Fort Collins, Colorado
Structural insulated panels and passive solar smart cabins
Fort Collins, Colorado
Employees: 12 to 18 (seasonal)
Industry: Built Environment
Products: Structural insulated panels and passive solar smart cabins
Propp discovered structural insulated panels (SIPs) working on development projects for the State Department in the former Soviet Union, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. Propp was tasked with evaluating building techniques and materials best suited to different locations based on climate, labor availability, shipping costs, seismic activity, and other factors.
In almost every place Propp worked abroad, SIPs were the most viable building option.
SIPs are factory assembled, heavily-insulated panels typically comprised of rigid foam insulation sandwiched between sheets of oriented strand board (OSB) or plywood. They're lauded for their durability as well as saving time and labor.
Manufactured to builders' specifications and shipped to building sites, SIPs are locked together and sealed, sort of like gingerbread house kits. While less delicious, the resulting buildings are structurally sound, extremely durable and can be as ordinary or as beautiful as any other building.
"I just kind of fell in love with SIPs and the idea of SIPs because you can build four times faster, you can build four times stronger, and the result is many, many times better insulated, more energy efficient," says Propp.
Propp and his wife Luella Propp (the company's vice president and CFO) came back to the U.S. in order to get to know their grandchildren. But that didn't mean settling down. "We wanted to retire from globetrotting, and after 9/11 things weren't the same anyway," Propp explains.
Propp founded ICS Eco-SIPs in 2004 and entered into a perpetual licensing agreement with a SIPs manufacturer in North Carolina. (ICS stands for Insulated Component Structures.) The agreement allows the company to utilize patents and building methods -- a win-win because the Carolina company had limited capacity.
ICS distributes the panels west of the Mississippi, including Hawaii, Alaska, and western Canadian provinces, and has exported them as far away as Siberia and Nigeria. The company's products have also been integral to more than 30 off-grid projects.
"I can say that buildings that have been built with our product are among the most energy-efficient buildings anywhere in the world," says Propp. "We manufacture SIPs but we sell energy efficiency."
Energy efficiency and rapid building are especially important in mountain areas where construction season is short and lodging is too expensive for seasonal employees. "If they can get four times more homes built in the same period of time, or do the same number of homes built with one fourth the number of employees, then it's a huge savings for them," says Propp.
The company's Solargon passive solar smart cabin is inspired by the Navajo hogan: a round or pentagonal building that takes advantage of passive solar principles. "Some people call it a SIPs yurt, and that's fine, but of course a standard yurt made with felt walls has very low R value and wind load is an issue. Snow load can [also] be an issue," says Propp.
Musician and carpenter Rob Galloway designed the original Solargon and eventually decided he wanted to make them out of SIPs as opposed to stick framing. A business partnership ensued and ICS acquired Solargon International (founded 2005) a couple years later. At that point, Solargon (short for "passive solar octagons") became a brand name.
The Solargon's shell averages about $60 per square foot of floor space, although that varies by the walls' height. The shell of building usually represents 20 to 25 percent of the total cost.
Solargons come in two sizes: 300 square feet and 700 square feet. Each Solargon is made with SIPs and has the same octagonal shape, but they're highly customizable. "I don't think we've ever built two Solargons alike," Propp reports.
According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, 39 percent of U.S. carbon emissions come from building operations -- heating, cooling, and lighting -- making buildings the single greatest contributor to climate change. This is a call to arms for Propp. "We have to do something about this," he says. "We can't continue to build in the old, traditional ways that have been around since Noah: stick framing."
In addition to being more comfortable than code-built homes, high-performance buildings are less expensive on a life cycle cost basis. "If you just use SIPs you're going to get about a 60 percent energy reduction" compared to conventional building methods, Propp explains. "The shape of a house has a bearing on energy efficiency," he adds, noting that complex floor plans mean lots of building materials are required for each square foot of floor space.
A circular building would maximize square feet of floor space per linear foot of wall but would be far more difficult to prefabricate. An octagon, by contrast, is nearly as efficient as a circle and far easier to build. "You've not only reduced the cost to build it, but . . . you've reduced the heat loss or heat gain so that you've reduced the energy use by the same amount. Because for every square foot you have that's exposed to the elements you have that amount of heat loss or heat gain."
Propp notes that one can reduce energy consumption by 80 percent by optimizing a building's orientation, floor plan and envelope. The result is a more efficient and comfortable home than a conventional build with technologically-advanced features like smart thermostats and solar panels. "The cheapest energy is the energy you don't use."
Challenges: The price of building materials such as polyurethane and OSB has gone up markedly, driven by increased demand. "A big challenge is getting lenders and appraisers to understand the increased value of an energy-efficient home," says Propp. "They should factor in utility bills or utility usage into the appraised value of that house."
Builders are also resistant to SIPs, he adds, because building with them involves a significant departure from what they're accustomed to. ICS has trained hundreds of builders to install SIPs. "They know how to stick frame and they don't necessarily want to learn new skills. But I can tell you once we train a builder how to install SIPs and they try it once, they love it."
Opportunities: ICS is also about to launch an expansion plan that will quadruple production with the help of an investor. Most of the expansion will be in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. "Right now there's only about one to two percent of homes are built with SIPs so we have a massive market opportunity ahead of us," says Propp. "If we could double every year for many, many years to come, it would help a lot of people."
"You know," he adds, "when McDonalds first started they had the twin arches and they had that big sign up saying, 'Over 300 million burgers sold,' or 'Over a billion burgers sold.' I want to put on my website a banner like that that says, 'Over 10 trillion BTUs saved.'"
Needs: Propp says the company is always in need of trained employees.