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Designing SIP or stick-frame house


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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 4/25/2010


Hi,

I am seeking out a designer for my home that I will be owner-building with the assistance of the Owner Builder Network (OBN) in my area. I want to build using SIP panels, but I am trying to find out what kind of additional cost it might run. I spoke with an outfit that designs SIP homes, and they are telling me that I should be able to build for $80/sq ft or less, due to the fact that I will be building a story and a half house. He is telling me that because it is two-story, he can build the second floor much cheaper.

I have a friend who just built using the OBN, and he built traditional stick frame with blown-cellulose insulation, granite throughout, hardwood flooring, and custom cabinets. He was able to build his home for $80/sq ft.  Everything I have read is telling me that SIP is a lot more expensive to build. So is he able to do this because it is being designed around SIP or does this sound like wishful thinking?

Does anyone have any experience building using SIPs who can tell me what your costs were compared to building stick using standard insulation?

Also, the OBN is telling me that I can save costs by building the upstairs as cheap as possible, maybe get it around $50/sq ft. I don't plan on anyone living upstairs, so this is not an issue. Does anyone have any experience doing this and did it work out for you in the end?

Thanks, and any info anyone can give me related to SIPs or any other questions I have asked will be greatly appreciated.


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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 4/26/2010


You're going to be in a Catch-22. You won't know what your sq ft costs are until you have bids from your subs, and you won't have bids from your subs until you've joined (and paid) OBN.

I would have loved to do an SIP house. The panels may be competitive with framing, but the resulting massive increase in other bids (electrical, plumbing) and the fact that SIP construction simply isn't that competitive made it impossible for me.

Maybe some of the SIP owner-builders will reply with their actual costs.

Do not let SIP manufacturers tell you that it is "as" or "less" expensive than stick and brick. It's not... At least not here in Texas, where framing labor is relatively inexpensive.

If I were going to use OBN for an SIP, I'd want to see reference SIP homes in my area that were done by OBN. The contractor list is going to be very different... And if they haven't done one, you don't want to be first.

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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 4/27/2010


dcg,

Thanks for the advice.  The OBN in my area actually hasn't even heard about SIP panels, so I have located an SIP supplier myself, and will be dealing with them myself.

I do plan to get house plans and then bid out my house, then contact OBN to see if their subs come back any cheaper than the ones I have contacted. The only reason I am using them is to have them act as the general contractor on paper for the bank. I just haven't had any luck finding a bank who is willing to work with me on my own.

I would love to hear from anyone who has built using SIPs to see how your costs compared to stick construction.

Thanks


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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 4/27/2010


After viewing what can go wrong with ICF and SIP projects, make sure you vet your SIP assembly contractor 110% - meaning go on site and get detailed information on how well those projects went, not just reference customers. It's absolutely critical to actually go and see the projects as well as talk to those customers... There are simply too many shady and inexperienced contractors. Also remember that the contractor is making money on the panels in most cases...

I understand that you need a "straw man" GC. As the TRCC is now dead in Texas, I think you'll have a lot of luck with many experienced builders willing to be your straw man without the overhead and expense of OBN.  There is no longer a warranty issue on new construction with the TRCC being defunct.

I have nothing against OBN, other than paying their fee and potentially not using ANY of their contractors.

I found that plumbers who did stick and brick didn't even want to try SIP... It's going to limit your available contract staff greatly...

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By Roger in Sinton, TX on 4/27/2010


Chris,

I am an owner-builder who should close on our construction loan that we got using a local builder as our GC on paper next week. We searched and searched the owner-builder programs and could not find a bank willing to deal with their unusual contracts. Part of our problem is that we are building rural and the appraisals are not what the banks like to see.

Anyway, we first wanted SIP construction. I went to see them at EH Systems in San Marcos and fell in love with the product. However, the pricing was sky high. It was about $40,000 at the cheapest for SIP panels just for the conditioned areas of our 2,163 square foot house. That blew our budget, so we are doing stick frame with spray foam. The reason we wanted SIPs is because I have a friend of my sister-in-law who is a pro at installation. I can give you his information if you would like. He is out of Rockport, TX. He actually helped in building one of the Extreme Makeover houses a couple months ago.  Good luck to you.


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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 4/28/2010


I've built SIP, ICF, steel, stick, log, and timber frame. Don't think you can build with SIPs for anything close to sticks and foam. Many have posted here over the years on real-world experiences and costs and SIPs just really don't make any sense in most cases. You can build just as energy efficiently as SIPs by using a 2x6 staggered stud wall system and foam. For much less money and none of the headaches of SIPs. (Experience speaking).

If you're going to go to the expense, go ICF. You'll get all the benefits of SIPs and almost any other building system, plus a whole lot more that other systems can't come close to.  

If it's all about the money to build, stick with sticks. If it's about long-term cost of ownership, stick with ICF. It will more than pay you back, but you have to stay in the house. 

