Friday, October 5, 2007

Building Tech in NOLA

Industry Headlines


An À La Carte Menu Of Construction Choices
September 22, 2007
New Orleans Times Picayune

Renee Peck

New Orleans recovery director Ed Blakely announced last week that his office is building a Recovery Village in City Park to showcase alternative construction methods. Things such as SIPS, concrete panels, steel frames and modular houses.

It's a language I've been studying for two years now. And, while I'm all for introducing New Orleanians to quick and cost-efficient methods of building, I'm not sure Blakely realizes how many locals already have jumped on that bandwagon.

In a city that touts its ties to the past, storm victims are showing a growing willingness to embrace building methods of the future. Especially if it means getting up a house in a hurry.

Modular homes are popping up all over town, and steel and concrete systems are more than curiosities these days. Slidell has a factory producing ICFs, or insulated concrete forms, and a couple of steel-frame manufacturers have set up shop in the area.

Now you can add SIPS -- a structured insulated panel system -- to the list. OceanSafe Housing, based in New York, plans to have a local factory turning out its lightweight, pre-engineered panels by the end of the year. Company officials say they hope to build as many as 5,000 houses in the area, and celebrated the second anniversary of Katrina by unveiling the first local OceanSafe home, in Lakeview.

"This is what rebuilding is all about -- making construction better than what it was," said CEO Vincent Basilice, an eye surgeon who became interested in hurricane-resistant housing after seeing Hurricane Andrew's devastation in Florida. "I saw that the only thing left standing were the refrigerated boxes at the hotels."

The concept behind SIPS construction is simple: Preconstructed, insulated steel panels are snapped together using a tongue-and-groove locking system, creating an airtight outer envelope that goes up in days. The interior is finished with traditional drywall, allowing flexibility in floor plans.

"It's a high-performance house," Basilice said. "The way the panels come together uses a cleating system, and we use the densest foam (for insulation) we can."

Windows have a 156-mph wind resistance, and the insulated panels cut energy usage by two-thirds. Because windows, skylights and doors are precut at the factory, there's no waste. Walls can be cut to virtually any height, and placed on either a traditional slab or a raised foundation. The Lakeview house is raised 8 feet, built over a parking area with breakaway walls in case of flooding.

Construction costs are competitive, says Basilice. "You can build a nicely equipped house for $110 to $115 a square foot." The CEO also says he has worked out a deal with AIG to insure and warrant his houses at national homeowners' policy rates.

So far, about 10 house designs, sold as kits, are available from the company, found online at Delivery of materials -- at least until a local factory is up and running -- takes about three months. A crew certified in steel SIPS building has to erect the house, which can be arranged through OceanSafe.

Basilice envisions multiple applications for the system, including schools, commercial buildings and special-use facilities.

"Within the next 10 years, this will be the way to build your next house," he said.

Maybe. Certainly, SIPS construction will be one of an evolving number of choices for future builders. Even traditional stick-building is taking advantage of technology, with new and better pressure treatments and recycled materials.

And all of it means that we're getting a touch more progressive here about construction choices. In a city where progress is measured in inches, that's good news.


"Alternative" construction refers to alternatives to traditional wood-frame housing. But even old-fashioned building methods are getting greener. Here's a look at some local building options.

Stick-built. The term refers to wood-frame construction, which offers a number of newly improved pressure-treated materials that resist termites and mold. With hurricane trusses and ties, wood-frame homes can be wind-resistant, too. Pros: Cost and design versatility. Cons: Takes longer. See National Association of Home Builders at

Modular. These are built at a factory in modular units, which are mounted onto a foundation on-site. They must meet the same building codes and pass the same inspections as stick-built. Pros: Cost and speed of construction. Cons: Lack of design versatility. See Modular Building Systems Association at

SIPS. Structural insulated panel systems sandwich a foam core between two steel skins. The panels interlock, forming an energy-efficient, weather-tight building envelope. Pros: High performance and speed of construction. Cons: So far, not many SIPS systems are widely available here, and construction crews aren't yet familiar with their installation. See Structural Insulated Panel Association at

ICF. Insulating concrete forms are foam insulation molds into which concrete is poured on-site. The forms then stay as part of the wall. Pros: High performance and durability. Cons: As with SIPS, ICF systems are not widely available here yet and crews aren't always familiar with them. See Insulating Concrete Forms Association at

This Lakeview home built with SIPS panels combines hurricane resistance with energy efficiency. The builder, Oceansafe Housing, will be among those offering alternative construction choices to consumers at The Gulf Coast Building and Remodeling Expo, being held Friday through Sept. 30 at the Morial Convention Center.

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