Andy Schreder, Chief Building Officer of Rum River Construction Consultants joins today’s session to talk about ‘’Structural Insulated Panels’’ or SIPs. These are insulated foam cores with an OSB or plywood glued on each face; it acts as a structural component as an exterior wall assembly. Currently, their company is raising funds to erect SIPs buildings in Haiti.
Andy shares that SIPs are becoming more prevalent in the modern building infrastructure because of the energy efficiency; the way SIPs seal the buildings tighter to meet the present energy cope. He also discusses the peculiarities of the SIP building designs and their advantages.
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The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Bill Oelrich: Super excited to have our good friend, Andy Schreder back from Rum River Construction Consultants. Hi, Andy. How’s it going?
Andy Schreder: Hello guys. Doing great, just trying to deal with this Minnesota weather, every day is completely different, and it’s quite exciting.
BO: Welcome, everyone, to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman as always, your three-legged stool, coming to you from the Northland. Well, Andy, I’m really excited to talk to you today. We scratched the surface a couple of weeks ago on our podcast, talking about SIPs, and I know this is an area of particular interest for you, and so we’re gonna talk a little bit about SIPs, what they are. But before we dive into that, I’m gonna ask you to tee up a story that is near and dear to your heart, where you’re actually involving SIPs into some very good work that you’re doing in another country. So can you give us a little back story of your work with SIPs outside the US?
Reuben Saltzman: And I just gotta say, we have not defined SIPs yet. We’ve said it a few times now.
BO: Yeah, well, we’ll define them, Structurally Insulated Panels.
RS: Thank you, Bill.
AS: It’s an insulated foam core, with OSB or plywood glued on each face, it acts as a structural component as an exterior wall assembly, and there’s a whole lot more to it as you start looking into it with greater interest. There’s so many resources on YouTube and the internet as far as what building components those are. The system I think was developed or started to be developed in the early ’70s. Tessa, you might have a little bit more historical knowledge on that as well, but it’s really something that is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s building infrastructure, just because of the energy efficiency and the way that you can seal these buildings up so much tighter in order to meet today’s energy code.
RS: And if I can just put this in layman’s terms, what you just described, maybe if I were gonna simplify it, I’d say it’s an alternative to using studs, Fiberglass Batt Insulation, and sheathing, right?
AS: Yes, sir. It’s the exterior wall assembly. As you set these panels, the thickness is from 4 to 12 inches and increments in between, you frame your exterior wall, you insulate your exterior wall, and you sheath the inside and outside in one step.
RS: Beautiful. Got it.
BO: Reuben, I have to correct you, everybody who listens to our podcast is highly intelligent, they understand building at a very high level, there are no layman’s in our world.
RS: This is just for me, this is so I understand, Bill. That’s all.
BO: Thank you for dumbing it down for yourself, we appreciate that.
AS: My sister started doing outreach and mission work in Haiti probably 15 years ago, and she’s invited me to go every time, and finally, I ran out of noes. Every year she would ask me and every year, there was something else going on and I just ran out of noes. And now that combined with my interest in a general contracting company, I just started Performance By Design, we’re building performance-based construction in Minnesota climate. And as we realize, protecting ourselves from the outdoor climate in Minnesota is important. It just became basically the realization that same thing is important in other climates. And so we’re connecting that with my sister’s work down in Cap-Haïtien in Haiti. The work down there… Their building methods are so ancient and so labor-intensive, they basically make their concrete blocks one by one by hand. They mix the cement, the sand in the water on the ground, by hand, they mix it and turn it, and then they have a form that they make their concrete blocks by hand. They take that form over across the yard, they turn it upside down, they shake it and jiggle it ’til the form comes off.
AS: Now you have a CMU, you have a concrete masonry unit, and then you go back and you do it again. And you make these blocks one by one, and that after they cure out in the sun for a few days, then you can start stacking them up with, again, hand-mixed mortar into a wall. A lot of rebar, a lot of cement in Haiti. Due to the weather conditions, the wind, and things of that nature, they have to make a very strong building and that’s understood, but these things are so labor-intensive, it takes them so long to build stuff, and then, unfortunately, they get to a certain point, waist or chest high, they run out of time, they run out of money, they run out of whatever, and the structure stays like that. They don’t realize any shelter or benefit for their work. So my brother Joe and I started looking at this along with my sister, as far as, “You know what, let’s take this building technology to Haiti.” So what we’re doing is, there’s a GoFundMe page, we’re actually raising money and we’re working with Extreme Panel out of Cottonwood for a SIPs building.