As far as building vs buying, right now you can buy the same house that you are thinking of building for about 30-40% LESS. And that's why the banks comps won't support construction loans @ 80% of cost. You'll get 80% of market or cost, whichever is less. So if your project is $200K and the comps are coming in at $140K, then typically the bank will lend 80% of 140, or $112K against a $200K build.

Then try adding the cost of SIPs or ICF and you'll have to pony up 1/2 or better of your project. These ranges are not true for everyone, but it is the way things have trended.

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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 4/28/2010


Thanks for all the information. I am surprised to hear that spray foam is going to be less than SIP construction. From reading online, I thought SIP compared pretty close to spray-foam insulation. 

Now I am starting to rethink my approach regarding insulation. Do any of you have experience with Celbar? I actually was initially going to go that route after seeing their booth at the Houston Home and Garden Show. It seems like a good product, but how does it compare to spray foam for cost and insulation value?

Thanks


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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 4/28/2010


I am surprised that SIPs are higher than stick with spray-foam insulation.  This is because of what I have read online, and heard from an installer in the Houston area who does SIP, spray foam, and cellulose. He told me that most people either do cellulose or SIP. He says once he bids out spray foam and SIPs the cost is about the same. Again this is just what I was told, so take with a grain of salt, he may have just wanted to sell me on SIPs.
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By Ignacio in Houston, TX on 4/29/2010


>"If you're going to go to the expense, go ICF. You'll get all the benefits of SIPs and almost any other building system, plus a whole lot more that other systems can't come close to."<

Like what? -- IV

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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 4/30/2010


1. Being that ICF is not wood, you eliminate all wood-related issues:
  - Fire
  - Water damage
  - Rot/mold
  - Insect damage
 
2.  Insurance breaks. Many insurance companies will give significant discounts for ICF construction, because it is not wood.

3.  Stronger than wood and steel-stud framing.

4. Thermal mass effect. In essence, you're building your home in a cave. You're thermal coupling your home to the earth. It uses the earth's energy to help maintain the temperature of the home.

5. Withstands earthquakes and wind better.

Compare these benefits to any other building system.  The combination of benefits can't be beat.
 
Now, having said that, you will still need roof support of some kind. You can do a flat roof with ICF, but not many do. You can do a small pitched roof with ICF, but its a little difficult. Point is, you'll normally frame the roof with another material/system, be that sticks, steel or timber. I've done all of these. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. 

Bottom line, you do your homework, work your budget and then make your choices. If there was one perfect building technology/system, we'd all be using it and there'd be no discussion of various systems.  I like ICF, but I'm not married to it. As I've said before, I've built with most other technologies as well.  Each has its applications given the owner's requirements.

And when it comes to evaluating ICF or SIPs or any other system, don't rely on the manufacturer's comparisons on costs to install. Get real-world numbers from local installers. That will tell the real story.

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By Ignacio in Houston, TX on 5/1/2010


I see how staggered stud wall has a number of advantages over SIP. Are there any other new strategies for roofs? SIPS seem to possibly have some advantages in that area?

-- IV

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By William in Atascocita, TX on 5/4/2010


I'm also thinking of using SIP's and will try to have my decision within 30 days. I've only found one SIP installer in the Houston area. Surely there are others? I'll know if I'm going SIP or stick after I get some costs. If I can't pay out the SIP in three-five years, then I'll go with stick. 

Two SIP companies in this area brag about two of their houses that suffered no or minor damage from IKE down on the beach. In one of two cases all houses on Crystal Beach were totally missing except there stood the SIP house intact. As we know, Crystal Beach took the dirty side of Ike and wiped out every house except one. It was shown constantly on the TV news at the time.

As for a designer of SIP's or stick I'm using John Harper, 408-426-6780. I'll soon ask John if he knows of any installers. I also expect the SIP companies should be able to drop names of installers in this area.

Chris, seems to me OBN should provide all the answers to your questions with the amount they charge a client. I talked to them and they wanted $4.95/sq. ft. to guide me. That price was for total sq.ft., not living area square footage. I've not totally dismissed using them, but I can overpay a fair amount and still build without them at the same price with a good chance of building for less. I'm hoping to build at $60-$65 a sq.ft. If I go with OBN I've already spent about $8.50 sq.ft. living area and nothing to show for it but promises not on paper.

Good luck on your build.


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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 5/4/2010


William,

If you don't mind me asking,  how do you like dealing with John Harper so far? I actually have spoken with him and I definitely liked how he does the house plans. I just might go ahead and set a meeting with him in the near future.

The OBN in my area is charging me $3.63 of total sq ft for their services. So far this seems like the best avenue for me, because after contacting most of the banks and credit unions in my area, none of them will deal with me being an O-B. 

If anyone has any banks located in the southeast Texas area that are O-B friendly, I would love to hear from you. 

Thanks

 

 


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By William in Atascocita, TX on 5/4/2010


Chris,

John has been good to work with so far. He has not completed the plans, but is moving along with them. At present, he is doing them stick-built 2x6 framing. I just emailed back to him review the second one of the plans. He told me it would not take much to change to SIP if we change. I would not put his name and number on here if up to this point I had any reservations with John.

