Archive for September, 2011

Don’t know how SIPs are made? SureTight shows you how

Another day of heavy rain!  What better thing to do than drive to Youngwood PA and learn how SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) are made?  SureTight is a small SIPs manufacturer in PA.  They serve builders and homeowners all over the East Coast who want to build an airtight and very well-insulated home.  See their site here and be sure to take a look at their projects.

The oweners/partners Tim and Jim showed us how a SIPs Panel is built.

First, you start with foam.  What you see here is BASF’s Neopor EPS foam which has about 20-25% more R-value than the regular EPS (white).

Neopor EPS

EPS stands for Expanded Polystyrene.  It’s various uses range from coffee cups, insulation to packaging materials.  Watch the video below to see how it’s made.

So, because it is expanded, quality control is very important.  SureTight weighs every piece of foam to ensure it has enough density to be made into building material, then they check for an UL stamp.  Next, a carefully measured amount of glue is applied on a two pieces of OSB (Oriented Strand Boards).  This is not your Elmers or some organic horse glue.  This glue is formulated for structural use in building materials such as SIPs, I-joists and other laminated wood products and it is made to be highly resistant to moisture.

A giant tub of glue

The foam gets sandwiched between the OSB and the whole thing gets pressed through this machine.

SIPs Laminator

Then, the panel is placed in a top secret vacuum press to compress it while the glue sets.  Other companies use a hydraulic press for this.  Finally, you have a panel.

The panel then gets fed into this Hundegger CNC precision cutting machine to be cut to size.  When it comes out, the panel is extremely exact and cut with laser precision and that is because it uses lasers to ensure that level of accuracy and precision.

Window and door rough opening are then cut at a station.

Panel with Rough Opening


After all the excess foam is removed.  The panel is ready for shipment.  Some of these are ours!

Finished SIPs

SIPs can be made to all different shapes, thicknesses and sizes, it all depends on the needs of the builder/homeowners.

Different Shapes


Solar Decathlon 2011 Part 2

Eric and I went to take a look at a few more houses at the decathlon yesterday.  Unfortunately, the open house hours ended at 2pm.  Seems kinda early.  Well, we’ll try again later.  We were able to get some pictures of houses and look leisurely at some exterior elements.


I love the exterior of the CHIP.  It’s outsulation really makes me rethink the skin of buildings.  And did you know that this is completely student-built?  There are only four out of the 19 that were actually student-built.   I wonder if they get extra credit for that.  They really should!

Tailgate Party at CHIP

Unit 6 by Team Tidewater

Unit 6 by Team Tidewater

Nice mix of traditional materials in a modern style

Shades at Unit 6

Solar Homestead by Appalachian State

Lot of regional character.

Natural Tree Bark Sidings at the Solar Homestead

Tree bark protect trees when they are alive, so why shouldn’t it protect dead trees?  This makes intuitive sense.

More Bark


Enjoy House by New Jersey

Pre-cast concrete.  The only masonry structure here.  I believe the concrete panels are built using thermalmass system, i.e. Rigid foam sandwiched by two sides of concrete.

E-Cube by Team Belgium

Clean lines but seems a little boring.

E-Cube with Shades

Watershed by University of Maryland

A beautiful house house by Maryland.  Heavy on water conservation.  Butterfly roof with PVs and a green roof.

Watershed in Action

Here’s a real watershed moment.  Wonder if they measured how much water they collected.

Living Light by University of Tennessee

I really like the Living Light’s modern look.  I think everything just kind of “fits”.  Beautiful design!


Speaking of beautiful, we parked our little Prius behind this guy.  The funny thing was across the street was the display of the Nissan Leaf and a Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid.  I wanted to tell the visitors to go across the street and see the real deal.

Solar Decathlon 2011 in a Deluge

Our SIPs panels got delayed again!  Well, without panels to put up a house, Charlie (Intellistructures) and I decided to check out the Solar Decathlon.  The rain fell relentlessly the entire day, it felt like a tropical storm.  The rain did not dampen the spirit of the schools or the visitors, hundreds of people showed up to see the houses.

Due to some judging activities, weather and other reasons we couldn’t see all the houses.  Gonna have to go back next week for more!

Here are some of my initial thoughts about the houses I saw.

Compact Hyper Insulated Prototype (CH:IP) by SCI-Arch/CalTech

The CHIP has a unique shape.  The space under the rear of the house creates a covered parking space.  On the inside, the shape encourages for natural ventilation.  Instead of configuring the interior horizontally into different spaces, they utilized a vertical configuration.  This results in a large usable interior space while taking up a very small footprint.

