Photo by Jason Tesauro
Have you driven by yet? There be concrete on that thar Church Hill! The backhoe scooped out its first bucketful of backyard in July, a solid three months later than the most conservative estimate of when we’d actually break ground. But, who cares? It’s happening. With the foundation finally laid, our walls and structure promise to fly quickly up. Word on the street is that we’ll be under roof in under a month. Here’s why.
During the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, the “Florida Tropical House” was built on the shores of Lake Michigan. Plans called for limestone, clay and poured concrete. This Modernist design wowed crowds in the Fair’s “Homes of Tomorrow” exhibition. Eighty-three years later, concrete dwellings are commonplace, but “non-standard construction methods,” as the city of Richmond calls them, continue to evolve. We’ve decided to build our home out of one of these methods. SIPs (structured insulated panels) is not yet a household name, but it soon will be.
“SIPs are the best method to insulate your home,” says our builder Cory Fitchett, construction manager at Old Dominion Innovations, Inc. “Every joint is caulked and sealed, there are no air leaks and there’s foam insulation throughout the whole house.”
Involved in solar and contracting for years, Fitchett saw the need for a company that understood green building practices, thermal energy and high efficiency. The Fitchett family launched ODI in 2010 and started following from day one the EarthCraft guidelines: a LEED-like epistemology that saves energy and water while improving indoor air quality.
Traditional wood-frame homes are built out of sticks (wood) and nails. Between these 2-by-4-inch lumber studs, however, there’s a lot of empty space where heat and air conditioning spill out like waste water, except it’s made of money. SIPs, on the other hand, are airtight. So tight, in fact, that SIP houses need to breathe; they use their HVAC systems to inhale fresh air and exhale stale air.
“It costs a tiny bit more,” says Fitchett of the construction method, “but it pays for itself within two to three years.” Overall, you’re looking at a 5- to 10-percent increase up front, “but,” he says, “you’ll save on your heating and cooling costs for decades.”
While climate change naysayers believe greenhouse gases don’t matter out there in the troposphere, progressive minds are reining-in environmental excesses down here in our own abodes. Like the hybrid car, the SIPs house maximizes resources and makes you feel just a little better about your carbon footprint. Also, having dealt with in our last house virulent mold issues and a dank, camel cricket–ridden basement that seasonally required either a pith helmet or a HAZMAT suit, SIPs offered peace of mind for the long-term health of the house and health of our respiratory systems.
Think of SIPs as an Oreo (or, preferably, the lesser-known but more delicious original Hydrox). The two cookies are dense wood particle boards (OSB) and the cream is an insulating foam (EPS). Architectural plans are sent to the SIPs manufacturer and a computerized radial-arm saw cuts each piece to specifications. Four weeks later, panels arrive to the job site on a flat-bed truck. Three weeks on, the erected SIPs form a solid shell, tightened up with expansion foam where ceilings join walls. “I like building energy-efficient houses,” Fitchett says. “They’re a lot more fun to build and it’s faster to frame a house out of SIPs.” But come and see for yourself since ours is currently the only residential SIPs project within city limits.
Meanwhile, with a battalion of hard hats and steel boots working the outside, we’re turning our attention to the inside and all of the sundry design decisions from flooring to ceiling fans. Also on the to-do list: a matter of neighborhood politics that feels like a splinter in the footings. And it’s getting infected. The problem is an easement. There are two definitions for the word, and, in my case at least, “easement” is turning out to be a contronym, meaning a word with contradictory or opposite definitions (like how transparent means “invisible,” or “obvious”). Definition No. 1: A right to cross or otherwise use someone else’s land for a specified purpose; No. 2: The state or feeling of comfort or peace. Let’s just say there’s no easement with my easement — yet — and leave it at that.