AS: My company, Rum River Construction Consultants, a contract building official, we paid for the architecture, so we have full drawn plans, we have architecture… I’d love to share it with you guys. You’d like to see it. And so now the plans are being drawn up by Extreme Panel, and then the goal is to raise money over the summer, and then this fall, the SIPs panels put into shipping containers, sent down to Haiti, and then sometime in like December, we’re getting a crew of people together to go down there to erect SIPs building. Slab itself will be completed by local Haitians, concrete, and rebar, that’s what they do and they do it well.
AS: So they’ll do the slab itself, and then we’ll go down there this fall, we’re thinking three weeks, the first week we’ll go down there to form around the perimeter and we’re gonna pour the curb, just because with lasers, we can make sure that the curb is level and square. So the SIPs panels, when those go on there, we’ll have a complete level system to start with. So that’ll be the first week to get the curb in place and then unpackage the shipping containers, and then for the next two weeks, we’re gonna have some carpenters come down and we’re taking applications.
AS: So, anybody who wants to pony up for this, this will be a fantastic opportunity to let me know. We’re helping people get their passports and get all that realized. There’s gonna be a woman that… A retired woman from the northeast that’s gonna be helping… She will meet the carpenters in Fort Lauderdale and then help walkthrough customs as they get to Haiti and all of that, there are drivers and also translators that are gonna help with that process so that the people who come down there to help volunteer are gonna be comfortable. They’re not gonna be stressed out because… This was my first trip to Haiti and it was kind of intimidating. When I was down there, the first part of May… I was able to go down there with my sister, of course, we visited the property. So my sister and her husband bought 21 acres. It’s outside of Cap-Haïtien and it’s beautiful farmland with the mountains in the background.
AS: It’s just quite beautiful. So they bought these 21 acres, they’re working with the local agronomy department, as far as soil analysis and soil tests, it’s really a whole set up. And the iF Foundation does a lot of work there, as far as making soil amendments, they have composting worms, and they actually make their own dirt. It’s really incredible as far as making sure that the soil is gonna support the peanuts, the sweet corn, the watermelon, the things that are of high value to the people in Haiti.
BO: So Andy, is there anything about SIP panels that makes a ton of sense in Haiti, other than they can go together quickly, if you set this foundation true, they’re very forgiving because it’s fast and that kind of thing, but is there something related to the hurricanes that they can withstand forces that may be a standard building can’t?
AS: Well, the way they build things, that’s a great question, and out of concrete and rebar, they build things in such a way that they’re certainly gonna withstand the wind events that they have. There is some engineering and some design parameters that are a little different in a Haitian-designed building than a Minnesotan building. They obviously don’t have frost concerns or snow load concerns, they have wind, so when we’re designing the slab and it’s more the connection, it’s the connection from the SIPs panels to the foundation itself, and so that’s where the engineering department, we’re reaching out to Simpson, as far as getting the right anchoring system so that this box can be built in such a way that the box is gonna be solid. It’s the connection of that box to the foundation to make sure there’s no overturning or shifting or lateral loads that make sure that the lateral loads are gonna be satisfied.
BO: In their construction and their concrete blockhouses, what type of roof are they putting on? Is it kind of a hand-frame simplistic design, is it… And will it be the same for this… On top of these two?
AS: I’ve seen two different roof systems down there, a hand-frame dimensional lumber, which is kind of surprising to me, or they form up their roofs with plywood and bamboo sticks, and then they pour concrete roofs, flat, low pitch. It’s really impressive to see the Haitians, they work so stinking hard. They have literally bamboo ladders leaning up against the building and they stage their people up the ladder, and with a bucket brigade, basically concrete is handed up the ladders with buckets, and then they pour it into this form, and then they throw the buckets down and it’s a whole chain being done.
RS: I’m having a tough time picturing this, Andy. I’ve seen concrete tiles on roofs, but it almost sounds like they’re just pouring one big chunk of concrete.
