Sealed with a SIP

SIPs house

Last year the energy costs for this four-person household came to just $560, due to an airtight house design, a PV system well-matched to usage and a switch to all-electric. Kyle O’Farrell describes how they got there.

IN DECEMBER 2012 we were living in a small double-brick ex-Housing Commission home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. With two growing kids sharing a bedroom and a very non-user-friendly layout, we knew it wasn’t going to work in the longer term. However, we liked where we were living and didn’t want to move. The house was built in 1953 and, aside from some minor wall cracking, it was basically sound and could probably be used as a base for a renovation. So what to do?

We asked architect Mark Sanders at Third Ecology to create three concept house designs for us: two incorporating the existing house and one a completely new build. To our surprise, the estimated cost for the new build was only around 10% more than the renovations. And, with the existing house set well back on the block, the most logical renovation design would mean building in our north-facing backyard with a significant loss of garden space, not something we were keen to do.

Thus we decided on a new build, given the benefits in orientation, block placement, reduction in project time and cost risk (renovations often throw up costly issues along the way), design layout and improved thermal performance.

The previous house was connected to the gas network, but we disconnected it during demolition and we wanted it to stay that way: for environmental, health and financial reasons, not least of which is that gas is a fossil fuel which contributes to climate change. We were also planning to install solar PV and wanted to maximise on-site usage of electricity, rather than pay the expense of a gas connection, gas plumbing and increasing gas prices. Finally, we were planning to build a very well-sealed house, so we felt that piping an asphyxiating and explosive gas into it was worth avoiding if possible. We also didn’t want the combustion products (mainly CO2 and water vapour, but also nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide) in the house.

Around the same time, Beyond Zero Emissions released its Buildings Plan, which strongly supported going gas-free and outlined how to do it. Nice report.

Design for thermal performance

When it came to the house design, we liked the features of the Passive House approach to house construction, but knew there was a higher cost associated with the additional design, construction and certification requirements. Looking around for construction methods that could achieve similar insulation and air sealing, without additional building costs, we found structural insulated panels (SIPs). These are wall panels with a foam core and rigid panels glued to each side. The panels are weight bearing, so timber framework for the external walls is not required.

Read the full article in ReNew 140.