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Doug's Forum Posts: 12
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By Doug in Austin, TX on 10/11/2007


I am trying to decide on wall material for our future house in Elgin (near Austin).

I like ICF, but the cost may be too much for us. Other options are steel framing or wood. We will use the sprayed-in foam insulation either way. 

I am also considering 2x4 or 2x6 walls if framed instead of ICF. 

It seems cheaper to go 2x6 wood or steel with spray foam for maybe similar performance to ICF. 

At what point do you get the most for your money? We plan to live there 30 years if we can.

The house will be stucco with a steel roof.


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By Brian in Manvel, TX on 10/11/2007


Doug,

It depends on what your motivation is.

Simply low utility bills, or low utility bills and a quiet, structurally sound, insect-resistant and lower-maintenance-cost home.

ICF will usually not develop water intrusion issue like stick/foam can over the years due to wood failure. ICF is several times stronger in wind resistance tests, etc...

2x4/2x6 with foam will perform well against ICF if looking only at energy usage.


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By Jeff in San Antonio, TX on 10/14/2007


If using foam, why use 2x6 framing?
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By Doug in Austin, TX on 10/16/2007


My primary goal is low utilities, but I also want it to be structurally sound, fire resistant, mold resistant, and insect resistant. 

Our land is heavily forested and there are rotten fallen trees with insects in them. 

I see the advantage of ICF, but I don't want to pay extra for it. 

The house will be stucco covered, so we may save some money if we go with this system (below) since there is almost no prep for stucco. 

performwall.com

If we don't use ICF, we will probably go with wood stick-framing with spray foam. 

We plan on living there 30+ years... hopefully.

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By Doug in Austin, TX on 10/16/2007


More foam.  I am not sure if that is worth the extra cost.... from what I have heard it is not worth the extra cost. 

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By Myleen in Austin, TX on 10/16/2007


Why not consider SIPs? SIPs are made of two OSB (wood) panels with foam sandwiched between. They are just as highly insulative and can be 20% cheaper than ICFs. ICFs are also more labor intensive, as well as more difficult to do the second story. SIPs are also faster to construct, as all the panels are fabricated at the manufacturer and have the windows and doors pre-cut in them. They are superior to any stick framing with spray-in foam in structure and energy efficiency, and will probably be in your price range.

You can come and look at my house blog of our SIP home at:

sjodindreamhome.blogspot.com

Also, you can read more about SIPs at:

greenbuildingtalk.com

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By Carrie in Shohola, PA on 10/18/2007


Doug:

If you plan to live in the house for 30 years... then, it is important to consider the lifetime cost of one building system over another... especially if you plan to take out a mortgage.  First, please don't make your decision on what you've "heard."  Every building system provider will naturally espouse the virtues of his system and denigrate the systems of others.

You really need to do the math to be sure that ICFs really are going to be higher in installed cost.  That is not always the case.  Remember, a home with ICF exterior walls means that once the concrete is poured, you will have in place the entire wall structure -- the insulation, vapor barrier and studs.  One building crew vs. several.

No matter which system you select, you must look into Energy Efficient Mortgages.  Backed by the government, and available through many banks, these special mortgages are available to homeowners who build an energy-efficient home -- whether it is SIP, ICF or stick-built.  As long as an Energy Star certifier confirms that your home beats the energy standards required, then the bank can authorize you for a greater mortgage loan than which you would otherwise qualify for.

Thus, any higher cost resulting from your selected building system can be mortgaged... which is A LOT less expensive than paying higher heating and cooling costs on an operating basis.

So, the issue is -- which building system is going to provide the most energy-efficient structure?  You need to do more hands-on research.  Internet chat rooms are helpful, but don't necessarily provide hard facts upon which to make a decision.  Check out the resources on ICFs provided by the ICFA (forms.org) and the Portland Cement Association (cement.org).  Take a look at info on SIPs provided at sips.org.  Both systems have their pluses and minuses.

My humble opinion:  A stick-built home -- even with spray-foam insulation -- is still a less energy-efficient structure than an ICF or SIP home.  Furthermore, both SIPs and ICFs are impregnated with fire retardants -- something you will have to pay extra for with a stick-built home.  Building with SIPs and ICFs results in far less construction waste... which means less of your $$ being spend on dumpsters and waste removal. 

ICFs eliminate the loss of energy that occurs with the thermal breaks created by studs between the SIPs panels.  Furthermore, ICFs are wood-free, and therefore won't attract the wood-boring pests that SIPs may.  Furthermore, ICFs are vastly more wind resistant than SIPs and provide a much tighter, leak-free envelope.

You may want to consider an ICF home with an SIP roof.

Good luck!

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By Doug in Austin, TX on 10/18/2007


We have a house design already... it is a Spanish-style one story, 2,800 square feet living space with the tallest ceiling of 16 feet in the entryway. One room is 12 feet high and the rest are 10'. The roof is not all that simple. The house is oriented 57.3 degrees from the front being due North, but that is the way the lot is oriented. The lot is very heavily wooded, so the sides of the house will always be in shade (unless we remove a lot of trees). There is a plan for a shop that is oriented due South for future solar panels. We don't know when we will build it.

This may help gear the answers towards this style of house.

