Structurally insulated panels – a radical change in building design

Ian Clay, of SIPS@Clays, a leading supplier of SIPs building systems for the UK self-build market, discusses how structurally insulated panels continue to make an increasing impact across the sector – and why they are proving so popular with the “Mr & Mrs Smiths” out there who own a plot of land and are looking to build their own dream homes.

Many people long to build their own home and, whatever the design, the one thing they all share in common is an inherent desire for an individual lifestyle under their own roofs – a home offering shelter, space and comfort. Plus, the lighter they are on the bank balance, obviously the better!

Structurally insulated panels – or SIPs as they are commonly known – provide a versatile and highly sustainable method of building an extremely energy efficient home.

SIPs have been used for decades in the United States and are now proving increasingly popular and becoming a far more accepted way of building among self-build aficionados UK-wide. They are now one of the most trusted, modern and cost-effective building techniques available, proving key to greener, more efficient self-build projects.

Not only do SIPs have the advantage of being as strong and hard-wearing as traditional building materials, but they are also quick and easy to erect – most SIPs houses can go up in two to three weeks.

The other big advantages of SIPs are that they dramatically reduce carbon emissions and slash heating costs – and these are obviously key considerations for people building their own homes.

As well as being ideal for walls, they can also be used for the roof, increasing roof space. Where space is at a premium, the highly efficient integral insulation helps make full use of the available footprint, being much thinner than traditional construction methods, without loss of strength or thermal performance.

Using SIPs for the entire build also generates a genuine warm roof space, which can easily be designed to create an additional room or a safe, dry storage area.

Another major bonus is that SIPs are also extremely flexible, as pretty much any type of finish can be applied to the exterior – brick, render, timber, stone, tile or metal.

The introduction of Target Fabric Energy Efficiency (TFEE) rates indicates a shift towards long-term sustainability and traditional masonry and timber frame constructions need to work much harder in order to meet these regulations.

The homes of the future will most likely be constructed using a fabric first approach, which provides a long-term solution that can help ease the discrepancy between building quality and cost, minimise the strain on resources and, ultimately, improve modern living standards.

With their outstanding thermal performance, innovative construction technologies such as SIPs can be used to create airtight homes. They offer a more sustainable and more economically viable alternative to attempting to maintain affordability by building to a lower standard. This means that people with self-build interests can rest assured that new regulations are being fulfilled without any compromise on quality.

So what exactly is a SIP? Perhaps the simplest answer is to describe them as “innovative, costeffective and environmentally friendly insulation panels.” Without getting too technical, a typical example of a SIP construction would be two 15mm Oriented Strand Board facings with a 112mm rigid urethane insulation core, providing a thermally efficient, structurally strong rigid panel.

The panels are factory cut to the design of the building and come ready to slot together like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle using specialist jointing systems that provide extremely high levels of airtightness. They have even been compared to Lego kits and some people have even described them as the building blocks of the future.

There are plenty of satisfied SIPs selfbuilders out there for whom the dream has become reality, such as one young married couple with a modest budget looking for their first home together. Their new three bedroom terraced starter home came in at an extremely affordable £139,000.

Another young family made a leap of faith when buying a plot of land on an extremely challenging site. Against the odds, they successfully built a single storey three-bedroom SIPs house that has since won a local design award for the best residential new build.

An older couple downsizing and selling their original house successfully built their own SIPs-inspired energy-efficient eco-cottage in the garden.

One thing’s for certain – environmental issues are likely to dominate all our lives for the foreseeable future. SIPs represent a radical change in building design and technology, equipping the self-build sector with the wherewithal to provide their very own dream homes, with the added bonus of minimal heating bills. Someday soon, maybe all houses will be built like this.