Do you have an OBN in Beaumont? I went to the one in Tomball and their price is much higher than your quote.

Can't recommend any banks.

Thanks,

Berry


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By Grant in Woodlands, TX on 5/4/2010


Why would you use OBN at $4.95 psf when Owner Built Custom Homes, Houston covers all of Texas at $2.80 psf or less (including most engineering)? Good luck, Grant

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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 5/4/2010


Why use any service that charges by the foot or value of the project? It doesn't make sense.

The amount of work to be done is the same whether the company is helping you build 2 sf or 20,000 sf.

It's still the same number of bids, subs, loans, engineering, permits, phone calls, meetings, etc. Why not go with a company that charges a flat fee for the typical and standard services?

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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 5/4/2010


Why pay OBN $4K-$5K more on a 1,000 sq ft larger home when they'll be doing the exact same amount of work? The fact that your home is larger means the subs will do more work and you'll need more materials, but the logistics of administering your project does not go up. 

It is the most honest and transparent way to charge for services and it removes any financial incentives from recommendations for material choices, costs, subs selected or size of your project.

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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 5/5/2010


I just spoke with Owner Built Custom Homes (OBCH) out of Houston, and after speaking with them, their rates seem to be quite a bit better than the OBN in my area.

The rate they gave me was $2.80/sq ft plus 5% off because another member of my family will be building about the same time as me. That rate includes house plans using their in-house designer. It is higher if I already have house plans; $3.45/sq ft. They also will be giving me a $1,000 referral check to split between the both of us.

I will probably meet with them in a couple weeks, so I'll see what they have to say. I will save about $7,000-$8,000 by using OBCH, due to them covering the costs of the house plans. The only issue is they are a pretty good ways away from where I live (about 1-2 hours), compared to my local OBN that is only a few minutes away. 

I also spoke with him about using SIPs, and he said he has completed a few SIP houses, but he does more ICF in his area. He told me going by price, both options will be about 15% higher than going with stick built. He said they typically build houses that are 2x6 with wet-sprayed cellulose, then attach either OSB or plywood over the insulation.


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By William in Atascocita, TX on 5/6/2010


Amazing the difference in charges. Don't understand why they would charge you $.65/sq.ft. more, because you have plans and they don't have to do any work designing for you. I would also want to talk to others they have helped who lived two hours away and find out how it worked out. I don't know yet if I'll use someone to guide me, but it will not be OBN with their prices. I'm currently getting my plans drawn and would not pay extra to OBCH, because I've got mine.

Like I said earlier, OBN wanted $8/sq. ft.+ for living area, $4.95/sq. ft. for total sq. ft. No way I'm going to give them all my potential savings. I'll take my chances and learn this and if I have errors to pay for, I'll use the money I didn't pay them and probably still come in lower than their price. I feel comfortable that with the books purchased from this site and this forum combined with three-five bids from each subcontractor, that I can do okay. Also have a son-in-law who completed his O-B two years ago at $65/ft.  That included granite, total brick and real stone, custom-built cabinets, ceramic tile, media room, and four-car garage with living area of 3,500 sq. ft.

I don't understand covering the insulation with OSB? Are you talking about spraying the roof and then covering and building a non-ventilated house? Kind of a modified SIP roof. I've not yet heard of a technique where they put the OSB on the inside of walls after spraying. Again that would be a modified SIP. I know I've a lot to learn! For me, it's a stretch to build SIP over stick when only about 1% of houses are built SIP. My question is, are they really that great, and people just don't build with SIP due to increased costs? I can handle increased costs if it pays out in a reasonable time period.


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By jeff in The Woodlands, TX on 5/12/2010


I am very close to choosing OBCH for a house off 1488 and would love to speak with people who have used them. I don't want to use their references for obvious reasons. If you are willing to share your experience, please let me know. Thanks!
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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 7/19/2010


William,

Hey, just wondering how your project has been going. I have been working with John Harper now for a few months and everything has been going great. Still trying to figure out the downstairs layout. 

Have you started to get any bids for your house yet?

Chris


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By Jere in Ray Twp., MI on 7/20/2010


Mike, just to comment on a few things...

1. "Being that ICF is not wood, you eliminate all wood-related issues"
: What are you using for all of your interior walls, floor system, roofing, etc.
-"Fire". An ICF home can still burn, the exterior concrete walls may still be standing, but the rest could be gone. With extremely hot temps from a fire, I would be concerned about the integrity of the concrete.
-"Water damage": an ICF home can get water damage too. The concrete exterior walls may not be affected as much, but interior walls, floor system, etc. Water leaking through the ICF walls isn't good either, as mildew and mold could form. These leaks are typically very difficult to find the exact location without removing a lot of the foam.

2. "Insurance breaks for ICF": don't insurance companies base insurance premiums on replacement cost of the home?

3. "Stronger than wood and steel-stud framing": sure concrete is stronger when done properly, but if your house got hit by a tornado, would it really make a difference?