AS: Essentially that’s what it is. They have intermediate wall to help support the plywood to support the roof, they form a roof out of plywood, and then underneath they have bamboo vertical supports to keep the plywood in place and then with a ton of rebar. It’s amazing because there are literally motorcycles driving down the street, pulling small bundles of rebar all over the place. So they pull sticks of rebar down the road, just like nothing. So the rebar is supported in place and they make a grid pattern in the roof, and then with a bucket brigade, they pour concrete, and then they’ll pull out the bamboo and then the plywood forms, so they can use them again, and they have a concrete roof ceiling.
RS: So how thick is this concrete roof?
AS: You know, I didn’t see any cross-sections… That’s a great question. I was down there a week and it was a busy, busy week, but I would guess 6 to 8 inches, 6 to 10 inches, perhaps. That’s a great question, Reuben. And that’s one thing I’m gonna have to look into. It’s either one of the two, it’s either the hand-frame roof, dimensional lumber as rafters or it was the concrete roof, and I don’t know when or why they would switch.
RS: So what do these things weigh?
AS: It’s gotta be astronomical, three-story structures guys, three-story buildings with a concrete roof.
RS: I just can’t wrap my head around this. This is amazing! Okay.
AS: I will share the folder with you. The pictures that we took, I took a couple hundred photos down there.
BO: My wife is from India and we’ve spent some time in India, and they build the same way, everything is poured concrete and you just keep building up, and it’s a slow methodical process, but it gets done and they’re bulletproof when they’re set, and they’re old, too by the time they’re set up, because it takes them so long to build them.
Tessa Murry: One question for you Andy. Bill, you just said the concrete is bulletproof, just wondering with SIP panels in a hot, humid climate like that, do you have to worry about durability with the wood and being exposed to moisture and water and all that?
AS: Absolutely. Not only moisture, but termites and some others, but there’s some additives to the SIPs panels to the plywood, the boric that they add to the OSP that protects it against termites, and we’re working with Greener World Solutions out of Waseca, they’re gonna be providing the water-proof membrane. So essentially, the building, the panels are gonna be encapsulated either with a silicone… I forget the other products that they’re looking at, they’re gonna be sprayed inside and outside to prevent or protect them, if you will, from the hot, humid weather, but then also the roofing system, making sure that the overhangs are long enough or wide enough in order to keep the weather off the wall.
BO: But typically, a multi-story building that you’re building?
AS: This is gonna be a single story, it’s gonna have a loft, so the knee walls from the downstairs ceiling to the upper will have like a 3-foot knee wall, but there’s gonna be a loft on two ends, and then the center will be vaulted. But to your earlier question about the benefits, it’s really helping people get out of the weather. And granted, I’m a Minnesota boy, but the heat and the humidity is just gotta be so draining on anybody, even if you’re used to it. So the shell of this building out of SIPs panels is gonna be easier to condition and with solar panels, there’s gonna be able to run a little mini-split in there to cool and dehumidify the interior of this building.
AS: So the thought is this house is really built for everybody; it’s built for the locals that are gonna be working in there, as well as the volunteers that come from the States and from anywhere else. You can go and you can work on the farm, you can help the Haitians till the fields and harvest the crops, and then when you need to or you want to, you can go into this building, a little of an escape to get out of the heat and the humidity and kind of regroup.
TM: Do a lot of those concrete houses have some sort of cooling… Central cooling systems, they use mini-splits, or do most of them just not have any sort of…
AS: Tessa, literally dirt floor. They literally have dirt floors. Some have concrete floors, no space conditioning, no electricity. My sister, just to put a plug in, she started this so many years ago, she would ask us going to garage sales, she had a brigade of people that would go out looking for the treadle sewing machine. She’s an attorney in Minneapolis, and by night she’s a seamstress, she loves to sew. So her big mission to go down there was to help people help themselves. That’s how this all started, she, with treadle sewing machines, she went down there and she would help them make reusable diapers and also sanitary kits for the young women, so she would help them help themselves by giving them products to make, then they would sell those products. So she started with these treadle sewing machines and the project started evolving to the point where they made enough diapers, feminine hygiene kits that they were able to buy a generator.
AS: Well, that generator makes electricity, so now they’re sending down electric sewing machines, and that evolved to the point where they built a building, a sewing center, and now that sewing center has intermittent power, but it also has the generator. So when the Haitian women come in to sew, if there’s not reliable power from the grid, which happens quite often, they have a large diesel generator, so they can run the electric sewing machines.
