ATLANTA — On the corner of Foundry and Marietta streets in downtown Atlanta, a 1,570-square-foot model home drew attendees from the International Builders' Show.
Once they stepped inside the Southern colonial structure, they discovered its secret. The home costs just 85 cents per day to heat and cool, thanks to its unusual structure: molded expanded polystyrene sandwiched between two oriented strand boards.
Otherwise known as Structural Insulated Panels, or Sips, the product is gaining popularity quickly, thanks to skyrocketing energy costs.
Sips manufacturers claim the technology has grown 40-43 percent from 1999-2000, said Bill Wachtler, executive director and chief operating officer of the Structural Insulated Panel Association. About 10,000 homes were built in 1999 using Sips.
Home buyers are even more worried about energy efficiency this winter, with skyrocketing heating costs for natural gas and oil, combined with the electricity crisis in California.
"Also, awareness for Sips is growing along with a more informed buying public that is looking for higher quality, more durability and a stronger, safer home," Wachtler wrote in a Feb. 14 e-mail.
Inside the show hall, Sips advocate Mike Tobin agreed that escalating energy costs have people paying attention.
Everybody wins using Sips, said Tobin, president of Excelsior, Minn.-based AFM R-Control Building Systems. The firm is an affiliation of 22 companies that make EPS insulation products.
"The consumer reduces heating bills, utilities are less strapped because less is required, and the environment benefits because less fossil fuels are burned," he said.
As far as the impact of rising energy prices, Tobin said: "It is going to be an interesting year. People are not sure how to respond. I think they're trying to evaluate what they can do."
Energy efficiency ranks behind only location in home-buying priorities, said Randy Bury, president of Pulte Home Corp.'s Phoenix Division. He is past president of Pulte's Tucson Division, which was named Builder of the Year in the National Association of Home Builders' 2001 EnergyValue Housing Awards competition.
"Small and large builders alike stay on top of this," Bury said during a Feb. 9 news conference on energy-efficient construction.
Beyond energy efficiency, buyers also can depend on a solid nail base for hanging and flat, straight walls "that stay that way," said Frank Baker, president of Blissfield, Mich.-based Great Lakes Insulspan.
"In just about every area of construction, these have substantial benefits," he said.
Baker's company manufactured the panels for use in the walls, roof and first floor of the builders' show home, which will be located permanently in Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. historical district.
The ease of building Sips homes addresses the construction industry's current labor shortage.
"Typical 2-by-4s are becoming lower in quality and higher in cost," said Bill McGarrity, vice president of sales and marketing for Newcomerstown, Ohio-based Pacemaker Plastics Co. Inc. "There's also a shortage of skilled labor needed to build traditional stick homes."
McGarrity said homes built with Sips qualify for Energy Star, the certification program run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.
"For a relatively new system, again, growth is occurring because we have all these things in place," McGarrity said.
George James, program manager with the DOE's Office of Building Technology, said builders can replace older materials in a more efficient way with plastic products.
About 75,000 people attended the builders' show, which was held Feb. 9-12.
Pulte and other large builders are studying Sips technology. Pulte turns out 26,000 homes a year, using traditional stick-built construction with framing lumber, Bury said.
Bury predicted some cities may start to mandate energy-efficiency levels for new homes. He also said the Uniform Building Code, which covers states in the West, may create regional codes based on the climate of each zoned area.
Plastics News senior reporter Bill Bregar contributed to this story.