The insulation is probably the most intriguing part of the house.  They truly take the term “outsulation” seriously.  In fact, as you walk-in, someone will hand you a postcard for you to send to the Oxford Dictionary to petition that “Outsulation” be a word.  I wholeheartedly agree!  The outsulation “blanket” is made of recycled denim (blue jeans) clad in vinyl (10 year warranty) that can be patched and can be easily replaced.  The team also devised the quilt-like fastening system.  Not only does the blanket looks awesome, it also serves to prevent the denim from settling and keep the blanket puffy.  I like this idea because this can really save a lot of time and money installing exterior cladding.

Being from CalTech, they also built some really cool controls that allows you to control many aspects of the house using an IPad (many teams have this but I think CHIP’s is the most extensive).  They also have a great hack of the XBOX Kinect.  See the video.

More on CHIP:

Living Light By University of Tennessee

Video of Living Light

I like Living Light primarily for its double facade.

The double facade moves the thermal envelope to the inner layer, which has operable windows.  This makes the already very energy efficient windows (notice the quadruple pane window!) even more efficient.  The outer layer is single pane glazing that protects the thermal envelope.  The blinds though on the exterior of the thermal envelope are behind the outer layer, therefore, protected from the wind, rain and snow.

The video does a good job illustrating what it does to help ventilate and heat the house.  Although I wonder if there is too much glazing on the north side.

Another cool feature is the way the home deals with water.  At the entrance and the backdoor of the house, a deck-like flooring continues from the outside into the house.  This allows for water, dirt, etc. to drop down into a space coated with EPDM (This worked great today because of the amount of muddy foot traffic).  Also, the bathroom floor is made with the same decking that allows gray water to drain down directly into that EPDM coated space.  The accumulated water is drained out to be reused in the garden.  I think that is brilliant.

Self-Reliance by Middlebury College

Without an Engineering or Architecture program, this project was led by some physics and biology majors.  I couldn’t help but root for these guys!  The team puts it focus on affordability and self-reliance. See video for details:

My favorite part of the house is their indoor green house/wall in the kitchen.

Having a greenhouse right in the kitchen is just the coolest!

INhome by Purdue University

I found this home to be very livable but perhaps lacking in innovative ideas.

The floor plan of the INhome feels like regular home, which is probably what they were looking for.  I think this is a very practical approach to the project and makes the home instantly livable.  However, I felt that they did not spend too much time thinking about some issues that a high-performing builder should consider.  For example, the house is built with SIPs, which gives a high insulative value but thermal bridging is still a concern due to the dimensional lumber between the panels.  When I asked what they did to minimize the thermal bridging, the response was basically, “oh, it’s not that big of a deal.”

Another issue that was not mitigated was the attached garage.  The INhome is the first entry ever to the Decathlon to have an attached garage.  I think this is a great inclusion.  However, the garage is attached directly to living space (separated by a rather standard wooden door) without any sort of additional measure to prevent or minimize automobile fumes from entering into the house.  With a tight home, I worry about indoor air quality.

INhome features a Biowall which is basically a green wall that is connected to the HVAC system.  This is kind of cool but I think no one really knows how to measure the effectiveness this air purification system, which is probably why they also have an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator).  I believe that plants cleanse air but I don’t think blowing clean air thorough growing medium makes the air any cleaner.

I don’t mean to slam it but I really think other than the readily livability, there wasn’t anything really remarkable about it.  I am no expert but just my two cents.

Backfilled! Ready for SIPs

While we were practicing how to install a window in the basement, Leon Home Improvement was doing the heavy lifting, filling and tamping of dirt around the foundation.  Man, that’s a lot of dirt!  See the before and after photos.  So far we’ve had enough dirt to back fill.  I really hope we don’t have to buy more dirt!



The garage area (the cutout) will need to get filled by another 4 feet or so, because a concrete slab will be poured on top, compaction is necessary.  I pray for dry weather for the next few days.

SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) delivery is scheduled for next week!  I can’t wait for this to look “more like a house”.

Passivhaus Window Install Demo

Joerg Birkelbach of Tremco flew in from Ohio just to show us how to use their ExoAir Trio (formerly illmod Trio) foam tape in window installations.  Talk about customer service!

The Trio is an open-cell flexible polyurethane foam impregnated with synthetic resin.  According to its data sheet, it has been developed to expand into a window/door rough opening to create a seal that is “airtight, thermally efficient and vapor permeable”, hence the “Trio”.

The main objective was to learn how to install our windows from Intus using the Trio.  Aramus and Dave from Intus and Charlie and Rafael from Intellistructures were all present.

