Alternative Building Materials

From high-tech to timber frame, today's houses are being built with more than wood and brick. Come see your choices.
Building Ideas

Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)

What They Are: Fiberglass panels are made from insulating foam sandwiched between two layers of structural material.

Advantages: Walls can be erected quickly, usually within hours, compared with about two weeks for traditional stick (lumber) framing. The panels are lightweight and are already filled with insulation when they arrive on the site. Since the insulation is installed in a controlled environment and is measured to fit precisely, the house is likely to be more airtight than a conventionally built home -- an energy-efficiency plus.

Disadvantages: This method is about 10 percent more expensive than stick building. And a builder needs to be well versed in the process to make sure the panels fit together precisely.

Modular Construction

What It Is: Homes are built in-factory, then collapsed and taken to the home site and erected with cranes. Though mobile homes are most often associated with this type of construction, the market has grown to include homes that very closely resemble conventionally built structures.

Advantages: Once the homes are transported to the site, cranes can erect the walls within hours. Today's modular homes can also be custom-designed to include such features as tray ceilings, coffered beams, and spiral staircases. Like SIPs, modular homes are built to precise specifications in a controlled environment so they are more likely to be airtight than a stick-built house.

Steel Framing

steel_framing Houses framed with steel
look no different from
the outside than
stick-built houses.

What It Is: Houses are framed with light-gauge steel studs instead of lumber.

Advantages: The method supports heavier loads and provides longer-lasting frame construction. Steel framing is dimensionally stable and eliminates most drywall cracking. As is the case with other nontraditional exterior materials, houses framed with steel can be finished with any exterior material.

Disadvantages: Although steel framing is similar to traditional or stick framing in the construction process, the construction materials are vastly different, and builders need to be trained to use them correctly. Some builders mistakenly assume that if they're able to build stick houses, they build with steel equally well.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

What It Is: PVC is a hard, durable, synthetic material that is becoming a choice in new construction and remodeling. Though the plastic is rarely used for whole-house building, its popularity is escalating for gutters, window frames, shutters, and siding.

Advantages: Proponents say PVC materials last an average of 20 years with little or no maintenance. PVC pipes for water distribution, chemicals, and sewage have been used for up to 50 years and are still in service. The material also boasts excellent fire-retardant properties.

Disadvantages: PVC is essentially plastic, and it looks like plastic. Though it's widely used for garden and landscaping structures, its popularity as a whole-house construction material may be a long time coming.

Continued on page 2:  More Building Ideas