4. "Thermal mass effect": The thermal mass in an ICF has no real benefit since it has foam insulation on both sides. Now if the foam were on the outside only, I would agree. ICF is however a great buffer between indoor and outdoor temp. differentials.
-"In essence, you're building your home in a cave" Most caves I have been in are cool and musty...

5. "Withstands earthquakes and wind better".  I'm from Michigan, so I'm not too worried about earthquakes or hurricanes.

ICF is a great way to build in certain climates and areas. I don't agree with some of the reasoning that was listed, though...

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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 7/20/2010


Jere: 

You're being too literal in some places, not allowing for individual choice in others, and not enough information in others:

Wood-related issues as pertains to the exterior of the home, is where 80-90% of all wood-related damage originates. The other elements of the home can be wood, or steel, or concrete, timber, pressed wheat-straw walls, more ICF, SIPs, etc., etc., etc. The choice is up to the builder/homeowner. Each has its advantages and drawbacks. We've bucked windows in ICF with treated lumber, VBUCK plastic mounting frames, prefabbed steel frames set before the block was erected, and direct-mounted windows to the concrete. We've used ICF for the interior walls, wood studs, steel studs, pressed wheat-straw walls, timber frame, and SIP panels. Steel framed the roof with light-gauge steel, red-iron, timber frame, stick frame, and poured-concrete flat roofs. I haven't done one, but have seen a domed home with shotcrete over ICF walls.

On the insurance, the underwriting is not entirely based on replacement cost. It also utilizes risk factors. A brick-sided home is cheaper to insure than a wood-sided home, even though for the same house, a wood-sided home is cheaper to build. Each state sets its own insurance-underwriting guidelines, so you have to check the carriers in your state. In Texas, you can get up to 70% breaks for these types of homes. But you have to really shop for it and educate the agents. 

Yes, most people don't realize if concrete and steel is exposed long enough and hot enough to fire, then it weakens the structural integrity of the system. Depending on the system you use, some are better protected than others. You don't eliminate the problems, you lessen the risks involved.

If the house is hit by a tornado, then replacing a roof is a lot cheaper than replacing a house. So yes, it does matter.

Thermal-mass effect. The thermal coupling comes up from the slab and concrete, not through the insulation of the walls. The insulation super-charges the effect in helping maintain a constant temperature inside the structure. As a rule, it takes a lot less energy to maintain the interior temperature of a home that utilizes thermal mass than it does to maintain the temperature of a home that doesn't have that advantage.

Cool and musty.  That's why you need a properly-sized HVAC system that matches the technology of the house AND includes an air exchanger.

Be glad Michigan isn't as susceptible to earthquakes and hurricanes. However, this forum is not exclusively limited to Michigan. People do build houses in areas that are effected by such natural phenomena.

ICF is great, but not perfect in all situations. If there were one perfect building system, we'd all be using it and we wouldn't be discussing any of it. So, given the state of the industry, you educate yourself, determine your needs, performance requirements, risk tolerance and budget, and then make a (hopefully) informed choice for your situation.

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By Jere in Ray Twp., MI on 7/21/2010


Mike,

You said I was being too literal in some places. Most of my comments were actually questions to some of the things you listed as why ICF is so great. Some of the things you mentioned, I have heard different. I would like to know for myself the truth and if someone had misinformed me... just looking for clarification.

You said I was not allowing for individual choice in others, and not enough information in others. How was I not allowing for individual choice and not giving enough information?

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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 7/22/2010


Jere,

Glad to explain my response.

Too literal: Specifically about the water leakage and damage. The leaks are generally not in the ICF system, but in the exterior systems that are designed to keep water out. All the ICF, (or other wall systems) are at that point is acting as a conduit. The actual leak is in another system: (siding, roofing, windows). You would never "blame" a stud wall system for leaking. In fact, I'm off to check out an ICF structure that has a seep in it. It was covered with stucco and the water is coming out between the ICF and behind the stucco. The problem is somewhere in the stucco or stucco/window junctions, not the ICF system. 

As far as allowing for individual choice, I was referring to your comment about interior framing. There are many ways to handle interior structure other than wood. However, one item where it is hard to get away from wood is the subfloors. Unless you're pouring concrete floors on the second story, you'll be using an engineered decking system of some kind made from wood. 

As to not enough information, I was referring to insurance coverage and thermal mass. I believe the insurance question was adequately addressed.  As far as thermal mass and caves, the basic concept is (at least in houses that have a concrete slab for the foundation), you have a huge thermal couple with the earth through the slab. That in turn is in contact with the concrete in an ICF system. So in effect you're utilizing the ambient temperature of the earth to help control the temperature in the walls. Even in houses with basements, you have the same principle at work. The basement floor is generally concrete, and that is connected to the wall system for the basement. The idea that the insulation on both sides of the concrete precludes thermal mass is incorrect. The insulation helps to maintain a more constant temperature in the walls.

You can think of the thermal mass in the walls as a giant flywheel. Flywheels store kinetic energy. It takes a lot of energy to get a flywheel up to speed, but very little to keep it there. Same holds true for thermal energy. That's why concrete continues to radiate heat well into the night after baking in the sun all day. 

I hope this helps.

