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HOUSTON — Thousands of Builders' Show attendees got a first-hand look at foamed-plastic panels as they trooped through a 2,800-square-foot demonstration house.

``There's nothing better than seeing it in 3-D, and that's what this does,'' said Marcus Bradman, a manufacturers representative for foam panel maker Team Industries Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Bradman was one of several volunteers for the Structural Insulated Panel Manufacturers Association who answered questions about foam-core technology. Visitors to the Engineering the American Dream house, erected in the parking lot near the main entrance to the show, entered through a turnstile and walked by a display of cutaway panels.

The demo house was sponsored by SIPA and the Engineered Wood Association, formerly called the American Plywood Association. About 65,000 builders and suppliers visited the Builders' Show, Jan. 24-27. Officials of the two trade associations were expecting 12,000-15,000 people to go through the house.

A crew built the two-story house in just 10 days, finishing just before the show started. The crowds at Houston pumped up the spirits of leaders from both trade groups.

``There would be no way, in my opinion, we could have been done in time with stick building,'' said William Wachtler, market communications manager for the wood association, in Tacoma, Wash.

Frank Baker, past president of SIPA, said attendance got a boost from early risers, since the house was open a few hours before the show began. SIPA also got advance magazine coverage, and daily photographic updates on Builder Magazine's Web site.

``They had a tremendous amount of hits on it,'' Baker said. ``In the first couple of hours, three builders came up to us and said that they had come to the show specifically to see this house,'' said Baker, chief executive officer of panel maker Great Lakes Insulspan Inc. of Blissfield, Mich.

After the show, the trade groups planned to sell the house and donate proceeds to the Houston Chapter of the Children's Miracle Network.

Three SIPA members donated panels for the houses.

Foam-core panels work by sandwiching foamed plastic, usually polystyrene or polyurethane, between two facing boards, most often plywood. The result is a single wall panel that both supports the structure and insulates much better than traditional two-by-four ``stick building.''

The Engineering the American Dream house comes after years of planning by SIPA. Builders look for alternatives to stick framing, especially when the price of lumber spikes upward. The alternative of steel-framing has been spotlighted with a steel demo house the past few years, backed by the American Iron and Steel Institute.

But no such deep-pocketed benefactor has helped the foam-panel makers. Most of them are very small companies.

Bradman was amazed by the turnout at the house.

``You can't get that many people through your booth,'' he said.