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By Doug in Austin, TX on 10/18/2007


One thing that I keep hearing is that in Texas, the roof is the most important factor in keeping the heat out of the house. I have heard over and over that a 2x4 wall with spray foam is sufficient. 

I guess everyone has an opinion.  It is definitely unclear where anything more expensive pays for itself.  Of course, everyone compares their fancier walls to a plain batt-insulated wall.  I wish there was a comparison between the different high performance wall systems. 

Please keep the comments coming, everything has been helpful. 

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By George in Wharton, TX on 10/19/2007


How about 2x4 foam walls with an SIP roof? I hear those SIP roofs are around R-30. 


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By Myleen in Austin, TX on 10/26/2007


Hi Doug,

You can go on Oak Ridge National Laboratories and see a comparison of wall insulation: ornl.gov/sci/roofs+walls

It is a government lab that tests performance on not just building materials, but all kinds of systems. This should be objective enough. I, by the way, think that SIPs pay themselves off because of energy savings you get. Batt/stick framing, even with foam in it, still has a lot of thermal bridges, causing unnecessary heat gain and energy inefficiency.

But do the research and see what you think.

Thanks,
Myleen

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By Rick in Frisco, TX on 11/10/2008


Extra cost compared to what? SIPs and ICFs cost much more than foam with stick. They do perform better, but there is a long payback period for a small increase in performance. Having a 2x6 structure does several things - stronger walls, and it allows for a break between the foam and the sheetrock, giving a much better sound barrier.
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By Robert in San Antonio, TX on 11/13/2008


Doug,

I own a spray-foam company in San Antonio, and I will still tell you that SIPs and ICF are both a bit better in energy savings that 2x4 stick framing/spray foam.

But SIPs and ICF are also more expensive, and in my opinion the additional costs outweigh the additional benefit.

This is the method we recommend to achieve ICF/SIP-level performance at a more reasonable price, using spray foam.

  • 2x6 exterior walls
  • 5.5" of open-cell, #0.5lb foam
  • standard OSB sheathing
  • DO NOT apply Tyvek-type house wrap
  • instead, use 1" poly foam board, taped at seams (creates a moisture barrier and a thermal break)
  • 6" of open-cell, #0.5lb foam under the roof deck, with stud faces covered (thermal break).

Either way you decide to go, you should get an energy audit. This way you will know the reduction in costs to run your system, get "right sizing" for your AC guy, etc.


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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 11/13/2008


I worked at this same question for a long time: ICF, SIP, or stick.  You see all sorts of marketing on SIP (and ICF) saying that it's more cost effective than stick due to a decrease in construction time...

A BIG part of the picture is how much labor costs are in your area.  In Texas - let's face it - labor is cheap due to our proximity to the border.  What we pay for framing is vastly different than what someone would pay in Michigan for the same materials, quality, and labor. 

I searched high and low for an SIP builder who would consider my budget, most flat told me that they wouldn't work on residential projects under $300K.  I ran several estimates through contractors who were wanting to get into the business - or who were trying to convert commercial building experience to residential.  Even if they sold me materials at their cost and only took margin on the labor, the resulting bill was much higher than stick...

The other thing that I ran into was that if I did stick, my plumbing and electrical bids went down significantly.  Traditional contractors didn't want to deal with cutting foam.

I believe that both SIP and ICF construction techniques are superior to well-insulated stick/brick.  In my case, I just couldn't swallow the resulting budget. Long term, the payback is there over traditional construction with batt insulation - but consider that our energy costs in TX are cheap.  Also, our climate (I know this sounds funny) isn't as extreme is northern latitudes. Yes, it can be 110 degrees out - that could be 40 degrees off of inside temperatures.  Compare that to northern latitudes with temperature differences of 70 degrees or more compared to outside.


I built stick. Foam-insulated stick.  We considered SIP roof panels, but you really need to have a project that lends itself to the sizing of prefabricated panels.  If you do SIP, start searching for a contractor now - one with experience - and check the references.  One contractor in 100 will have done SIP, if that many...

You can always spray more foam on your roof...

Last, consider R-values.  These are insulation values that don't take into consideration convection, air loss, or a number of other factors.  Comparing foam or SIP to batt insulation based on R-values alone is comparing apples to oranges.  Part of what makes foam work well is that you create a tightly sealed house...

In my opinion - best bang for the buck in TX is standard stick construction, 2x4 walls (assuming your static load allows their use) - careful foam insulation, and a reflective metal roof.  Minimize windows.  Spend the tens of thousands of dollars you saved vs. SIP/ICF on a solar water heater and perhaps a photovoltaic system - particularly if you get additional rebates from your power company or city...

My opinion would change on budgets over $300K - and a home you were going to live in for more than 10-15 years.


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By Ruth in Leander, TX on 12/14/2008


Hi Doug,

Not sure whether you have made up your mind or not, but I've come across some interesting claims for prefabricated SIPs that make them seem quite cost-effective. Kokoon Homes have a video on YouTube that shows how quick they are to assemble. I emailed them and received a prompt response that allowed me to estimate what their system would cost. It was definitely competitive for the simple home I'm thinking of. It is definitely worth looking into. There are other companies that manufacture steel-frame panels in Texas. They will give you an estimate if you send plans.

Hope you find the best system!

Ruth

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