BO: That’s awesome, that’s awesome. Andy, when did you connect the dots, and were you the one who connected the SIPs to Haiti, like “This would be a great idea,” or was this like a mastermind of several people who were just house geeks?
AS: It all happened at the same time. It was funny because over the wintertime… I’m pretty close with my brothers and sisters. Over the wintertime, we were visiting and my sister Ellen, like clockwork, “Are you coming to Haiti? Are you coming to Haiti?” And finally, my brother Joe and I were looking at this adventure for a new company, GC company on performance-based construction, and Ellie said, “We need a house in Haiti, why don’t you do it out of SIPs?”
AS: And it was just that simple. And from there, we’ve been working quite hard. I have a nice book here in the office that shows the color pictures, the floor plan, the elevations, and she just started a 501  [c] company, a non-profit, and there’s a slide show out there… I’d love to make it available to people, again to draw some support and perhaps contributions to this. It’s just amazing. Everybody doing a little bit. We can get there.
AS: So that’s how it started. We were visiting over the wintertime, that’s how the project kinda came to fruition, and then my wife and I decided that we would have the company pay for the design work, and so we have the design work ready to go and the plans are developed, and now we’re just looking at developing support and also carpenters, people to go down and put this thing together.
BO: That sounds awesome. Okay, so back to Minnesota, you’re launching a new GC company, and you’re going to focus on using SIPs in your construction…
BO: And how long have you been working on that project?
AS: Well, I’ve been working on that for the last couple of years, and as you guys, we came to know each other through Rum River Construction Consultants, that’s where I am the Contract Building Official for municipalities, cities, and townships, and that’s really where I’ve been working my career for the last 20 years. It’s a valuable commodity, it’s a needed service, there’s a real public need for that. However, I’ve often thought it would be exciting to work with people because they wanted to work with you, not ’cause the law stated they had to work with you.
AS: It’s really playing defense right out of the gate because you’re working with the customer as far as the building permits go, you’re working with a customer because they must buy your product, and not only do they have to buy your product, they must buy it from you, so it’s not like they have the ability to shop around and make a buying decision based on what they want… A customer service approach or what have you… It’s state-mandated. We’re working again, playing defense a little bit, and I wanted to work with customers that were more inclined to perform such a way that they wanted to work with you, not that they had to.
AS: So I’ve been telling my wife that for years, and finally, the way God smiles on people, this all came in front of me at one time, so I’m kind of handing the reins off to one of our inspectors, Grant. He’s taking care of a lot of the day-to-day operations with Construction Consultants. We rented another office in the same building, so now we’re really able to concentrate… We’re working on website design and everything that a startup business needs.
BO: Tell me about a SIP house in how you’re designing them for the end-user. Are you going from the foundation completely through, including the roof system?
AS: Dirt to doorknobs. It’s really from beginning to end. We met with two clients today up in Mora, two brothers, actually, they wanna build on the same property. So from an introduction standpoint, we wanna get to know them and our ultimate client is somebody who has done this before. Really, a first-time home buyer is not gonna be a good fit for this type of a scenario. We’d love to work with people that have built a house or two and have maybe made some decisions that they wouldn’t make again. And I’m really a big fan of age in place, live in place, whatever terminology you might wanna utilize.
AS: Slab-on-grade, shallow frost foundation, radiant floor heat, mini-splits for air conditioning, there’s a lot of design aspects that can be incorporated into a SIPs building, a performance-based construction that’s really there for the long haul, for the longevity. And then ultimately, a net-zero home would be our goal, incorporating a little bit of solar, tight envelope, quality, double, triple pane windows, a lot to be said about the orientation of the building, as far as maximizing the solar heat gain in the winter and deflecting it in the summer, that design concept is fascinating to me.
BO: You mean just don’t orient it according to the street, and call it good?
AS: No, that’s just it. And that’s the nice thing about this as well, is the people that are interested and able to build these, I believe are gonna write out the next downturn in the economy that’s coming. I think especially as we compete with dimensional lumber stick-frame buildings, the SIPs building future is bright. We prefer to call it performance-based construction.
RS: So Andy, why is it that you say you’d rather work with somebody who has already built a house before, why is it not a good fit to work with a first-time home… Well, I shouldn’t say builder, but someone who’s having their first house built?