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By Chris on 7/22/2010


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By Jere in Ray Twp., MI on 7/22/2010


Mike,
I was thinking of thermal mass, like your comment towards the end where you mentioned concrete continues to radiate heat well into the night after baking in the sun all day. That is why I mentioned in my original response about the foam being on the outside only. During the cold seasons, the sun would shine through the windows during the day, heating up the concrete. At night, the heat would be released back into the house... the same would be true with concrete floors.

Now with ICF, where you have foam on both sides, I guess the way to look at this is a 12-month cycle and the different seasons. As you get through the summer, the concrete warms up slowly. Once you get to the cold seasons, the concrete starts to cool slowly. With the concrete in the ICF thermally connected to the earth by the concrete footings, the ground temp. is usually around 52 degrees (well, in Michigan anyway, under the frost line). During hot summers if the outside temp. is 100 degrees, and your indoor temp is 70 degrees, the differential would be 30, leaving a median concrete wall temp. around 85 degrees... however, the concrete is thermally connected to the 52-degree ground, which helps keep the concrete cooler... the median between 85 and 52 would be around 68 degrees. (I'm sure these numbers aren't accurate, more for explaining purposes.)

During cold winters, if the outside temp. is 20 degrees, inside 70 degrees, it leaves median temp. at 45... ground temp is 52. The hot summer pre-charged the concrete, and this heat will be released during the winter... hopefully through the concrete slab floor and into the house. By the time summer rolls around, the concrete in the ICF is cooler, which helps keep the house cooler during the summer, and the cycle continues.

This raises another question. Is it more beneficial to have an insulated concrete slab with a thermal break between the slab and concrete footing/ICF or a non-insulated slab without a thermal break? Maybe depends on the climate, whether you are heating-dominant or cooling-dominant, and also if you have a basement or slab on grade? In a cold climate, you wouldn't want all of your heat going into the ground, so insulated may be better. Down south where it is hot most of the time, it may be better having an uninsulated slab, if you have a basement, to take advantage of the cooler ground temp.

So in a nutshell, depending on where you live, the type of climate could greatly influence which type of building works best. In some areas and depending if you have a slab on grade or a basement with slab, you may need/want a thermal break between the concrete slab and ICF wall/footing. If there is a thermal break between the concrete slab and the ICF footing, the only real thermal mass that has any real benefit would be the slab, since the ICF concrete is totally insulated and isolated from the indoors... the ICF is still a great buffer between the indoor and outdoor temps.

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By William in Atascocita, TX on 7/23/2010


Chris,

I plan to get permits within two weeks. Have gotten many bids, but still have more to go. After I get permits, then I'll submit everything to the HOA. My HOA can take up to 45 days if they choose. In the meantime, I'll complete the remainder of the bids.

Got the SIP bids for panels only and chose not to go with SIP, due to costs. I did find that SIP manufacturers in northern states were cheaper than the local one, even with the shipping. I tried every way I could to justify SIP and it's just too costly. Still working on getting foam and/or spray cellulose bids to decide which way to go. I prefer foam, but again the costs are a large factor.

So I'm looking at a mid-September or Oct. start. Getting all the SIP bids slowed everything more than planned, as I was thinking I could start early Aug. Another item I did was to give a builder my plans and get his price. His price was about what I expected and he had it line-itemed. He would not give me a copy of the line-item quote unless I signed with him. It would have been a big help with my bids. Bottom line was about $50K more than I expect to spend building myself.

John Harper has been very good to work with, and has called several times checking on my progress. He has really encouraged me to go SIP; so with full disclosure, I want everyone to know he does have a connection with the local SIP manufacturer who gave the highest quote. Now having said that, John gave me the name of another company up north who provided the lowest bid. Another problem I have with SIP manufacturers is they all put a clause in the bid that after signing with them they will do final design, which may increase costs! This is after I've already supplied them with my plans to bid on. The fine print allows them to go deep into my pocket like a used-car salesman. I would never sign the bid sheet without crossing out that clause. Can you imagine what would happen if you signed a bid from framer, plumber, electrician, etc. with a clause like that?

When do you plan to break ground? Are you still using one of the outside building companies to assist?


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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 7/26/2010


William,

I'm not too surprised to hear your SIP bids came back higher. Kind of what I figured. It just sounded too good to be true that the cost would be a wash when compared to the other options.

What I have been thinking of doing is a combination of spray cellulose and spray foam. I plan to put the cellulose in the walls, and spray foam in the roof. I spoke to a builder I know and he made a good point that if you spray-foam the walls, you don't have the option of adding anything at a later date. 


I'm still working with John Harper on the floor plan and the elevations. I definitely feel like I made the right choice going with him for my plans. He's been great to work with, and being able to see the rooms and exterior in 3D has been a big help. He's definitely been trying to push me towards SIPs, but I just don't think it will be in my budget. But I do agree with him that it is a superior insulation over cellulose and foam. 


I still plan to go through Be your own builder (also known as Owner Builder Network) mainly because they are the only one that is local. I decided against the one out of Houston simply because they really wouldn't be able to help me out with local subs.

