A Smart Home Builds with MgO SIPs
(Structural Insulated Panels skinned by Magnesium Oxide Board)
This system is what we consider to be the very best building system that is available today when one considers all the benefits as well as current and future costs. So please bare with me for the story as to how exactly we came about to be where we are today. In essence I believe you will benefit from knowing the details of this long journey and that we did not just stumble upon this system. We were using Coventec panels (styrofoam surrounded by a wire cage, invented in Texas) in Jacó as they were the best local solution at that time. Well that was the case at least until we saw what our brain dead engineer did to screw with the system and science behind it, as he still thought with a Concrete Mindset even though it is a lightweight system. Also at that time there was no plant set up here for SIPs, that only came on the scene three years later.
Through a friend I met one of the engineers involved in setting up a SIP plant for Eckstrom hence through that connection I took a good look at their system. I saw with my own eyes the truck parked on top of a demo structure which was indeed rather convincing as to the systems strength. To put this in perspective I am the expediter, I am the one who goes and finds stuff here that is often unusual or unique then I typically take the good things back to Michael, my partner, who has over 50 years experience in design and architectural technology, then we review its merits together. After seeing the SIPs set up I realized immediately that this was the system that Michael had been talking to me about for years. He brought into production and ran a plant in Airdrie, Alberta, as part of his many years of experience with steel and panel construction systems. He also designed a system and built a seven story light gauge steel apartment building in Vancouver (also a seismic zone), in seven weeks. So to say the least he has more light steel experience than anyone else in this country has. Now with all that as our background and with that experience behind us, we both have our full belief that this version of SIPs is by far the most superior method in all respects.
Once the decision was made to switch to this system after the introduction to Eckstrom’s product, we did not just accept blindly what was available locally, so I went searching the world. I talked to producers of panels going from Edmonton to Calgary to Mexico City to Panama City to Chile to compare systems and prices of course. Through that research I hit head on with (Magnesium Oxide) MgO board and its drastically superior qualities as compared to anything made of cement or OSB (Oriented Strand Board). This was a subject that resurfaced as Michael had investigated and told me what he had found out about the natural properties of MgO almost six years ago as it was just back then getting some traction in the market. Through that discovery we found that if you took the SIP engineering principles and then applied the best sheeting product in the world that the end result was one astoundingly superior product.
Through the continual research I embarked upon I managed to find Steve Marskell and his company MgO Board Corp. in Australia who makes the only certified MgO sheet product in the world. From there he introduced me to a manufacturer of panels that uses his sheets. Hence this investigation and final result took roughly 10 months to put the supply chain together. I would also like to remind you we started this mission for our own purposes for what we would put in our own homes so that we would know we have the BEST that is available. Now after starting down this road it became apparent that it would be beneficial for us to share our knowledge and experience with others who also have the same goals for their new homes as well. We are driven by the desire to be on the cutting edge of innovative ideas, materials and methods to address the challenges as well as to improve the quality and economics of Costa Rican construction. I felt there was merit in explaining the whole story and the road that we have followed to get to where we are today so that the readers could have a better understanding of what, why and how this came about over a period of near to 40 years. This is anything but a new fad or casual affair for us.
Now to explain the basic system, as there is quite a number of different ones out there and there is going to be differing opinions as to which one is better, but all function by the same engineering science of membranes separated by a core that carries the load from one to another while giving a lighter and stronger structure as compared to systems pieced toghether, as in stick framing or block. This is no different than the deck of a bridge nor the girders that support a bridge from its peers. The same engineering principles applies for roof and floor trusses as well. For anyone who would care to challenge that this won’t work had best not travel over any bridge or stand under a roof. This is fundamental to any type of panel used of which any of these systems will provide a much better result than concrete will, that is for certain. Even though it is very likely you have never heard of a SIP system it is far from new, nor is it experimental, since the very first of these was constructed back in 1937 at the University of Wisconsin, but did not see much commercial usage until the 1970’s. One of the first builders to adopt SIPs did so in California which of course has one of the toughest building/seismic codes on the planet so that is indeed noteworthy that homes of this type have been going up for over 40 years in that market alone.
SIPs have since spread and are widely used all over North America, Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Antigua, Africa, India, China etc. Tons of information is available through any kind of internet search.