AS: We learn more from what we do wrong than what we do right. And if you’re working with… Like this morning, I was visiting with Danielle and they had, I think, two houses under their belt already, one they built and one they bought. And now they’re at the position, this is gonna be their forever home. They’re more interested and able to grasp the long-term planning, that’s I guess what it comes down to, long-term planning, and the people that haven’t been through this before, they don’t mind… Nothing against the split entries, you can do that well, you can do that poorly. But from a long-term perspective, as far as managing stairs, somebody that’s a little more seasoned, they get the zero entry shower, they get the 3 O doors into the bathroom, they get a lot of those concepts, where somebody that’s new to the homeownership aspect may not quite grasp that.
RS: Could you expound on both of those zero-entry showers and 3 O doors into the bathroom for… Just in case there’s another layman like me. Explain what that means.
AS: Well, envision this is stepping up over the tub to get into the bathtub to take a shower, the potential to slip and fall, that’s something that a younger person is gonna do quite readily and no problems. But as we get older, it’s a little harder to lift our leg, the chances of slipping and falling are gonna get higher. So you could take the design of a bathroom and make a shower room… Not a shower stall even, but you can make a zero-entry shower in such a way that there is literally no curb in order to get up and into the shower. Just thinking ahead. And that idea of age in place is really common.
TM: So Andy, I’ve got a question for you. If you were gonna be building a SIP panel house that could be net-zero, how does that compare in price to just like a regular stick-frame house these days?
AS: That’s a great question, that’s something that we really are honing our response to because that’s something we’ve been answering that question, what does it cost to build? What’s the cost comparison? And really, the best way to look at that is not, what does it cost me to build this house? The best answer is, what does it cost me to live in this house? Because it wasn’t that many years ago, not that long ago, we did a cost comparison. A SIPs panel house was higher and I don’t wanna get into percentages because it really depends on the size and the complexity of the house. It depends on a number of factors. However, it wasn’t a bad thing to say, the initial investment would take three to five years for you to realize that to come back to zero and then you’d be saving money through the energy efficiency designs and things like that. Now, however, with dimensional lumber, as expensive as it is, and a roof truss and a floor truss to be three months out plus or minus, the actual cost of a panelized… A SIPs panel house is gonna be comparative, if not less expensive than a dimensional framed house.
AS: So that’s turning the tide here, and the phone’s literally ringing of the hook, because people are starting to realize not only the energy efficiency, what does it cost me to live in this house, but what does it even cost to construct, with turnaround times and also costs themselves. Dimensional lumber is just very hard to predict and it just goes up every day. OSB and the panelized system, that does go up as well, but there’s a lot less lumber in a SIPs panel house than in a stick frame house.
TM: So it’s faster to build in stick frame, the price comparison is very advantageous these days, with lumber prices going up, and just long-term thinking down the road, you’re saving money, living a house that is that energy-efficient and airtight, that you’ll have a return on investment much quicker, right?
AS: You want a job?
RS: She’s not for hire. Sorry. Knock it off, Andy.
AS: Reuben was listening. Sorry.
RS: I gotta ask you, Andy, what happens when you have failure? Most general contractors who do repair work understand what it takes, let’s say you got a stucco-clad house or whatever, and you got water leaking in around windows, you take the siding off, you remove the rotted sheathing, maybe replace a stud or two, and then you put it all back together, but what happens when you got water leaking in on a SIP panel? How do you fix that?
AS: Well, first of all, you put more time and energy into the design and the construction to assure the fact that that doesn’t happen.
BO: Details matter, is that what you’re saying? Details matter.
RS: So don’t let it leak. Noted.
AS: Definitely. When you look at the length of the overhangs and the redundancy in the water-resistive barrier, how you’re handling that bulk water, what we’re learning is you do everything you can to keep the water out, but windows are much like concrete, and that analogy is this, it’s not a matter of if concrete cracks, it’s when and where. It’s not a matter of if a window is gonna leak or an envelope is gonna leak, it’s when and where. So when you plan for that and the cladding, you wanna make sure that your exterior cladding is robust as possible, but if there are any opportunities for that water to get back, you plan for that. You plan for that by having a rain screen, an area for that bulk water to drain freely before it touches the exterior wall assembly itself, and that exterior wall assembly itself is not necessarily covered with a house wrap, a conventional paper product. I’m a huge fan of liquid-applied water-resistive barriers. Last year, I did that on my house. Envision, if you will, a couple of guys on a ladder or extension ladder, and they’re trying to run a 9-foot roll of wrap around a house.