As soon as my plans are completed I will start getting bids, then I will have to sell my house first before I can break ground. 

 

Keep us posted on your build, hope everything goes as smooth as it can for you.


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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 7/26/2010


William, who is the local SIP mfr.? There are a few in Texas. No SIP mfr. has come close when comparing to sticks in Texas for my owners.  

Chris: I'm curious about the comment of "I spoke to a builder I know and he made a good point that if you spray-foam the walls you don't have the option of adding anything at a later date." Sorry for being a bit slow here, but what are you talking about adding? More insulation? An add-on room? What is it that you can't add more of if you use spray foam? 

And how are SIP's a superior insulation over spray foam? 

Here's a gimme: Use 1" of spray foam in your walls and then fill it out with cellulose. That way you get the best of both worlds. The airtight seal of the foam and the cheapness of cellulose. The challenge with a loose-fill product in the walls is settling and nesting. Over time, the cellulose has a tendency to compress and settle and it is a great habitat for critters. I know, I have it in my walls and I got mice in the attic. They somehow got into the walls. They LOVE cellulose to nest in. It has been pure hell trying to get rid of them. 

You mentioned going with OBN. Is UBuildIt down in your area and how did they compare?

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By Glen in Houston, TX on 7/27/2010


I assume Chris is referring to not being able to "fish" electrical or other wiring into a spray-foamed wall. However, I doubt it would be much easier with wet-sprayed cellulose walls.
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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 7/27/2010


Mike,

What my builder friend said was you will have a hard time fishing any type of wire into the walls once they are spray-foamed. But I never thought about what the difference would be when using a wet-sprayed cellulose. I guess I would be curious as to how hard the cellulose is when it has fully dried. Thanks for bringing that up.

So what is everyone's consensus on the best alternative to a SIP-built house (by the way I didn't mean anything by it being a superior product, just going off of what I have been told and read online; I'm definitely no professional when it comes to this type of stuff)?

No UBuildIt is not in my area, the only company within an hour's drive is OBN.


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By William in Atascocita, TX on 7/27/2010


Mike, the local manufacturer I was speaking of is Frontier in the Conroe area. I really would like to go with SIP, but cannot justify the costs vs. time to pay out vs. no real increased resale value at this time for a SIP house.


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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 7/27/2010


That was Glen who mentioned the difficulty in fishing wire through sprayed cellulose. I have pulled wire through fiberglass batt (that's not fun AT ALL). Cellulose is the easiest, although not easy. Open-cell spray foam is doable with a sharp and flexible spring-steel snake. Closed-cell hard foam is almost impossible without opening up the wall or having a straight shot at drilling through it or punching through with sharpened rebar. Styrofoam is almost as hard as the closed-cell foam.

When we've had to pull wire through the SIP walls, we've had to cut access holes in the skins in order to cut out the foam and pull wire. Then we've had to drill through the lumber splines. SIPs are a nightmare to work with if you have to get out of the pre-cut wiring chases. With ICF, you just use a hot knife or Sawzall to rip your channels for the wiring. Real easy to do. Plumbing, on the other hand, is a chore if you are using a solid-core system and forget a line and have to cut through the concrete and rebar. Wiring and plumbing in log structures are generally run through framed-out raceways. 

As far as SIPs or ICF or any other technology, I'm not married to any of them and I don't sell any of them, on purpose. They all have a place, depending on who is doing the evaluation of the product against requirements. Personally, of all the systems I've built with, SIPs are the biggest pain. By far the easiest is a stick frame. Easy to find good subs and other trades to work in the structure. Go SIPs, ICF, logs, steel or timber, and it gets more "interesting". 

From a performance point of view, SIPs, ICF and stick/foam can give you similar energy performance. ICF and SIPs are usually very close in cost to build. From an out-of-pocket total monthly financial performance, I've consistently seen the following order: ICF, SIP, sticks. In other words, by the time you add up the monthly mortgage payment, utilities, insurance and pest-control costs, ICF costs less per month than SIPs or sticks (at least that's what my clients in Texas have seen.)

As a licensed RE broker, I think you're right about your assessment of (lack of) added value based on the type of construction. In today's market, you just won't get it back. In fact, I advise my clients not to build right now unless it is their dream home and they won't be moving out for a long time. Generally, you can buy a similar house to the one you want to build for about 20-40% LESS. In fact, I did a broker price opinion on a house up in Denison that would have easily cost around $1.2M to build. I estimated the value of the home based on similar comps at $595,000. It sold as a short sale for $340,000!!! And it was a real keeper. 8,100 sq ft, 6 BR, 6 bath, studio, 5-car garage, exercise room, pottery room, large wooden barn, split-rail fencing in an estate community on three acres. 

I do get around the state, so if I can answer any questions, don't hesitate to ask. I'll give you the best answers I can based on personal experience and without any financial incentives to skew the responses.

You mentioned that OBN was the only company within an hour's drive of your location. Do they do site visits?

