Building with “SIPs” Q&A with Joe Coover


Joe Coover has build his own tiny house using “SIPs”, structural insulated panels, Japanese shou sugi ban siding, decra tile metal roofing, and plans to finish the interior with a steampunk theme. Take advantage of his resources via his YouTube Channel and his build blog

I. You used SIPs. What were your top 3 reasons for doing so?

 I’ve talked to A LOT of tiny house people around the country and find that SIPs appeal to different people for different reasons. The one mental hurdle you have to jump before anybody makes this choice is to step back and think about how and why we build houses the way we do. 
It’s hard for a tradesman or anybody who’s spent their whole life around 2×4 stick built houses to imagine how to build it any differently. Tradition is hard to break. 

SIPs are the new kid on the block in a way but they have been around for longer than you think. (In 1937 a small SIP house was constructed and garnered enough attention to bring in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dedicate the house.) Once you get past the initial weirdness of it, I found SIPs to be a sophisticated modern choice that no other options could match.

Personally I was looking for: 

  • 1. Strong.
    Depending on who you ask you’ll see SIPs rated at double or triple the strength of stick building. They really excel with side winds and earthquake type situations and a tiny house gets that and more rolling down the road! 
  • 2. High R-value.
    Whether you plan on living in Alaska or Oklahoma (me) you’ll want as much R-value as you can get and you’ll want it to stick around for the life of the house and not settle like potato chips. Also with a stick built house all the studs take up room in the wall that could be insulated in a SIP. It adds up to 1/4th of your wall is studs…that’s a lot of wasted space. I didn’t want to end up with a wall that’s not as strong or well insulated. 
  • 3. Easy to build.
    I built my house’s main structure in 2 days. With the help of a few (4-5) friends, a glue gun, and a cordless drill I had a house that would have taken at me a few months to build with sticks. It keeps your momentum rolling early on with a sense of accomplishment within a week.

Some other reasons SIPs may fit your build: 

  • You don’t really need to buy building plans. The SIPs company can do the engineering based off your simple drawings and after you have a house shaped box, it’s easy to put in walls and appliances, which the building plans don’t help as much on anyway.  
  • Pretty much NO WASTE. No board ends, messed up cuts, insulation left overs. They all add up but the only thing you have at the end of your SIPs build is a few tubes of empty glue and some tape rolls but that’s pretty good compared to what you see at most construction sites. (Now after the initial raising of the walls you’ll create the same waste as you would have otherwise) 
  • Easy to live in very quick if need be.
    I’ve been living in my house half built for about six months. I have an extension cord to run my fridge, hot plate, lights, etc. I have a camping sink and a composting toilet. We shower at the gym and it’s not that weird. It’s kinda like camping and we’re saving money on rent way quicker this way. You could build your house and glamp in it for awhile before you finish it, for approx 12,000 give or take. It also helps you feel out where you want things, we’ve adjusted our floorplan several times since we moved in. I can keep going but I’ll digress. I am a fan but I am not fanatic.

II. Are you persuaded to believe that  SIPs are the most efficient and or ecological building material choice for tiny house builders?

Before I was worked for a tiny house company I worked for Greenpeace so being good to the earth is important to me. SIPs use less wood and most of the wood it does use can come from smaller trees from tree farms instead of cutting down old growth forests.
As for the foam, yes, it’s man made and won’t break down over time like other things but this is one of those times where that’s a plus. Over the life of the house (which you hope lasts long after you’re gone) a material that doesn’t need to be replaced will be greener.
Also by using a less effective insulation you (and all the people who live in this house after you) will use more fuel to heat it and burn more coal to create the electricity to cool it.
Even if you are the off grid type with solar panels, by reducing your need you can reduce the number of solar panels you need shipped from china.

III. Are there any precautions you would offer to aspiring tiny-housers that are ready jump on the SIP bandwagon? What about outgassing? 

A few things to know when talking to SIPs companies: 

  • Ask if the dimensional lumber is included. Some SIPs come with all the lumber on the edges of the panels installed and sometimes you add that after you get it. It’s cheaper to do it yourself but it’s WAY easier to just have it all done for you and you have “ready-to-erect” walls. I had them ready to go and that’s one reason I had it done in two days. 
  • Talk about electrical chases. They can cut holes in the foam for your wires to go and it’s not hard. They just need to know where you want them. I’d put a chase at the bottom for plugs and some up top for  lights and such. Remember to check that the 2×4 splines should have the holes drilled in them too. That’s easier to do before you put them up than after but can be done either way.
  •  Get lots of quotes. My quotes ranged from $3000 to $8000 and if you find a SIPs person who likes what you’re doing than that’s better! Shipping can be a large amount so try and pick it up yourself on your trailer or use uShip to lessen that cost. Sometimes it makes sense to use a SIPs manufacturer that’s further away if their quote more than covers the increase in shipping. 
  • As for Off-gassing, you can get different foams that have all kinds of qualities. Some of them have less or zero off-gassing and you can even get some that are soy based and I believe soon mushroom based so whatever floats your boat there. The main foam used is similar to coffee cups or ice-chests but the difference is that it’s not “disposable”. While the material does have gasses that are produced when it’s made there haven’t been any tests that detect any gasses once it’s left the factory. The only time that the gasses in the foam would be able to get out is if it burned down, in which case pure wood smoke is also toxic and will kill you just as fast. SIPs meet or exceed all fire ratings and some are even fire-proof.

Thanks Joe!

Gabriel Craft @smallhomeideas on Twitter +

I help out with tinyhousecollab, If you have not seen it yet it has solid posts.
Cheers peeps, Gabriel (gabrielcraft)

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