Also on Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structural_insulated_panel
For those curious or seriously doing their research into SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) you will find this show most interesting to see how they were used in a renovation/addition done for the resurrection of a 150 year old barn by the crew of “This Old House.”
The big difference between what is shown here and our version is they used OSB (Oriented Strand Board) for the skins as is most prevalent in the USA however that would be a total disaster in the tropics as there is just too many molds, fungi and insects to attack such. At any rate the application and engineering is all the same so you can take those principles to the bank for your own education.
One page article.
We were going to use a locally made panel, however after starting down that road the company decided to switch from a Magnesium Oxide (MgO) skin and down graded the quality of their product considerably by changing to a cement board skin from Plycem. The supplier would not even meet with us to discuss this really stupid decision even to the point they would not even talk to Steve when he was here in August 2012. I had handed them on a platter the world’s leading expert yet they would not even give us a meeting to find out what he might know that they don’t. Not what I would call a workable attitude, plus it is against our philosophy to just accept a second rate product for the sake of convenience, or worse yet, applying the wonders of a closed mind. On top of that needless to say I have made my view of cement abundantly clear hence it was one very easy decision to turf that product in favour of the one made using MgO skins.
Another issue was their insistence in using all metal connectors relying entirely on thousands of screws to hold it all together. This is fraught with what I would describe as great mediocrity. Our homes are glued together which creates no pressure points as is the case with screws. Also a high use of metal flies in the face of being green due to the huge footprint of metal and contaminant waste in the manufacture process plus none of it is made in Costa Rica.
Also now having witnessed the installation of such panels on one job here the simple fact is the metal connectors do a massively inferior job of creating true and straight joints between panels. Sorry but our laminated wood is way simpler, faster and more effective in producing high quality joints with little learning curve.
What we use happen to be what is in our opinion the best SIP panel in the world. Since they are in fact using MgO Board Corp’s MgO sheet, this became a natural decision for us.
See: http://mgoboard.com.au. They make the best MgO board that exists and it is the only certified product of its kind on the planet. This means to meet these kind of quality standards they have to produce an excellent quality of product at all times in order to keep their certifications and be subject to periodic inspections of their plants. Add to that the fact that they invested $500,000 in the process to attain this certification gives you an idea of how serious they are about their product and its future in the building industry. They were also the first to set up a fully automated plant in China to remove the human error factor and are also in the process to do that all over again for a new production facility in Miami hence they have to jump through all the American hoops as well. FYI each plant must be certified on its own standing to meet these qualifications. Now no SIP panel can be better than what its skin is made of, hence the best skin = the best panel. SIPs are being installed in many countries with very similar climates to Costa Rica so there is nothing that we can experience that is any kind of a surprise as the stresses common to hurricane and earthquake prone areas of the world is all very similar. Interesting that this year one of Mgo Corp’s clients passed the Dade Country projectile tests to withstand penetration by debris thrown about by a category 5 huricane.
In order for you the reader to better understand why I make a statement being most critical of anything using a cement board product we must understand the natural qualities of the MgO in order to make valid comparisons as to just why it is that we hunted all over the world to find the very best of this product that was available.
MgO Qualities Include the following:
A) Fire proof – absolutely will not support a flame or burn in any way, in fact a 6mm sheet has a one hour fire rating.
B) Low heat transfer or high R value – it does not conduct heat well at all, in fact you can hold your hand on the opposite side of a sheet with a torch going full blast on the other side, this is an extreme but most relevant in protecting us from the sun’s heat.
C) Flexible with high tensile strength – cement boards are notoriously brittle and when hit or dropped they break right in half whereas MgO is much stronger and way more malleable. It can be worked much more like wood than any cement product can possibly be, in fact in thin sheets it can be used to bend around curves of pillars.
D) Lighter weight – 20% lighter than any cement board hence easier to work with
E) Green product completely eco-friendly – a total opposite in this case to cement boards as it is made at ambient temperatures, hence it creates no carbon footprint in its manufacture such as any cement product must with the massive ovens required.
F) Completely inert and does not react with anything or off gas any chemicals.
G) Water resistant and will not grow molds, which is a major issue here in the tropics.