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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 7/28/2010


Again, my opinion:

ICF and SIP are superior products. They DO cost more (don't believe the advertisements, add up the total cost of construction). You can do well with stick and foam and a careful detail-oriented build, but you will need to do things like go to 2x6 walls.
 
A combination of insulation types would be good also - I like the cellulose wall idea with a foam roof... Good if done correctly? Sure. As good as ICF or foam? Probably not. My advice is to pay attention to the roof - most of the heat gain/heat loss is through the roof. Walls and windows, although important, are secondary.

A traditionally-insulated home can be built "tight" too, but typically you're going to have unheated attic space, which houses your HVAC and air handler... I just don't think that piping HVAC through an attic that can reach 120-140 degrees is a good idea.

There are two problems with building an ICF/SIP home in terms of financials:

1) Appraisal. As mentioned above, most people won't pay significantly more for a SIP/ICF home. Most appraisers (in my experience) don't even know the difference and won't account for it. If you're going to modern features that add to build cost, make sure - up front - that your appraiser is familiar with that building technology. Otherwise, it's likely to get ignored. If you're paying cash, this isn't an issue.

2) Resale. Face it, resale is an issue. The advantage to custom building right now is that the cost of materials is down as is the cost of labor. Still, your home may not be worth the cost to build it. For many people, it's not about immediate resale, and this is OK as long as you can get to 80% LTV (see above). 

I'm contemplating building a "guest" house on our property. As much as I'd like to build a SIP/ICF, I just don't see it in the cards right now. I'm considering building a berm home - which would largely be concrete on three sides. We have the property for it, but I haven't found a lot of good books on design considerations and I know that the local contractors and builders are simply going to shake their heads. I would expect an earth-berm home to be well thermocoupled and do very well... Anyone have any good references for design considerations with berm homes? I'd like to do a small one first, maybe 500 sq ft. We're in Texas, and basically our ground is limestone after about 2' down.

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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 7/28/2010


dcg:

We've built a couple of bermed homes, and interestingly enough, ICF was used as the main structural wall system for the part that was buried in the hillside. 

There are several good resources for design considerations on building in-ground. I'm an avid fan of pre-modern construction methodologies (stone, timber and log) and I have a small library of related books. One that does very well in explaining how to build a retaining wall, bermed foundation or basement is Building with Stone by Charles McRaven. Point being, if you can build a stone wall to withstand the forces in play, then doing it with concrete is very simple. 

The two biggest issues you'll have to address are downhill forces of the dirt against the structure and moisture control. For the two homes we've done, both used a cut-and-fill approach, i.e. we cut into the hillside for part of the structure and then pushed the dirt out over the downhill side to create a level building pad. 

For the wall structure, you'll either pour a slip-form concrete wall, use a grouted CMU with rebar, or an ICF type system. Cost-wise, there's not much difference when you get to the final finish-out. If you go with a stacked CMU or slip-form concrete, keep in mind that you'll need to fir out the interior wall. If you go with an ICF system, that is not necessary. Also, a polystyrene (Styrofoam) system already has significant moisture barrier built in. Be sure to either check with the ICF mfr. for below-grade performance specs, or have the structure designed and spec'd by an engineer. 

For the drainage on the uphill side of the foundation, you've got to dig a channel below foundation grade and have it properly sloped to the downhill side. Then bed the channel with gravel, install your French-drain pipe, cover with a sleeve and more gravel. That will take care of evacuating the water from the foundation so it doesn't lip the slab and flood the house.  Then the next thing is to have the walls waterproofed. This can be done with spray-on materials or heavy plastics that are specifically designed for this purpose. Just be sure the barrier overlaps the edge of the slab. Then backfill against the wall, but don't compact the soil with heavy equipment, or you can damage your wall.  

I have included pics of the two bermed homes. In the bottom pic, you'll see reflective-foam board placed against the wall. The homeowner did this just before the backfill. It wasn't necessary, but he had the unused board lying around. The only problem with what he did here was that the top of the board is not sealed, therefore water will get down behind it. This still is not a problem, because of the membrane moisture barrier on the wall itself. Point is, doing this really didn't protect against anything.

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By Melisa in Pflugerville, TX on 7/30/2010


Dcg,

We are planning to build out in Jonestown, and after reading your posts on this site, my husband and I would love to hear more about your experience in building... and if there's anything you'd do differently. Did you end up doing 2x4 construction, or 2x6? How are you liking your insulation? Have you heard of Aerogel? There is a company out of Florida with the most promising usable form for residential insulation use. Thermablok is their product name. They sell strips with adhesive backing, that promise additional R-4.2 when just one thin strip is stuck on the outer edge of 2x4 or 2x6 framing, to reduce thermal bridging. We are worried that the spray foam will off-gas in the heat of a Texas summer. Any problems with that? Any advice is appreciated.


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By Ignacio in Houston, TX on 7/30/2010


From the website thermablok.wordpress.com Thermablok Aerogel is made of silicon, so it doesn't look like it would outgas except for maybe the glue. It does seem hard and brittle, though. What happens to it when you nail the sheathing on? -- IV


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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 7/31/2010


Melissa,

My home is fairly traditional construction. We're stick and brick with 2x4 walls in most circumstances. My home is fairly "traditional" in terms of construction, with a few differences:

1) We heat/cool only 3/4 of the home. The rest is a "guest" area that is isolated and on its own HVAC.