AS: That compared to one person in a basket lift with a wand, applying a water-resistive barrier that’s fluid, and then when you set your windows, you flash the sides and the top with a material that chemically bonds to that water-resistive barrier, that liquid, now your envelope here is a lot more robust. So any water that gets beyond your cladding is gonna hit that rain screen. The water management system, that drain plane, it’s gonna drain down. If it does happen to get beyond that, as unlikely as that might be, it’s coming in against a water-resistive barrier that is essentially self-healing, so that when a siding fastener goes into that sheathing, it’s actually sealed right around that fastener. That combined, of course, starting with the overhang, the orientation of the building, you really lessen the potential for any building water intrusion in the first place.
RS: Alright. So just to kind of break a few of those down. As far as roof lines, I would assume that you create really simple roofs. Are all of your home simple shed roofs with basically no valleys?
AS: That’s the easiest way to go about it. Yeah. The more complex… With anything, the more complex it is, the more apt it is to have some challenges or some problems. Essentially what would be the ultimate building of any sort of structure, would… To have it be a rectangular box.
RS: Okay, alright. And then what about for overhangs? What do you shoot for as far as a good overhang?
AS: Well, that depends on the orientation, the height of the windows, the angle of the rain drive from beyond the window. The nice thing about all these guys, is you don’t have to be smart enough to figure that out, there’s computer programs that model all of this. Energy modeling is the other thing. Tessa, you and I could geek out on that for a long time, as far as the actual energy modeling to say, what does it take to heat and cool this building? What are the benefits to upgrade the foam under the floor, triple pane window, the thickness of panel, a lot of things go into that, and the computer modeling is there and it takes care of all of that.
AS: Yesterday, we were here in the office and we had some, two clients in here, and we had the 70-inch TV, and we had a Zoom call with the designer out of Rochester and in real-time, he is shifting the house, he’s making a door smaller, he’s moving a window. That technology is… We’re only scratching the edge of that technology, at least here we are.
RS: So in other words, 3 feet?
AS: That’s exactly what I said.
RS: Okay, that’s what I heard, I don’t…
BO: So, no two and a half story walkouts facing the southeast, with 76 holes through them. [chuckle]
AS: No. When you look at the water-shedding system of a roof, it doesn’t take a whole lot analysis to see problems.
RS: Amen. I love it.
BO: Andy, I’m very interested in watching the conversion process of one Tessa Murry as she moves from two feet out of the bathtub called SIPs and starts to dip her toe in and then maybe stand in the water a little bit. You’ve got a lot of work to do here, so I’m ready to see you lay it out. Take a building science girl who is a non-believer and make her a believer.
AS: We talk a lot of the same language, we visited a few different times, and there’s so much to be said about thoughtful planning, not only the room layouts and things like that, but thinking like a drop of water, looking at this angle of the sun, it’s not that complex, but there are a number of steps to it.
AS: We actually just broke this down the other day to 10 steps from planning a house, and I say dirt to doorknobs, from finding the land all the way to a Certificate of Occupancy. And that’s the nice thing too, about having the two companies now, is we’ll be able to work with jurisdictions, because the SIPs type of construction isn’t as commonly known from municipalities as far as the permitting and the inspection process. Not every building has to be engineered. The SIPs panel construction is actually a prescriptive element of the Residential Code now.
BO: Can you talk a little about the joints and how they come together and how you don’t have a thermal inconsistency or a thermal break right at the joints?
AS: Well, I don’t know how long ago they used to use… They formally had used dimensional lumber as the splines in between the panels, and I am not the SIPs geek that some people are. I know enough about it to be intrigued and to be really excited and enthused about it. Now they use a box spline, it’s essentially another piece of SIPs panel. It’s a foam core with OSP and Extreme Panel, they have some great videos on their website. They were recently purchased by Allen Smith, P Allen Smith, and he’s infusing a lot of excitement to that company. There’s some newsletters that come out to us contractors, they’re gonna be doing a new virtual tour of their plant. Their plant is in Cottonwood, Minnesota, and it’s always open to people to come down and tour the plant, but just logistically, that can be a challenge, so they’re doing a lot with the technology and the advertisement of that company, Extreme Panel, so that’s really gonna put them out there a little bit further.
