September 2001 Rural Builder Magazine
Reprinted with permission
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Jim LeRoy is a committed user of structural insulated panels (SIPs). Now in its 19th year, his Panel Pros Inc. erects from 65 to 80 buildings a year using SIPs and prefabricates another 120 buildings in his shop using the panels.
"What we do in the SIPs world is buy the material raw from the manufacturer. That gets us his code approvals and marketing. Then our clients come in and design the building they want, and we cut the panels to create the building and send them to the site," says LeRoy.
That "raw material" is generally 8-ft. x 24-ft. blank SIPs which arrive at his shop in Westmoreland, N.H., on tractor- trailer trucks from Great Lakes Insulspan in Blissfield, Mich. An average of three of the truck loads make the trip each week.
LeRoy's crews cut window and door openings, prepare connections, cut panels to length, and shape the edges where they will meet the floor, roof, or the panel next to them.
Doing this work in-house, in a controlled environment, reduces the amount of time his workers must spend on the building site. "Site time is the most valuable thing there is," says LeRoy, "and site help is hard to come by."
Often, his shop is customizing these panels for other contractors or home buyers. All of which makes LeRoy and his Panel Pros a somewhat unique distributor/fabricator/builder.
As strictly a builder, Panel Pros often orders SIPs precut from Insulspan and delivered to its job site. "But we are trying to let the public know that they can buy a package from us, that we are distributors, fabricators, and builders," says LeRoy.
From a finished set of house plans, Panel Pros claims it can deliver a complete shell to the job site in two to three weeks. "Then it's usually a day a piece for walls and the roof. For a ranch on a slab, we are out of there in the same day; floor systems take the longest," says LeRoy.
He is able to use SIPs in the roof about 90 percent of the time, unless the design or the client holds our for regular roof trusses. About 30 percent of Panel Pros' business is enclosing timber-frame structures, most of them homes, a few commercial. Another 30 percent is stand-alone SIP homes, an additional 30 percent is SIP commercial structures and schools, with the final 10 percent a mix of the other three and including some small building additions.
He calls his marketing territory the "greater New England area," taking in Eastern New York State and Northern New Jersey. Unless they are built close to home, structures shelled with panels are usually finished by a local builder. LeRoy's company also has installed SIP skins on steel-frame riding arenas, which are then finished by another contractor.
And although they are gradually changing, other contractors in LeRoy's territory have not been quick to adopt the use of the panels. "It's human nature not to change," he says.
"There are now two manufacturers within 15 miles of me, and there are other contractors erecting SIPs. And we are trying to get other contractors erecting our product; looking for allies."
As part of this effort, LeRoy has presented on-site seminars to other builders to explain the construction process and break down their natural resistance. "If I were looking for one big word, it would be a big education process that we have to do," he says. Part of this process is explaining the inherent advantages of SIPs and another is dealing with what can be a cost disadvantage.
Advantages are numerous and include energy efficiency, a drastic reduction in air infiltration, strength, faster construction, a quieter building, and the virtual elimination of waste on the job site. Contractors attending his on- site seminars have marveled at the fact that virtually all the waste is the SIP wrappings.
Panels used by LeRoy have expanded polystyrene insulating cores bonded between skins of 7/16-in. oriented strand board in thicknesses from 3-1/2 in. to 7-3/8 in. Panels connect to each other with 2x or plywood splines. In his part of the country, LeRoy believes he can correctly claim a 50 percent energy savings annually. "We're talking $1 a day to heat or cool this house with nominal 2x6 walls," he says.
The cost of a SIPs building can be higher or lower than conventional stud-wall construction. LeRoy admits that his building can be as much as 5 percent more costly than a building composed of simple 2x4 walls. "It is certainly not the cheapest way to enclose space," he says, "but it is the best way to build energy efficiently."
He tells a potential customer that a SIP building "will cost the same as a quality-built 2x6 frame structure, and we can build cheaper than someone trying to meet the Model Energy Code." Stick builders conforming to the code must use foam sheathing and caulk the connections, in addition to stuffing wall cavities with fiber glass insulation.
Says LeRoy: "When a customer gives us a set of plans, we try to qualify them to see what they are thinking and if they understand value and want energy efficiency. Then SIPS can compete. You have to combine budget with what value is worth."
The Panel Pros' Web site is evidence that it practices what it preaches. The site provides sales messages, of course, noting that the company buys panels at volume rates, offers pre-cutting services, provides experienced installation crews, manufactures pre-built wall assemblies, does CAD design, and more. And there are testimonials from satisfied customers.
But the site works to educate, too, with secondary pages explaining how SIPS lower energy bills, what the panels are made of, and some details of how a SIPS building is constructed. Part of educating is informing the visitor that Panel Pros is a one-stop source "for all your panel needs." Says its headline: "We offer the most complete structural insulated panel system package available nationwide!"