2) We use solar water with a back-up.

3) We're foam insulated.

To answer your questions:

Yes, I like foam insulation just fine. Ours is basic open-cell foam. No outgassing that I'm aware of (or can detect) - I'm really not buying that as a big concern... I am aware of Thermablok, but haven't priced it or used it.  I like the concept of preventing a thermal bridge via insulating the studs themselves.. Makes sense to me in theory, but I can't give you any more advice beyond that.

Sure, there are lots of things that I'd do differently. The only thing that really sticks out in my mind is that I should have spent the money to do a metal roof... At the time, I just wasn't ready to eat another $20K in cost. In TX, it's not really "if" you will replace your composite roof, it's WHEN... And a metal roof really makes this a non-issue.

There are other materials and insulation techniques that I'd like to try, but I'll save those for another house.

I've been doing side projects in solar water and solar photovoltaic (in Jonestown) recently - I work with the designer/builder (GC) who did my house; I do odd jobs - basically what I'd consider paid hobby work for him from time to time. The house that he just completed is full rainwater collection (no well or city water), gray water for irrigation, solar hot water, solar photovoltaic, foam insulated, metal roof... It's interesting, but still traditional stick and brick.

Unless you have a limitless budget, you're going to make compromises - so figure out what's important to you, what the priorities are, and see how close you can come in regard to you available funds...

Send me a PM if you have specific questions. I love tinkering with building - just understand that I'm an engineer, not a home builder, and construction is a hobby for me - there are others with vastly more years of experience.


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By Chris in Beaumont, TX on 8/2/2010


DCG,

How good of a job does the foam insulation do when keeping out outside noise? Or how does it compare to a more traditional insulation such as cellulose? 

One thing I want to focus on with my new build is going to be noise inside the house. I live in a subdivision right now where the houses are about 20 feet apart, so you can imagine I can hear just about everything my neighbors are doing. 

I will be in the same situation as you when my house is built when heating and cooling my house. I will only be focusing on cooling the downstairs, which will be 2,400 sq ft, and the upstairs (700 sq ft) will be kept at a comfortable temperature. If you don't mind me asking, how has your electricity bill been while living in your foam-insulated house, and if you had it to do over again, would you use spray foam in the entire house?

Thanks

Chris


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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 8/2/2010


I don't notice a noise difference between a foam home and a traditionally-insulated batt home.

There are indications on this forum that closed-cell foam, which has a higher R-value, and is a more dense material, may be subject to more noise transmittal.

Be careful when asking about electricity bills, our rates vary from Austin by 30% (minimum) and 300% maximum - so to compare apples to apples, you need true kWh use. I was scratching my head trying to figure out why a buddy with a 1980s-built 3,000 sq-ft home had similar electricity bills until I looked at the rates he paid per kWh.

My highest electricity bill (to date) has been about $190. I don't know kWh use off the top of my head, but can look it up for you. Also understand that I run a 2-hp well pump at 500 feet depth, a septic pump, several computers 24/7, and I have 60A going to a 1,000 sq-ft shop where I do some metal fabrication... My baseline energy consumption seems to be around $120/month, which includes a $20-$25 "service charge" that I pay regardless of energy consumption. My energy provider is Pedernales Electrical Co-op, which has been in the news for the last two years for rampant fraud and waste.

Would I foam again? Yes. Absolutely. I''d consider doing 2x6 walls all the way around.

As an alternative, I'd certainly consider doing cellulose in exterior walls and foaming the roof. I like semi-heated attic space, as my air handling is in the attic.

There are great ductless split systems available now - super-high SEER value. Easy to install. You can really get a deal on them if you can find an installer that will put one in for you (you purchase) - most installers want to bid a package, which is very, very much marked up... I would choose one of these if I had to cool moderate spaces.

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By Sharon in Goodrich, TX on 8/16/2010


Would code allow for placing the wiring inside some conduit? Then you can fish it out if needed.
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By Mike in Bonham, TX on 9/17/2010


A funny story about the effectiveness of sound attenuation (deadening or soundproofing) of ICF products.

First, some background:
I've worked with many ICF products and one in particular is called Perform Wall. This is not your typical 100% Styrofoam block. It's made with 85% recycled Styrofoam and 15% cement. The blocks are 10' long, 15" tall and 10" wide. As a result, they weigh about 150 pounds each.

I was at a trade show in Dallas a few years ago with this product. A gentleman came up to me and asked a question related to the sound performance of Perform Wall. 

"Will this block make my neighbor's dog shut up at night?"

I understood what he was asking, but it was the way he worded the question. I couldn't resist.

"Yes, but you have to be a really strong, a good shot and hit him in just the right place."

We both laughed.

Somehow, I don't think a batt of fiberglass would have quite the same "impact" on the dog.

: )

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