SPECIAL GREEN- Easy being green? Architects offer energy-efficient designs

"The house is basically like a styrofoam cooler," says architect Alan Scouten about his ThermaSteel house. "When it snows, the snow doesn't even melt off our roof like it does on other houses in the neighborhood. That's because there's so little heat escaping."

Everyone knows the story of the Three Little Pigs: the one who built a brick house proves that the heavier the building material, the stronger the house. But is that true?

Now, as dwindling natural resources are causing many to think about making their homes more energy efficient, two local architects have gone back to the drawing board. One says that a combination of thin steel and styrofoam known as "ThermaSteel" is the first wave of the future. Another says that prefabs using a  "breathable" material best known for personal rainwear could be the next big thing.

There's at least one thing they agree on: building a structurally sound house that's light on natural resources and heavy on energy savings is no fairy tale.

Scouten the horizon

In the 1830s, Chicago architect Augustine Taylor began using 2 x 4s, rather than conventional thicker timbers, to frame houses. Initially derided as "balloon houses" in the mistaken belief that they would tumble down the American prairie, today such buildings are called "stick-built" construction, and they're so durable and affordable that 90 percent of American houses use Taylor's idea.

But since the mid-1970s, Alan Scouten, a local architect who taught urban planning at UVA, has been looking for another construction method, and he even taught a class in prefabrication at UVA in the early 1980s.

"I've spent my whole life thinking about prefabrication," Scouten says. "Something like 99 percent of all houses in this country are made of wood, and today we use up wood at a phenomenal rate. As a result, wood has become terribly expensive, more and more scarce, and the quality has deteriorated."

Scouten decided to leave academia to put some of his ideas to work. He designed and built his first wood prefabricated building in 1988, a manufacturing plant in Culpeper, using SIPS, or Structural Insulated Panels, pre-cut panels filled with polystyrene or polyurethane foam sandwiched between two layers of strand board, plywood, or fiber-cement.

"I tried these panels and built a few homes with them," he says. "But they're too heavy, don't have a natural joining system, and they're hard to handle. After the Culpeper project, I realized that wood was not the answer."

Then Scouten discovered Luther Dickens.

An inventor from Radford, Dickens had developed the familiar styrofoam molds used to package consumer goods like TVs and computers, and one day he discovered that, with a strong adhesive, styrofoam actually bonded well to steel. Using strips of metal bracing no thicker than a soup can to cradle blocks of compressed styrofoam, Dickens went on a mission to develop and market the technology as a new construction material, even building his own igloo-shaped houses in the 1960s and '70s. 

"Of course, the houses were unsalable," says Scouten, "but in my opinion he's one of the most brilliant men in the history of technology."

In 1992, Scouten went to work for Dickens, and they ended up building ThermaSteel houses all over the world. Three years later, Scouten started his own company in Charlottesville called ShelterUS. Since then, he's built a half-dozen ThermaSteel houses in the area, including his own home near Ivy, and most recently one at Chisholm Place in the Woolen Mills neighborhood. His company also designs ThermaSteel homeless shelters called "shebangs," and he's at work on emergency shelters that can be transported by helicopter and snapped together.

As Scouten describes it, ThermaSteel construction beats wood in almost every way. Although extremely lightweight, it is, he says, twice as strong as wood frame construction. For example, ThermaSteel houses he built with Dickens on the island of Guam were undamaged during a 1993 typhoon with 250 mile-per-hour winds, while stick-built houses vanished. In addition, they are impenetrable to moisture, and termites don't seem to like them.

And according to Scouten, "No insulation system can come close to ThermaSteel." The electric bill for Scouten's 4,000-square-foot ThermaSteel home averages just $100 a month, he says.

"The house is basically like a styrofoam cooler," says Scouten. "When it snows, the snow doesn't even melt off our roof like it does on other houses in the neighborhood. That's because there's so little heat escaping." Likewise, the house tends to remain cool in the summer because the hot air outside can't find its way in. "It also acts as an amazing sound barrier," he adds. 

Scouten says the panels are easy to work with, and all that's needed to put them together are screws and a screw gun. He also tells the story of a fire in a ThermaSteel house. "Everything inside burned, but the structure was fine. They simply cleaned it out, rebuilt the inside, and moved back in."

All this enthusiasm, however, reminds a reporter that today's miracle product can be tomorrow's class-action lawsuit. The 1990s saw litigation against supposedly progressive materials such polybutylene plumbing pipe (aka Qest) and hardboard wood siding (aka Masonite). At this point, however, critics and lawyers haven't found the fly– or the termite– in the ThermaSteel soup, so Scouten is free to evangelize.

