Posted by: jeb1 | December 21, 2010

Built to Last

Construction products saw fundamental changes and technological advances that led to more durable, energy-efficient homes.

  • Source: BUILDING PRODUCTS Magazine
  • Publication date: 2010-11-20
  •  

    The items that we classify under our “Construction Review” banner are those that make up the structure and guts of a house–lumber, masonry, housewrap, insulation, HVAC, and so on. Sure, they aren’t as glamorous as granite countertops, but it’s these elements and their installation that are most likely to determine how well a home will perform and how long the products will last.

    As such, construction products have undergone a quiet revolution over the past 20 years. Manufacturers applied R&D to refine these seemingly commodity materials to perform better, last longer, and install quicker. Sheathing, for example, is no longer OSB or plywood. It’s OSB or plywood or insulated structural sheathing or laminated sheathing. Voluminous drywall SKUs match performance needs in every area of the house, and insulation is a green-building golden child.

    Here’s a look at some of the biggest trends of the past two decades:

    Engineered LumberIn 1990, 5% to 7% of new homes had engineered floors or roofs, Building Products reported. That percentage “will soar during the ’90s and beyond,” our story said. Indeed it did. Though engineered lumber has been around since the 1930s, its use and praise multiplied in the ’90s and into the new millennium.

    In the early ’90s, these products gained acceptance, particularly with the steep rise in dimensional lumber prices between October 1992 and April 1993. “A growing number of remodelers and builders say superior performance is worth the price,” Building Products reported in 1994. But although its use grew nearly 50% between 1990 and 1992, in 1994 it still only accounted for 10% of the wood products market.

    As with any new product, builders were reluctant to change and were wary of the increased costs. But with each subsequent lumber price spike, more contractors came on board, and, for most, once they switched they never went back. “Prices aren’t dropping dramatically, but attitudes are changing as the quality of dimensional lumber deteriorates,” we reported in 1999.

    In the early 2000s, manufacturers began offering complementary software programs that aid with design and specification. Engineered wood’s longer, straighter spans also were ideal for the increasingly complex and large home designs. Today, some manufacturers also are making products with wood certified by FSC and/or SFI.

    “Over the past 15 years, engineered wood has grown from very little use in new residential construction to being used in one form or another in a very high percentage of homes,” says Craig Adair, market research director for APA-The Engineered Wood Association, who reports that I-joists were used to construct 45% of single-family raised-floor area in 2009, and 42% of all beams and headers were engineered product.

    InsulationWhat’s changed in insulation over the past 20 years is a deeper selection of types, more offerings within those types, and a growing number of sustainable options. What hasn’t changed is the debate this category sometimes fuels.

    In the early ’90s, Building Products reported some back-and-forth between fiberglass and cellulose manufacturers. Although it made up only 8% of the market in 1992, cellulose was capturing attention for its recycled-paper content. But fiberglass makers alleged that cellulose was a fire hazard; cellulose suppliers countered that fiberglass was carcinogenic. Those accusations have long since been addressed, and a decade later the debate turned to the amount of energy each saves versus how much is required to produce them.

    Regardless, the two materials combined to dominate 80% to 90% of the market, with fiberglass maintaining a 50% share, in 2007. All other types, including spray-foam, rigid foam, mineral wool, and cotton, made up the other 10% to 20%.

    Today, the green building movement and climbing energy costs has brought insulation of all types to the forefront. Spray-foam, with its high R-values and ability to fill gaps, is golden in sustainable building circles–but it still faces criticism for its higher cost and, for closed-cell formulations, for the chemicals required for blowing. Fiberglass batts face pressure for their binders and potential for gaps in installation.

    Both types continue to refine formulations. Closed-cell spray-foam makers are developing blowing agents with lower global warming potential. Fiberglass now reaches as much as 40% recycled content (up from 5% to 20% in the early ’90s), and Johns Manville and Knauf offer formaldehyde-free versions (though others assert that formaldehyde emissions in fiberglass are nominal and some traditional options are Greenguard certified).

    Other TrendsNew regulations forced caulk and adhesive manufacturers to reduce VOCs; new formulations emerged, but it took a few years before performance caught up and prices came down.

    Recently, the humble bath fan has been a go-to green product for its promotion of good indoor air quality. Energy-efficient lighting, timers, and quieter operation have helped boost its value even further.

    Like SIPs and ICFs, geothermal is continually touted for its efficiency properties, yet is still rare in U.S. homes, a result of higher up-front costs and unfamiliarity.

    The green movement is expected to boost cellulose, which has recycled content of up to 90%. In a June 2010 report, The Freedonia Group predicts cellulose will experience the most growth–14% annually–through 2014. Fiberglass will remain strong, with 9.1% growth, ahead of foam, projected at 5.3%.

    Still, the story today isn’t just about which insulation to choose, it’s about the category’s renewed importance to buyers. While the building boom had consumers obsessed with aesthetics, the energy crunch has them looking behind the walls.

    As President Obama said in a speech last year, “Insulation is sexy.”

    DrywallLong a commodity product that many pros likely gave little thought to, gypsum got exciting around the start of the 21st century, when manufacturers unveiled specialty products designed for problem areas.

    During the mold crisis, several companies released drywall featuring treated paper facings (or fiberglass mat facings) along with a moisture-resistant core. Specialty products also expanded to include boards that help attenuate sound, ideal for media rooms or under second-floor laundries, and that are impact resistant (for hallways and kids’ rooms).

    Durability and livability enhancements are part of a growing number of gypsum options for green-built homes. And while manufacturers continue to incorporate recycled-paper facings, roughly 30% of North American wallboard sales are synthetic boards made with waste material from coal-fired power plants. Furthermore, manufacturers are certifying products for recycled content and indoor air quality.

    Finally, suppliers continue to push the technological envelope. CertainTeed, for example, now sells gypsum that it claims removes indoor formaldehyde; USG offers a 30% lighter 1/2-inch board; and National Gypsum is testing panels that act as a thermal mass. Not bad for a product category that many call a commodity. BP

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