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When is a house like a coffee cup?

When the house is built with structural insulated panels with plastic foam cores, praised by a local builder for their strength, energy efficiency and cost effectiveness.

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Chris Kavala of Marquis Construction and Development in Dunedin is using the insulated panels, which snap together, on five homes under construction, including his own house.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 1, 2001

HOLIDAY -- Builders are always looking for ways to build faster and offer buyers something the competition doesn't have. Buyers are on the lookout for ways to save money and have begun to move energy efficiency to the top of their list of concerns.

Chris Kavala of Marquis Construction and Development in Dunedin thinks he has found a way to meet his own needs and his buyers'. He has started building with structural insulated panels -- 4-inch-thick sections of plastic foam, like the material from which coffee cups are made, sandwiched between sheets of galvanized steel.

"This is exclusively the way I'm building now," said Kavala, 49, who formerly built with masonry block or wood frame, the standard residential construction methods in Florida.

He has five homes under construction in Pinellas and on the North Suncoast, including his own, a 2,400-square-foot house in Gulf Trace in Holiday.

The panels, 4 feet wide, snap together with a tongue-and-groove joint so they can be assembled quickly by unskilled workers. The foam may be sandwiched between sheets of steel, which Kavala is using, or oriented strand board, a form of engineered wood.

The panels, known as SIPs, have been around for 50 years, but only in the last half-dozen years have they begun to work their way into the mainstream of construction techniques. They join other manufactured building components, such as computer-engineered veneered lumber, floor joists and plywood that can speed construction times, perform reliably, save money and use quick-growth, sustainable forest products.

If you've eaten at the new Remington's Steak House on State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel, you were sitting in a SIPs structure. Soon you'll be able to sip your latte at a Starbucks in Sarasota that is being built using SIPs.

"It's a thermal and structural shell," Kavala said on a recent day as he walked around an 1,100-square-foot home he is building off Darlington Road in Holiday. The walls serve two functions. First, they're structural components. They bear the load. There are no exterior studs in these houses. (Kavala uses steel studs for interior walls.) Second, these steel-and-plastic-foam sandwiches provide extraordinary insulation value: R-16 in the walls, R-24 in the ceiling. (Typically, Florida homes have R-4 walls and R-19 ceilings.) The house is certified as an Energy Star home, meaning it uses 30 percent less energy than is standard.

This home is certified to withstand winds up to 140 mph, making it hurricane worthy. The absence of wood structural components mean it is inhospitable to termites. "There's no food value there," Kavala said.

Even the roof is made of SIPs. These panels are 6 inches thick rather than 4 inches like the walls, to provide greater insulation value. "The shingles you see up there are there only for cosmetic purposes," Kavala said. "The panels themselves are already watertight."

The house will be finished with vinyl siding, but could also have been finished with brick, wood or stucco, again simply for the appearance. Inside, "it will be finished out standard," Kavala said, with drywall walls, and will look no different from any other contemporary home.

Wall panels come in a variety of widths and lengths, most typically 2, 3 or 4 feet wide and up to as long as 40 feet. Each weighs about 4 pounds per square foot. They are fitted into a U-shaped steel base track attached to the concrete floor and topped with a steel cap, both of which are attached with screws, a process called "setting a panel." The panels are screwed to steel plates at the corners for strength. Roof panels are also attached by screws. Kavala estimates there are 20,000 screws in this house.

Kavala is building the house for Nadine McGee of Dunedin, 36, a waiter at Alley Cats Cafe in Clearwater, and her 9-year-old daughter, Alexandria, at a cost of $77,000. A similar masonry home would cost about $79,000, and a wood-framed house would cost $76,000, he said. "But the big savings is in energy," he said, estimating savings of 30 to 50 percent off normal bills.

Kavala says his customers "immediately grasp the concept that a solid foam-core house has got to be much more energy efficient than conventional construction. It really sells itself." He says he believes he is one of only four builders in Florida to use the SIPS system. He has been visited by builders from Louisiana and Mississippi and from the Washington state housing authority to view the house under construction.