Three members of the congregation are local realtor Roger Voisinet, UVA architecture prof John Quale, and Artisan Construction, which recently built a ThermaSteel house in Crozet. Voisinet is developing the Chislom Place house, while Quale used leftover ThermaSteel panels from Dickens' Radford factory for his EcoMod 2 design-build project, an affordable ecological modular house built for Habitat for Humanity in Mississippi. 

"It's not a miracle product," says Quale, mentioning that Thermasteel can't span as far as SIPS, but he shares Scouten's enthusiasm, finding himself particularly impressed by the product's moisture resistance, strength, and recyclability. Still, he says, even some of his students have a hard time embracing the idea of a "styrofoam" house. "It requires an intellectual leap that some people aren't willing to make," Quale says.  

And Scouten admits it hasn't been easy promoting the new technology. "The problem, of course, is that no one in the housing industry wants to do something new," he says. 

Per-ing into the future

In the last decade, prefabricated and new-technology houses have gained wider acceptance, but stigmas persist. For example, when architect Scouten built his house in Ivy, a neighbor attempted to sue him because he believed the house was going to lower property values. According to Swedish builder Per Sjolinder, the prefab prejudice is uniquely American.

"In Sweden, we have been building prefab houses on a large scale for 75 years, and today over 90 percent of all homes in the country are put together in a factory," Sjolinder says, adding that factory-built houses have become a way to increase energy efficiency in a cold climate and lower prices in a country of high labor costs. 

Indeed, as far back as 1985, the New York Times was touting Swedish mastery of the prefab house. At a development in the Hamptons, 50 Swedish "kit" houses went up in as many days, two percent of the time needed to build comparable stick-built houses.

And so, on a beautiful hillside in Ivy, Sjolinder's company, EuroHomes USA, has two model houses– one 2,300 square feet and the other a whopping 6,200 square feet– that he hopes will showcase the best of what Swedish (and American, he points out) innovation has to offer. In addition, the ambitious Swede wants to create America's first prefab factory operation, building Swedish "closed-wall" panel houses. Eventually, Sjolinder says, he hopes to produce up to 1,000 homes a year.

As Sjolinder explains, closed-wall systems are much different from the panelized or modular construction most Americans are familiar with. In addition to being completely customized, the walls of both houses arrive with everything: windows, doors, electric and plumbing hook-ups, switches, hardware, any electronics, and even the exterior wall covering. Sjolinder says that once the design and components of a wall are chosen, 35 to 40 can be built in his factory in several hours, enough to construct the shell of his 2,300-square-foot model, which took only a day to raise.

Touring the houses, it's virtually impossible to tell the components were manufactured in a factory, and close inspection reveals innovative details. For example, instead of the wood shims normally found around a door casing to make it square, adjustable bolts hidden in the door casing secure it to the frame, making it easier to adjust if the door becomes unaligned. Window sills can never rot because they are polished stone, and the Swedish-made triple-pane windows open and flip around ingeniously. And since the electric and plumbing are already installed, there's minimal subcontracting– inspections take place before the wall panels are delivered.

The wall construction may look like a standard stick-built wall, but apparently, after years of using SIPS panels and technologies like the one Scouten touts, Sjolinder says the Swedish building industry realized that those houses can cause health problems. 

"The houses we made were sometimes so tight that moisture couldn't go anywhere," he says. "And so we had problems with mold. People were getting sick."

The solution, he says, was a four-layer "breathing wall" encased in a thick Gore-Tex panel. Functioning much like the popular Gore-Tex jackets athletes love because they're light, waterproof, and yet breathable, the walls reject moisture without trapping air inside the house. In fact, Sjolinder claims it should cost only $125 to $150 a month to heat and cool his 6,200-square-foot model.

Scouten says that any health concerns about his building materials aren't based on any evidence he's seen.

"Unless someone can come up with some factual explanation for why a certain Swedish house had problems, I'm not going to accept that," Scouten says. "There are a quarter million ThermaSteel houses around the world, and I've lived in mine for four years, and I haven't seen an iota of mold."

While Scouten had not seen Sjolinder's product up close and personal by press time, he says he has yet to understand how the EuroHomes walls are more "breathable" than ThermaSteel.

"ThermaSteel walls are 95 percent air," says Scouten. "When you close-pack round particles, the space between those particles is space through which air and airborne water can pass at a very low rate. I'd have to see [EuroHomes'] walls to see if they're more breathable and if that's a good or bad thing."

So might these models finally change American attitudes about factory-built houses? If the excitement Sjolinder displays as he shows the house is any indication, it may not matter to him.

"I've been thinking about and planning this for nine years," he says. "And I still think it's fun." 

"In Sweden, we have been building prefab houses on a large scale for 75 years, and today over 90 percent of all homes in the country are put together in a factory," say Per Sjolinder, founder of EuroHomes USA.


Scouten and Voisinet's  ThermaSteel house at Chisholm Place in the Woolen Mills neighborhood under construction earlier this year.