despite the construction industry’s best efforts, home building remains a wasteful business. According to the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center in Champaign, Ill., the U.S. generates “enough construction and demolition debris each year to fill a typical city street 4 feet tall with trash and run that wall from New York to Los Angeles six times—an estimated 136 million tons annually.”

Numerous critics believe the industry has access to a not-so-secret weapon that can help reduce a large portion of such waste: panelized construction.

Panelization is a catch-all term that includes many techniques and systems, but it generally “refers to a construction method where housing components are prefabricated in a climate-controlled facility before being shipped to a home site,” says the Panelized Building Systems Council (PBSC), a branch of the Washington, D.C.–based NAHB.

From a resource conservation and labor perspective, panels are exceptional. One study by the PBSC and the Wood Truss Council of America (now the Structural Building Components Association) found that construction of a 2,600-squate-foot home with trusses and panels used 26 percent less lumber, generated 76 percent less waste, and was constructed with 37 percent of the man hours of a similar, stick-built home. But that’s just the beginning. Panelization also provides more consistent quality; offers precise construction; results in a stronger house; and reduces construction time.

Most homes are already built with a type of panelized system—factory-made floor and roof trusses. But there has been a renewed call for more panelization to reduce waste, increase construction efficiency, and produce better houses.

Factory-made trusses and joists may be the most common forms of panelized components, but Federal Way, Wash.–based iLevel by Weyerhaeuser took the practice to new heights in 2005 when it introduced NextPhase Site Solutions. “Weyerhaeuser created the iLevel business as a way to work more closely with our customers to simplify home construction,” says Brian Greber, vice president of marketing and technology for iLevel. “Services under iLevel NextPhase Site Solutions deliver on that promise by enabling dealers to provide builders with more efficient and cost-effective structural framing.” Program manager Bill Parsons says NextPhase offers three levels of services: one streamlines production by offering precut floor materials, reducing waste and cycle time; another uses software to custom fabricate and preassemble entire sections of floor panels; and the third fully incorporates design, manufacturing, delivery, and site assembly for a total integrated structure.

Using NextPhase, architects can build houses faster than with site framing, and also get waste reduction and quality. But manufacturers of SIPs—another form of panelization—say architects and builders get the same benefits plus an energy-efficient building envelope that is strong and immediately weather tight.

the rise of sips

Bill Wachtler, executive director of the Gig Harbor, Wash.–based Structural Insulated Panel Association, says rising energy prices and the green movement have made SIPs more popular than ever. Though market share hovers near only 2 percent of total new construction, the category has been holding steady in the recession. “SIPs give architects and builders an easy way to create an airtight building envelope that will improve the energy efficiency and durability of any home or light commercial building,” he says.

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Nigel F. Maynard