H) Longevity in harsh climates – well the mortar holding the rocks together in the Great Wall of China is MgO mortar, not cement, so that I think would attest to its longevity in one harsh climate.
While we discuss the host of positive characteristics of MgO I think it most valid to also make a comparison between it and Gypsum Board or drywall as it relates to a tropical climate. Conversely to the positive characteristics of MgO Gypsum fails miserably in all of these categories. Yes it is a cheap product at least at initial purchase but its long term results are basically dismal. You will later see how it has held up under bad roofing practices in the roofs chapter. In essence this typifies that you do indeed get what you pay for. It is notoriously bad for growing mold and mildew here especially when used in closed spaces like closets and bathrooms where it can literally be destroyed as black mold can move in and have a hay day to say the least. This can be quite dangerous to anyone especially those that have any kind of respiratory conditions or sensitivities.
It is not a very durable product as after all it is faced with paper so that is not a very durable surface to withstand day to day wear especially in commercial or hotel applications under which it really comes forth as a horrible and very expensive product once you pay for the intense maintenance. Now there is another issue that it has that few are aware of. It is susceptible to attacks from termites. Yes that is true. The paper face is most certainly lunch for a breed of cellulose loving very tiny termites as we found out this past February.
Due to its price gypsum has really gain a lot of traction in the building market since I arrived here but in general I suggest that you avoid it as much as possible when you consider the long term costs and headaches in trying to maintain it. We most certainly cannot produce MgO for the price of gypsum but then I guess a BMW also costs more than a Lada too. The quality difference between the two products is far greater than the price difference.
So lets move on and see just what these MgO skinned panels look like…
A summary of SIP Panels major benefits are as follows:
A) R values – very high plus tight fitting to prevent air infiltration as well as bugs, in fact in every competition test in Canada, SIP homes have won every one of them.
B) Lightweight – easy to transport and install with no heavy equipment costs
C) Flexible – when put under extreme pressure via earthquakes and hurricanes the panels will flex rather than break. They have been rated for as high as 340 km per hour hurricanes
D) Fire rated – The Magnesium Oxide (MgO) board that we use is fire rated for one hour as it will not support a fire or spread a fire.
E) Rapid construction – due to it being a standardized panel system it assembles extremely quickly hence lowering both the labour cost of a home but very importantly it lowers the carrying costs that are required to pay the financing costs when a home is constructed in record time.Very important to any home owner who is paying for the costs of two homes while under construction.
F) Easy maintenance and remodeling friendly – a typical maintenance issue that requires entry into a wall will be done in 1/10 the time of concrete. Remodeling such as in removal or addition of interior walls is very rapid with little dust or noise and completedin easily 1/10 the time of concrete.
G) Uniform quality – piece by piece construction on a work site can often lead to a great variance in the quality and trueness of walls made of concrete or block or coventec for that matter. Where as factory panels are of uniform size and quality one after another after another, hence they fit together better and tighter than any other system. Even in Canada where tightness of construction is so critical in frozen -40ºc winters this type of construction has kicked the ass of houses made stick by stick when measured for energy efficiency by various rating agencies. In essence no piece built house has ever beat a SIP house in these side by side competitions. This factor is not as critical here but bugs are kept out which is well worth noting with regards to this modern age engineering. This type of system does indeed make up a significant part of what constitutes the 21st Century Home.
Once again the quality of the SIP has everything to do with the skin covering the panel so here is a Video that demonstrates its fire resistance which to say the least is rather critical in selecting the best home building material.
An example of fire in a simulated home comparison.
An intense test with torch for a close up view.
Review of characteristics of Magnesium Oxide Board
Product summary of MgO Board Corp.
Appearance and Personal Style:
Since most readers have little to no knowledge of what a SIP home would actually look like I direct you to award winning homes that have all been built out of SIPs. There are two categories to choose from those homes under 300 m2 and those over 300m2. Here are two examples of such. First thing to notice is that you should not notice a SIP or any type of panels style of home. If you can tell it is panels then the designer and constructor have failed miserably.
http://www.sips.org/green-building/bea/ From this sampling provided by the association of SIP manufacturers you can see there is no restriction as to what style of home you can build using this method of engineering. Homes have successfully been built going all the way from low budget government housing up to the largest of mansions. One thing to note on the economical factor for those on a very tight budget is that since a BANVI home can be constructed using this system and considering those very low budget constraints you know that this system can meet the most rigid of economical restraints. 5,000+m2 of this type of construction was built in one Limon project.
