The pressure to optimize building efficiency for the sake of lowering embodied carbon, increasing the swiftness of on-site construction time, and decreasing billable office hours can translate into a lot of lunch-and-learns with building product makers who offer tempting innovative solutions. For the makers of universal barrier alternative walls, it’s a one-stop shop that meets all of those goals.

Armed with an array of benefits, the time-tested 50-plus-year-old universal barrier alternative wall systems—insulated metal panels (IMPs)—have been jettisoning into a popular pick for wall, roof, and other applications in large building designs. In fact, the IMP market is expected to grow in North America from $1.6 million in 2022 to $2.7 billion by 2030.

“We're seeing an explosion of use of insulated metal panels just in North America in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Dominic Grecki, national sales director for Kingspan Architectural Insulated Metal Panels. “Architects are asking about it, and more so the younger generation of architects.”

As a one-piece airtight system that’s essentially foam insulation sandwiched with metal panels, it’s also a sustainable solution that provides high thermal resistance and improves the energy performance of a building while decreasing on-site construction time.

“Architects have less billable hours on projects than they used to,” says Grecki. “So if we can save them time on detailing a wall that requires a bunch of materials compared to just one material, it helps them focus on other parts of the project.”

Achieving sustainability goals

With 494 of Fortune 500 companies making sustainability a priority with ESG reporting, and the U.S. General Services Administration investing $2 billion in low-embodied carbon materials in construction projects, there’s pressure to deliver increasingly environmentally nimble solutions for clients from all sectors.

“Sustainability is a key driver first and foremost,” says Grecki. “With a universal barrier wall, we’re not using as much material as a traditional wall. It's a one-piece system that minimizes the carbon because there's less material on a job site for sheathing, insulation, and vapor barrier purposes. We’ve conducted successful pilots on foam recycling and are exploring options to scale it up.”

Lowering demand on skilled trades

It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of skilled trades. The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) reports that an additional 546,000 workers will need to be hired to meet current demands. Systems like IMPs that require less time and fewer trades in the field can be one way to combat the shortage.

“By having one product going around a large building compared with multiple subcontractors going around a large building putting up multiple pieces, there can be substantial time savings on a construction job,” says Grecki. “Time means money. We have to work smarter.”

While it makes sense that a one-panel system would require less time to install, Kingspan actually put the two types of wall systems to the test. A time-lapse video shows that it can take about half as much time to install IMPs than a traditional multi-component wall system.

Limiting the failure locations

Any type of wall system can be installed perfectly, but no system is immune to potential issues. With a multi-component system, there are multiple ways for the system to fail. So when signs of water intrusion occur, it can take a heavy lift to investigate the source of the leak. However, a one-panel system makes diagnosing installation and other issues much easier to address because there are fewer locations where an IMP could have a potential issue.

“You can have the best product in the world, but if it's not installed properly there could be issues,” says Grecki. “One of the beautiful things about a universal barrier wall is that if something does happen where there is a water leak, there are only a few places that you have to look to try to find it.”

Making design decisions easier

A modular system like IMPs may sound like a limiting system, as they are manufactured in standard rectangular sizes that usually range from 24 inches wide to 50 feet long. But like any good bones, it’s not intended to be the exterior cladding on a building, as IMPs work in concert with noncombustible rainscreen cladding.

“It's not set up for crazy shapes,” says Grecki. “But we'll do a standard backup universal wall and architects can do crazy shapes with a custom metal panel that's cut out in a fabrication shop. So you still achieve your design intent, but you will also achieve your airtightness and your thermal package.”

Using a one-piece wall system that provides the necessary features for an efficient and effective weathertight building simplifies that part of the design process, and it reduces the amount of time needed to specify the functional parts of the building envelope.

“The bottom line is we're trying to enclose the building faster and more efficiently and to make sure that it's weathertight,” says Grecki. “And then, based on code-based testing, there's a plethora of noncombustible products that can be put on top of it to achieve the design intent of an architect.”

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