Three Innovative and Cost-Effective New Building Materials
These days, builders can choose from a growing array of innovative and cost-effective building materials. In some areas, spray foam insulation, environmentally conscious wood and synthetic building alternatives are starting to replace traditional materials, both to save homeowners money and preserve the environment.
Learn more about some of the latest options that you can incorporate in your next build:
1. Spray foam insulation
Expanding spray foam insulation, made from isocyanate and polyol resin, is an increasingly popular way to insulate electrical and plumbing penetrations, wall chases and holes in building envelopes. “Spray foam seals and insulates in one step, so it makes your home more energy efficient,” says Michael McCutcheon, President of Berkeley, Calif.-based McCutcheon Construction.
Because it is less permeable than fiberglass or blown cellulose insulation, the benefits of spray foam are its unique ability to thoroughly fill in every available nook and cranny as it expands, creating a tight seal. It also provides twice the R-value of traditional insulation in the same volume of space. Michael Lenahen, the president of Aurora Custom Homes and Aurora Custom Remodeling based out of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. says he only uses expandable spray foam insulation on the underside of the roof sheathing in the attic. He puts the cost between $1.80 and $1.90 per square foot installed, compared with about $.60 per square foot for fiberglass batts installed—but the affect of a lower heating and AC bill should outweigh those costs in the long run.
Single-use spray foam kits are available for hundreds of dollars, but the process of applying this insulation to an entire house or facility is no minor undertaking. A trailer-sized, mobile rig consisting of a generator, compressors, tanks, hoses, nozzles and tools is necessary to direct the chemicals inside the home through long, heated hoses. Insulators must wear protective clothing from head to toe and a respirator before applying the chemicals, which expand immediately and harden in minutes. The equipment must be used and maintained properly to prevent the substance from hardening inside the application gun or hoses. Although some companies choose to invest in mobile rigs, which can cost upward of $50,000, others choose to rent the rig for around $500 a day or just subcontract the job.
Unlike traditional insulation, spray foam stops outside air from getting into or out of the attic or other breaks in the building envelope. As a result, the HVAC system can effectively heat or cool the home using less energy. It also eliminates the potential fire hazard of piling cellulose insulation on top of wiring and recessed can housings in the attic, McCutcheon says.
Installers of expandable spray foam insulation need to master a significant amount of new skills. “You’re climbing through the attic, standing on trusses, many times in the dark,” Lenahen says. You must know precisely how much the foam will expand to fill a given space, which takes practice. He recommends having your local insulation contractor contact a local spray foam manufacturer to find out what classes are offered for learning to install expandable spray foam insulation.
2. “Green” wood
Alternative wood options are growing in popularity for practical and environmental reasons. McCutcheon, also president of the board of directors for Build it Green, a local organization that promotes environmental building practices, says sustainably harvested wood sells because local customers are concerned about the environment.
Some eco-friendly alternatives to conventional timber:
- FSC—Wood that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is treated with a minimum amount of chemicals and ensures that no natural forests were cleared in the manufacturing process. Though it can cost up to 15 percent more than standard wood options, it’s also better from a building standpoint: “It’s typically better quality, with fewer knots and straighter grain, resulting in a stronger frame for the home,” McCutcheon says.
- MDF—Medium Density Fiber (MDF) board is made from sawdust compressed with resin, which is better for the environment because it reuses waste. It’s catching on for limited uses such as crown molding and cabinetry; Lenahen recommends MDF interior doors because the resin used in the manufacturing process greatly reduces the occurrence of curling or warping. The formaldehyde typically used in MDF panels is a deterrent for some clients, but formaldehyde-free options are also available.
- OSB—Oriented Strand Board (OSB) can be an inexpensive substitute for plywood. It’s also more eco-friendly, because it’s made from chips leftover from the manufacturing process. Whereas plywood tends to warp, OSP doesn’t, giving it more uniform dimensions. It does have a propensity to expand when wet, but certain OSB products are treated to withstand moisture and therefore suitable for uses like roofing, flooring and as sheathing board. Stronger, straighter and lighter than sawn lumber, OSB I-beams are the most popular floor support beams used in new home construction.
3. Synthetic alternatives
“There’s a strong demand for materials that will last longer and are low-maintenance,” says Lenahen, explaining the trend in the use of synthetic materials, particularly on the outside of homes. Check out two hot choices in exterior trim:
- PVC—According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Research Center, cellular PVC (polyvinyl chloride) lumber keeps its shape and never needs painting. “These do cost a little bit more than a similar sized forested wood product, but they’re longer lasting and require less maintenance because they will not expand and contract like wood nor will they curl, split, or rot like wood products,” says Lenahen. Variations are growing, as well, as PVC trim manufacturers have launched molding lines with decorative profiles that match their trim boards.
- Fiber Cement—For siding and trim boards, Lenahen also recommends this synthetic option. Fiber cement offers similar benefits to other synthetic products, while offering a wider variety of available finishes. “It can come in a wood grain look, whereas PVC products tend to have a smooth, manicured look,” he says.
As more building material alternatives crop up, be sure to let homeowners know about the options. Whether to conserve money, trees or reduce future maintenance efforts, they have a wider variety of material choices than ever before.