I find that many people get home style and value a bit confused with the structural materials being used. There is an extensive selection of basic materials that can all be molded into the size and style of home that you are seeking and SIPs are no different. Above I have shown some larger higher budget homes however the same system and material can easily be modified to produce some more modest examples as shown below. Two and three story homes can also be constructed using this same system. The style and size is only limited by YOUR imagination!
Well I think my position is most clear to any reader but I thought you might like to read about what the FAS Federation of American Scientists has for a view of the SIP technology as a whole.
Opening the Construction Market to New Building Technologies
Alison V. Tramba
STS 500 Professor Edmund Russell
Federation of American Scientists Dr. Henry Kelly, President August 1, 2005
Modern technology and innovative building materials have the potential to improve standards of living by addressing home safety problems and reducing energy usage while cutting down on living expenses. Outdated building regulations limit contractors to common materials and place constraints on construction technology, impacting their ability to develop optimal housing. Looking at these challenges to current construction, a team compiled by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) began an investigation of the types of engineering and technology that affect such issues as safety, energy efficiency, and cost in building homes. In their search, a number of innovative solutions surfaced, including structural insulated panels (SIPs) made by HSN, Inc.; this company serves as a case study in successful development of technology and compliance with building codes. Although deemed the most promising material for the FAS initiative to use in building affordable, energy-efficient, and safe homes, the SIPs have yet to receive the widespread recognition as ideal construction materials that they deserve. The actual problem in updating housing technology and materials, then, does not come from a shortage of appropriate means of meeting the housing industry’s safety- and energy-related needs. Rather, it lies in a lack of motivation towards development and promotion of emerging technology. According to FAS President Henry Kelly,
“The lack of progress is not due to limits on what technology can achieve, but defects in the market for innovation and product improvement in building-shell technologies. There are many causes: the absence (or near absence) of any engineering or research divisions in even the most sophisticated home construction firm and the difficulty of establishing a clear brand advantage in a field filled with many small firms. The absence of a coherent set of regulations and a clear way to test and label different building-shell systems makes it difficult for a superior technology to prevail in markets” (Kelly, personal communication, 2005).
Much of the problem derives directly from the difficulty of receiving construction certification. Current building codes do not actively reach out to new methods and materials for construction. Further, disinterest in research and inconsistent enforcement of codes allow traditional and even sub-par building methods to continue, thereby slowing the process of improving the quality of construction through inventive technology.
Even if slowly, products like HSN’s panels are beginning to grab the attention of builders looking for strength and environmental friendliness. Establishing a comprehensive program to aid further development will encourage acceptance of new methods of construction. Components should include streamlined policy and building codes, organized research, and incentives for the use of favorable construction methods by consumers. With such provisions, the building industry can make use of the best methods of construction rather than traditional, outdated practices. The results will bring greater confidence in residential safety and energy consumption, meanwhile providing the greatest possible number of people with adequate housing.
A Need for Housing Technology in a society seeking constant improvement, a logical use of modern technology lies in improving the quality of basics like housing. Creating a market that provides safe, affordable housing to residents and promotes energy efficiency poses a challenge.
Current trends may not indicate it, but environmental and societal expectations on construction methods demand constant improvements.
Most importantly, safety concerns require that the building industry support the best possible means of home construction. Although their frequency has declined by 54 percent over the past quarter century, home fires still claimed 2670 lives in 2002, comprising 80 percent of the total fire deaths in the country that year (National Fire Protection Agency, 2003). Large-scale natural disasters also arrive unannounced and devastate communities. For example, an anticipated five hurricanes will reach the shores of the United States alone by the end of 2005 (AccuWeather, 2005). Financially, hurricanes have ravished the U.S. in the past century, causing over a billion dollars in damage on each of 23 occasions (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association , 2003). Floods create $2 billion in damage annually (National Flood Insurance Program, 2005). In other parts of the country, earthquakes cause structural damage to buildings and infrastructure. As of July 31, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) recorded 1814 earthquakes of varying strengths in the United States for 2005 (United States Geological Survey, 2005). While the majority of these were of low magnitudes, the stress and strain of any tectonic movement may compromise stability of buildings, particularly in regions inclined to frequent seismic activity. Taken together, these sources of financial destruction and human injury necessitate improvements in construction. Finding materials to minimize flood and fire damage eliminates expensive and time-consuming repairs. Stronger structures that combat extreme winds and earthquakes reduce safety concerns in high-risk zones. These basic concerns of the building industry demand ongoing investigation into improved methods of construction. Application of modern technology to building is the responsibility of those related to the industry.