"It's airtight, waterproof and energy efficient," said Gene Beggs, senior account representative for Florida Power. The uniform thickness of the panels makes them more energy efficient than blown-in insulation, which may develop gaps or holes, and there is no air leakage between the panels because they snap together so tightly. "It's tighter than a normal house," he said.

Given that the houses are so snug, industry officials say, it's important that there be adequate exhaust fans or other forms of mechanical ventilation.

The panels Kavala is using are manufactured by Structall Building Systems of Oldsmar, where he formerly worked. Nadine McGee's mother, Lillian Mercurio, works in the company's accounts payable office, which is how McGee heard about the system and made contact with Kavala when she decided to build a home.

It took 90 days to construct McGee's home from the time the footers were poured. A conventional masonry home would have added another 30 days to that construction schedule, Kavala said.

If this is such a great system -- cheap, fast, energy efficient -- why isn't every builder using it?

"We wrestle with that," said Bill Wachtler, spokesman for the Structural Insulated Panel Association, based in Gig Harbor, Wash. It is a small organization, with just 28 members, many of them independent manufacturers, "and we're not funded to tell that story, to communicate the benefits on a broader scale," he said.

Still, "Some of the large production builders are now looking at SIPs in the big way," he said. Pulte, the nation's largest builder, "is looking at SIPs," as is a big builder in the United Kingdom, where tough energy-efficiency guidelines are in place.

The association built a demonstration home at the annual convention of the National Association of Home Builders in Atlanta last February and will do the same next year to attract the attention of the 60,000-plus builders, architects, designers and others who attend that show.

SIPs fit into the industry's increasing interest in systems building, constructing houses with standardized, factory-manufactured parts: flooring systems, roof systems, wall systems. A wall system, for example, might include insulation and electrical components. Systems building can offer standardization, consistent quality, decreased dependence on price-sensitive lumber, less waste, speed in construction, dollar savings. It also addresses another headache in the building industry these days, "the lack of qualified, trained labor," Wachtler said. Components such as SIPs can be assembled by workers without a high degree of construction skill.

"The building industry has a labor shortage, and energy efficiency is coming up to the top of the list in the building industry," Rick Schwolsky, editor of the industry magazine Tools of the Trade, told the annual meeting of the Structural Insulated Panel Association earlier this year. "Your products help out on both fronts." Builders say they want labor-saving techniques, better systems and techniques, and "These are all significant parts of what your story is."

If the panel industry is going to become truly mainstream, Schwolsky said, it is going to have to crack the big national builders, who build thousands of homes every year and require reliable supplies and firm prices.

A survey conducted by the Portland Cement Association last year showed that awareness among builders of the advantages of SIPs has increased from 34 percent in 1997 to 62 percent last year.

The industry produced 30-million square feet last year, an increase of 34 percent over the previous year. Nearly three-quarters of that production went into 12,000 single-family homes, the rest into light commercial construction.

Because the panels can be ordered from the factory cut to required height and width, there is less job site waste, and because there is little else they can be used for, they cut down on pilferage from the site. "You can steal a 2-by-4, but what are you going to do with a panel?" one builder asked, according to Building Systems magazine.

SIPs recently were used to build six research facilities at the South Pole. Roof panels were 14 inches thick with an insulation value of R-70; the 10-inch-thick wall panels had R-50 insulation value.

Kavala said he has had no problem with local building officials who inspect his work. SIPs have been "well received by the building departments. I've had no problems at all," he said. "I'm educating them."

To learn more

Chris Kavala's company, Marquis Construction and Development, maintains a Web site at He can be reached at (727) 243-2717.

The Structural Insulated Panel Association has a Web site at Country Home magazine built a SIPs house in a timber frame style in Grand Central Station earlier this fall. That house will be featured in the magazine next spring.

A brochure, "Structural Insulated Panels Product Guide," is available from APA -- the Engineered Wood Association. Call (253) 565-6600 in Tacoma, Wash., or write to the association at P.O. Box 11700, Tacoma, WA 98411-0700. Request Form No. W605A. Cost: $2.

See the SIPs "I Have a Dream" house built at last February's National Association of Home Builders convention in Atlanta, later moved to near the Martin Luther King Jr. birthplace. Visit the Web site at

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