The Trio has an amazing expansion capability.  When delivered, it is about 5/32″ thick, which is what you see below in the rolled on left.  Once released from roll, within minutes, the foam expands to 1 1/2″.  As Joerg explained, 1 1/2″ is the maximum expansion but the at that point, there is no compression and an airtight seal does not exist.  For this particular roll the application range is between 7-15 mm (0.275″-0.59), this range refers to the gap between the window rough opening and the window frame.

This speedy expansion means whoever does the install must know exactly what they are doing and cannot take too long with each window install.  Even though the installer needs to know what they are doing, this doesn’t mean he/she can’t learn how to do it relatively quickly.  Joerg did a demonstration that took about 5 minutes (while everyone fired questions at him).  After that, Rafael (our SIPs installer) took over and did a practice install.  I think it isn’t a difficult material to use but learning how to properly use it before any actual installation is absolutely crucial.

We removed the window frame to see how the tape had expanded.  This is what the foam looks like after a few minutes.  As you can see that lines had formed on the tape and you can see where the window bracket had been.  The tape had expanded following the contours of the window frame and the bracket.

A few things about the Trio that we learned:

  • Keep it cool;
  • Work quickly;
  • Always cut a little longer;
  • Keep unused tape rolled up

Here are some videos we took.

Joerg doing an install demonstration

Rafael doing a test install

Tricks & Tips when using Exoair Trio

The PNC SmartHome Cleveland uses Tremco’s ExoAir Trio


It rained and rained for most of the week.  We are finally seeing some sun today.  Here are some pictures of what the house looks like now.

We’ve attached the 2″ EPS to the outside of the Superiorwalls using fasteners and foam adhesives that do not burn foam.  The EPS goes to the bottom of the walls and will continue to the top of the roof.  In addition to adding about R-7.2 to the walls, this layer of outsulation breaks the thermal bridging in the walls and roof panels.  All part of a complete thermal envelope.

The next step is backfill.  It’s been in this state for about 2 weeks due to an inspection issue that has since been resolved (something I will definitely discuss at a much later date).  Rain didn’t help either.  So, I hope by Monday we’ll have some dry dirt to work with.  Looking forward to it.

Windows…Not the Microsoft kind!

We received our windows and doors from Europe last week.  I was on the beach jumping the waves and swimming with the sharks (actually, just dolphins).  So, it was Eric and Roland (one of the owners of Intus Windows) and the Leon Home Improvement crew who moved the 1400 lbs of windows and doors into my garage.

See for more travel information of our super energy efficient windows.

Well, now that they are here, let’s see if they are as good as the Intus folks claimed.  Obviously, we cannot see how well they perform until the windows are actually installed, sealed and undergo a battery of tests.  We can however, examine the physical structure and craftsmanship.

The profiles were built in Germany by Inoutic.

The material is uPVC or unplaticized Polyvinyl Chloride, aka rigid vinyl.  Not all vinyl windows are created equal.  The common type of PVC profiles are extruded by adding platicizers to make it pliable in production but as a result, the platicizers also make them brittle and prone to cracking and deterioration due to ultra violet light exposure.  uPVC on the other hand are stronger, longer lasting and won’t crack or change colors.

Here is one of the casements.  The window opens inward with the one handle that controls 5 different locking points.  You have the options of using it as a hopper window, which tilts the window in from the top for partial ventilation or use it as a conventional casement window.

The windows are heavy but the hardware is well-built, so the operation is very smooth.

Each window has 5 locking points (the steel things above).  Also, if you look carefully, there are three weather seals/gaskets (the gray strips), two on the frame and one on the window sash.  Both of these features should enable these windows to be extremely air-tight when closed.  I look forward to the blower door tests!

The doors features similar locking and sealing mechanisms of the windows.  They are a little space age like and actually quite close what we were looking for: a house door that performs like a refrigerator door.  Again, the door operated very smoothly.

For the more technical folks, here are the windows and doors specs


  • Triple pane Guardian glass with 2 low-e coatings
  • U= 0.11
  • SHGC=50%
  • Window frame Uf=0.17Btu/h/ft2
  • Warm edge Swisspacers
  • Spacer thermal bridge=0.018
  • Triple gasket seals


  • Frame Uf=0.23 Btu/h/ft2
  • U=0.11
  • SHGC=50%
  • Spacer thermal bridge=0.019

Overall, the craftsmanship of the frame is very good, the glazing excellent, the gaskets are made of sturdy materials and the hardware operate smoothly.  Now, they just need to perform then Intus can stick it to Anderson, Marvin and Pella.  Although they are probably not operating in the same market as those big guys.

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