Old methods of Wood meets the New SIP Applications and Combinations –
Due to the availability of plantation grown local hardwood we have invented another economical method in which to combine methods of old with these new technologies by using laminated plantation grown Acacia for all the tracks, corner posts and intersecting wall post that hold the panels in place. The Acacia hardwood actually has a negative carbon footprint since it has been consuming CO2 since the day it was planted, plus it has spent its days putting nitrogen back into the soil so as to enrich it. It grows very fast, the board below comes from an 8 year old tree plus we think it is beautiful to boot.
By combining all these methods you can have a beautiful wood beams in home that are bug proof, (both Teak and Acacia contain a natural compound like Western Red Cedar that repels insects) well fitting and insulated from cold, heat and sound and as ecologically friendly as you can get. Plus it is grown near to us so we use little carbon it turning it into lumber then delivering it to your building site. Even our drying kilns use wood cuttings to fire them as electricity would A)add to our carbon footprint and B) cost a fortune to run on the electrical rates here which we would then have to pass onto you the customer.
As a carpenter, I never thought we would see the day of going back to a wood home but this in fact has become an economical reality.
In the interest of full disclosure we must discuss the two potential problems with use of wood in tropical construction. The first being, it burns unlike concrete, cement boards or MgO board. This obviously cannot be avoided since it is organic and contains air that supports a flame. However those same qualities are also what makes it a great building product with high insulation and sound deadening properties. You could call this its Achilles’ heal which we cannot avoid, all we can do is to protect it from fire however no fire department can possibly compete with a system that is on guard 24/7, that deploys water to a fire instantly during a fire’s initial stages. To add fuel to that fire with Costa Rica’s sparse fire protection combined with the often rural locations selected by many of our clients, it would be sheer nonsense not to include fire suppression in any home in the first place. Hence of course it is completely beyond question if the home has a large wood component to it.
This will be fully discussed in commandment eight with regards to including a fire suppression system in any modern home. My position is this is mandatory for all homes of any type of construction in order to protect the owners and their contents. In the process of doing what needs to be done anyway we also protect any wood structure that is used in or on a home. In essence we kill two birds with one stone as has been more than amply proven around the world no matter what. There is also a third option and that is to take a MgO panel and glue/nail wood to it to give your home the charm and character of wood homes of times gone by yet with the fire shield behind the wood that would protect the home structure in the event of a serious fire.
Now onto problem two, BUGS or more specifically termites. They are everywhere in our climate with the only difference of the situation going from bad at higher elevations to worse near sea level. We live at 1,200 meters (4,000 ft) and these critters with their voracious appetites consumed the plywood base to our kitchen counters as well as another veneered plywood decoration.
If one uses plywood here it is like opening a termite ice cream parlor and they will find it as soft woods are their favourite for lunch. I further elevated my respect for their abilities during one of the home renovations I used the pictures from herein. In this case the owner had used what is called smooth edge to put down some carpet in one bedroom. Somehow these guys got in the house (likely through the windows) and got into this soft wood and ate their way around the room perimeter consuming at least 50% of the wood in less than five years from installation. The owners had not once noticed this activity going on and had no idea of the surprise lurking under their carpet. The evidence was presented when we arrived on the scene and lifted this floor to get access for the new plumbing we found out there was nothing left of this wood. It amazed me how they singled out this one wood product in the middle of a 50 year old home meanwhile they left alone all the wood joists and flooring throughout the home. This certainly elevated my respect for the enemy as to their capacity to find what they want for lunch. This story is meant to demonstrate how one must be both cautious as well as smarter than this veritable army you are about to do battle with. If you are not smarter than them you will ALWAYS LOOSE this battle as they are as unstoppable as they are omnipresent in Costa Rica.