TM: How many SIP panel manufacturers are in Minnesota? I didn’t even know that there were any. That’s interesting.
AS: They’re around the five-state area here, and I’m not sure how many are out there. I’m sold on Extreme from their service aspect. When you buy a package, it comes with the dimensional lumber, the screws, the adhesives, and everything you need to build. The tools are available, the panel straps, everything’s in a package because they know what it takes. Some of the others aren’t necessarily that inclusive, where you have to go out and buy your bottom plates, your top plates, where Extreme puts that all into a package, so it’s a turnkey product, and that’s what really excited me about this Haiti project. There’s no Home Depot down the road, but we’re gonna need that package from start to finish, we’re gonna need to know the screws are included, the adhesive, everything is gonna be included in that package when it gets sent.
TM: You as the builder, you work with this company, they provide all the materials you need to build your own SIP basically.
AS: All the way down to the tools.
BO: And it comes on one, two, three truckloads and within two or three days, a vast majority of these panels are in place.
AS: So much of that is planning, we have a house coming up in Golden Valley that’s on a tight, tight lot. A home on the left, a home on the right, a home on the front and a home on the back. So there thankfully is an open lot down the road a little bit that we’ll use for staging, planning this thing out. And every panel comes out numbered, so you know in what sequence how much you can get done in a day. So we’re gonna plan this out in such a way that we’ll get multiple deliveries.
TM: Just curious, too, how many contractors, general contractors in this state are able to build SIP panel houses? I mean, it doesn’t take a special certification, does it?
AS: Not a special certification, but it is a different skill set. Once you work on a couple of them, it’s actually really exciting. To build a house out of sticks, out of dimensional lumber is boring compared to this. I was really excited at a time when I was working in the commercial side for Target stores and some different restaurants with steel studs. The versatility of steel studs, you can do a lot more artistically with the barrel vaults and things because of the consistency of the steel stud versus a dimensional lumber, and once you get into the SIPs system, you can call it that, there’s a… It’s a different skill set, but it’s not complicated, but the devil’s in the details, making sure that the panels are sealed properly, that they’re fastened properly, that you have a square level foundation to start from is critical.
RS: So how much of a pain in the butt is it to run the electrical? Isn’t the way you do this that it all needs to be planned ahead of time and you basically don’t change it once you’re done?
AS: Planning is at the forefront. Exactly. So there are chases, there’s a chase routed in the foam for outlet heights, and that can be adjusted depending on, again, an older client might want their outlets a little bit higher or if it’s gonna be in a shop, they might want them up at 4-foot, so there’s gonna be a chase in the foam that you can run your fish tape down and pull wire and what you do is you come along and you cut holes in the OSP to mount your boxes, so the electrical chases are already made in the foam from the factory.
BO: And isn’t there some little hot tool you can use to kind of burn a hole, if you need to do a vertical drop somewhere?
AS: Yeah. There’s a hot knife. Yes, there are tools available, if you have to make any modifications in the field, you can. Ultimately the idea is to make all the work done in the factory as possible when it comes to that, but as far as a hot knife through the end of the panels, that’s one of the tools that they provide.
BO: Is there a big sticker that you put on a SIPs house once it’s built that says, “Just don’t hack on this thing like you normally would, there’s concerns here if you start breaking down the shell”?
AS: Well, that’s why you need to have the team set ahead of time, the plumber, the tenner, the HVAC contractor, the electrician, everybody that knows… That has done this before. That’s not to say you can’t show somebody that’s not familiar with the process and bring them into the fold, if you will, but it’s not something that you’d want anybody coming into that’s not experienced with that. Absolutely, there’s a training aspect to this.
TM: So you’re watching that job site like a hawk after they have assembled the panels and put on the liquid applied water barrier?
AS: Here’s the other thing that we have found valuable is not to sell anybody a SIPs package. You sell them a house. You sell them a high performant, comfortable, safe, energy-efficient house that happens to be made out of SIP, because at the end of the day, does the customer really get that granular? More often than not, they don’t need to, they don’t want to, but when you ask somebody, what do you want in a house? Generally, the answers are gonna be very similar, they want something that’s safe, that’s comfortable, that’s energy-efficient, that’s valuable, that’s gonna hold its value. They don’t necessarily care if it’s a dimensional lumber at 2-foot on center in order to reduce thermal bridging, exterior board insulation, they’re not as concerned with that, they don’t need or want that, that’s our job, the lane that we swim in.
