and then shipped flat to the job site, where they would be assembled.  Modules could be assembled at the mill site, then shipped on flatbeds to the construction site, more economically than building from scratch on site.  By assembling components and modules in a temperature-controlled factory, the impact of seasonal weather is eliminated.
Probably, however, the greatest advantage is to the local economy, with value-added manufacturing creating local jobs.  Thus, primary processing is tandemed with secondary processing of the local raw materials.
One small rural company in western Canada assembles prepared components for small cabins, with 100 sq.ft. of floor space.  These cabins have been used as storage buildings, farm outbuildings, construction site offices and even “quickie” summer cabins.  A few have been joined by breezeways to form a network of buildings for a small fishing lodge.  The small footprint means that these buildings “fly beneath the radar” of many municipal and urban zoning bylaws, that commonly require permits for buildings larger than 10 square meters.  This, in turn, opens the builder’s market to a larger range of buyers.  Such a concept would form an excellent micro-business model for rural communities across the continent, whether they are located adjacent to forestry operations or not.
SIP construction offers a wealth of ideas and gateways to small business development in a variety of other areas, as well.  In fact, such small businesses could help to stimulate economical and efficient local development of housing complexes for seniors and low income families, or upscale homes, expansion of local schools and medical facilities in a cost-efficient manner, and development of tourism micro-sites to attract visitors to local icons and points of interest.  The possibilities are vast.

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