The simple rule is if you are using wood you must be most selective as to exactly what species of such you select in your home. Soft woods for the most part I think are better avoided and only treating such with a surface application is not necessarily as good of a solution as natural resistance at all. There is pressure treated softwood as the only viable option as Xilo has been treating Chilean pine here for quite a few years with good results with a non toxic copper formulation. For me I prefer a hardwood and one that is grown here versus being shipped thousands of miles plus it ends up costing you half the money.
It is far more practical to select local woods that by their nature this army just simply does not like to eat due to either the flavour or hardness or better yet both. Typical suitable candidates are Teak, Acacia, Almond, Crystobal, Rosewood, Iron Wood and Bitter Cedar. Woods to be avoided like the plague are any plywoods (minus marine at 200%+ in cost) soft Laurel or Melina. Melina is a common plantation grown wood that is very white, has almost no grain, hence it is rather boring and is really soft. Yet many projects like Los Sueños use it exclusively for interior woodwork in doors and cabinets which I could only describe as being somewhat optimistic from the final owners perspective. Hardwoods do not by their nature accept pressure treatment since the treatment will not penetrate more than .5mm so what we do for an extra precaution is put a treatment in a surface finish applied to all our structural members. With that being said the only two suitable plantation grown woods that have natural protection, where we do not affect any virgin forest, that are economically viable are Teak and Acacia. All the other candidates on this list are way to expensive for building homes as they are rare and most are protected from logging out of natural forest areas.
We do not condone nor participate in any way in the use of protected species cut from virgin forests.
Now some less than well informed advisers especially realtors tell clients never to buy homes of wood in Costa Rica. This is driven by sheer ignorance or often an agenda to sell some competing product so such opinions are not unbiased and are just that an opinion rather than a statement of fact based on science or any actual knowledge. Here is the contrarian evidence I use to support my assertion of the real facts that are clearly demonstrated in three locations around Costa Rica. The downtown of San Jose has a large number of Victorian homes many of which have been converted into Hotels like Grano de Oro and Hotel Don Carlos. Do you think such would still be standing a century later if they were not termite proof? Up in higher elevations in the mountains you often find wood used to build such homes due to its warmth that is preferred in such a climate. Limon province has many homes that are built in the typical Caribbean style that are very old. What would have happened when this army would have consumed susceptible wood in no more than ten years. So yes, one needs to be judicious in just what wood species you use but to suggest you cannot have a wood home in the tropics is utter nonsense. Hence I rest my case, you just have to rely on nature and intelligent selection of woods to protect your investment.
There is also a middle of the road approach to using wood in your home where you can take a normal SIP panel using all of its benefits and then simply apply wood to it or parts thereof as per your choosing. A perfect example would be for those that like the style of siding which has proven to be extremely durable in this climate, with many 100+ year old Victorian homes in the center of the city still sporting this as their protection from the climate. As in the following pictures, this can be applied with an exterior oil finish hence still having the wood look or this can be painted in any color that you would like with normal exterior paints made for tropical climates. This can be pre-primed with two coats at the plant prior to going to your new home and would be ready for a finish coat in color once installed.
Then for interior finishes you can selectively have wood paneled walls in any style you like applied in feature areas such as library or office etc. This type of work is still quite reasonably priced and can even use some of the exotic and incredibly gorgeous Tico woods like iron wood, rosewood, almond etc. Again these woods come from salvage of dead or dying trees and NEVER come from virgin forest as it is not only illegal it is contrary to our philosophies. Many of our clients are looking to build their final dream home so these kind of features are indeed possible to help them achieve exactly that. There are incredible woodworkers available around Costa Rica where the trade has not died off in favour of pressed wood and plastic. A worthy note is no one has ever had a sick house full of off-gassing from good old pure wood! Yes this old carpenter and cabinet maker will not likely ever change his spots. 🙂
Recent blog posts to update this article can be found here.
One Fantastic Product Just Keeps Getting Better – http://casasenescazu.com/853/853/
Recent Certifications for Mgo Board Corp. Products – http://casasenescazu.com/865/certifications-for-mgo-board-corp-products/