BO: Can we just touch on the roof systems real quick, ’cause you can use a SIP panel as a roof system, where you can use traditional trusses, where do you lean in favor of right now?
AS: Depends on the design, if somebody’s gonna be looking for a fairly straightforward roof, they’re not looking at making that a vault or usable space upstairs, a conventional wood frame truss or a hand frame wrap, there might be the option, depends on the design. A lot of times, these clients are looking for open floor plans, vaulted ceilings, and that’s where SIPs really would be a natural roof component.
BO: That makes Tessa’s heart just warm. There’s absolutely no air escaping into attic cavities or anything like that?
TM: You know what? I don’t wanna go there, but I think I have to share this short story. Negative Nancy over here. Back when I worked for a home performance company, we had a customer who called us because they were living in a custom SIP panel house and it had bolted ceilings and they had water dripping out of their ceiling, not from rain, but from condensation, that was leaking back in. And it turns out what happened is just with the extremes and the temperature differences between inside and outside that we get here in Minnesota, basically the expansion-contraction rates, very different between the outside panel and the inside panel, and it put a lot of stress on those seams. And so over time, kinda the expanding, contracting at those seams caused it to break apart, and warm, humid air rose and got into those seams, and started to slowly rot out the panel in those locations.
TM: And when I showed up on-site, you could actually see from the exterior on the roof, you could see kind of like bubbles and lifts on the outline of the panel from the roof, from the outside, if that makes sense, you could see where those seams had failed from the outside. And so we ended up having to remove all the shingles, remove the paper, and get down to the actual structure of the panel and cut out the rotted sections, and basically kind of patch them, put them back together and then re-roof it. And so that’s always really scared me about using SIP panels in extreme climates, where you have that… A lot of differences between outside and inside temperatures and causing stresses in those seams on roofs specifically, when you got a lot of…
BO: Did it have dimensional lumber as the spline, as Andy referred to earlier?
TM: I don’t know. I don’t know, I can’t remember. So that’s a good question, but I just wonder if some of the engineering that has come about in the last 10 years that’s fixed that, that type of issue.
AS: I think it would be interesting to know that any other leading causes or any other contributing causes to that, as you said, the challenge is in an extreme climate… Well, I would counter that by saying, done correctly, that’s where they’re gonna perform the best, in the extreme climates. It’d be interesting to know in that case, in particular, what other causes may have led up to that, was there proper air exchange? Was there any excessive interior moisture load? Things of that nature. Exterior, was that roof system leaking at all that contributed to that panel getting wet? Because a lot of times, there’s more than one factor…
BO: Well, we should probably put a wrap on this episode, but Andy, can you tell everybody where again, where they could find you, both the construction company and the consulting company?
AS: Yes. Consulting company, Rum River Construction Consultants. We’re a contract building official, we provide continuing education for licensed general contractors as well as code officials. Our office is in St. Francis. Our website is rumrivercc.com, and if anybody’s interested in the… I’ll use this as a shameless plug. Anybody interested in the Haiti aspect, please email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to send you the link for the Healing Haiti, watching the Haitians work and helping them out. I would love to share this with people. We’re going to area churches and different corporations, just sharing our story, and if people feel compelled to help in any regard, that’s fantastic. Our construction company is Performance By Design. The website domain has been registered, but there’s no website yet, that’s in its infancy, we’re too busy building to build a website. Absolutely crazy. We don’t really need the advertising right now, but we do realize that that’s gonna be needed and beneficial at some point.
BO: Outstanding. Well, I love this conversation because I’m a little wacky and I think we get too, “We do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” We gotta figure out a better way to build these houses, and I’ve long been intrigued by SIPs. I have a book in my bookshelf called All To Know About Structural Insulated Panels. It’s kind of a weird obsession I have, so I really, really enjoy this stuff.
AS: We’ll get you a ticket to Haiti, Bill, in December.
BO: Can we do it in November? Because ice fishing just gets ramped up in December and it’s a…
AS: For you, yes.
BO: Okay, awesome. Awesome. Well, those are the sweet tones of Andy Schreder, and the other two you’re listening to is Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. I’m Bill Oelrich. You’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. We will catch you next time and thanks for listening.