02nd December 2016

NZSIP - Smart Panel Building System

Welcome to the first of our “building inspiration” blogs. In this series, we aim to introduce you to some innovative building methods and materials so that you can make more informed decisions when researching how to build your new home.

In this first blog, we’d like to introduce you to NZ SIP. We’ve been noticing an increasing number of our clients are using SIPS (Structural Insulated Panel Systems) in their designs, and we invited Michael Sly, founder of the recently established NZ SIP factory in Cromwell to chat with us about these systems.


Please tell us about the product that you provide?

We are NZ SIP and we provide a product called Smart Panels, a complete structural insulated, pre-fabricated building system. You’ve got the capacity to have a floor system, walls and roof – a complete insulated, airtight package. The main differentiator when you look at the world of structural insulated panels (which is where we fit) is that we manufacture our panels from scratch. They’re a shell that we inject with high density PUR foam. It means that we can make any kind of panel for a home and then it pushes us more into being a truly pre-fab modulated house building business, rather than the supplier of a generic square panel that you have to fabricate yourself as a builder. You can design anything and we can make the panels to match.

The reason we’ve gone down the path of SIPS is that it makes it as easy as working with lego. It makes the business of building a high performance home incredibly easy. The house that I live in was built by a 19-year-old apprentice and is probably the most energy efficient house in the southern hemisphere. We have a great system to make comfortable homes but it’s not complicated. There are some beautiful systems in Germany for example but their whole building apprenticeship journey is way different to ours. It’s like doing a degree in Architecture.


What motivated you to establish your factory in Cromwell?

Primarily the reason is that Cromwell is a hub for the whole Central Otago region. All the freight companies are there. It gives us the capacity for going further afield. We can service Central Otago as a whole very easily. If I was to make projections for next year about 60% of our clients will be local and about 40% will be located outside the district. I’m getting a surprising amount of interest from right up north – in Auckland. I guess there’s a larger population up there. But really we’ve been getting nationwide interest.


Is your factory the only place to source SIPS in the district?

We’re the only manufacturer of this specific type of structurally insulated panel system in New Zealand (that is, with the PUR injection moulded panels). There are other structurally insulated panels available that use an EPS (expanded polystyrene) which is used as a core and they purchase it as blocks of foam and then they glue the shell to it. I believe only Magrock produce it here in New Zealand, all the other SIPS are imported. The main ones are Kingspan which is from the UK and Germany and is very similar to our product but these are obviously imported and it’s brought in as big 6 metre sheets that you then have to cut and shape so you get quite a lot of waste. The reason we inject our panels to the specific dimensions of the build requirement is because the foam is really expensive. Therefore we have a zero waste policy which means that the client gets a better price point as they’re not paying for wastage.


What are the advantages of using Sips compared to conventional timber framing?

Our core philosophy is that we want to see New Zealanders build more comfortable, better performing homes that cost less to heat, and we’ve chosen what we consider to be the easiest building methodology to achieve that goal. But you can still build really smart timber frame wall systems but they are technically more complex to achieve the same performance outcomes. Complexity means a higher cost of supply and also more time on site. With the SIP panels, what you’re doing is reducing time on site to get a high performance building shell and you’re also reducing the cost. At the moment if you’re trying to build a 140 Rab board exterior, that is more expensive than our equivalent in material costs, and then on top of that you’re looking at 50% less time at the least to construct with our panels. Generally speaking with SIPS, you’ll have a 150 m2 ground floor up in 3 or 4 hours!

There are some other interesting value chain benefits too that are important to understand. You significantly reduce the amount of truck movements as one single truck movement will deliver your entire building shell on site – that’s insulation, sheathings, everything. And also when you’re constructing, noise is reduced because you don’t have drop saws, you don’t have a lot of building activity as such and then also you’re getting the build up faster and so when looking at the impact on your neighbours, you’re looking at a much smaller footprint.

Also when looking at comfort and final house performance, external noise is significantly reduced. Not only do panels help with the building experience but also the living experience.


Are there any disadvantages?

If there is a disadvantage it’s probably more the paradigm shift from how a lot of people are used to thinking around building process vs pre-fab in general. I wouldn’t say it’s specific to SIPS but the whole concept of pre-fabrication requires a lot more organisation and planning in the design phase of your build vs what could be defined as a more “ad hoc” approach. What requires a mind shift for both builders and clients is that you need to put more effort into the design phase at the beginning of the process.


Do you provide a warranty?

We do provide a warranty on product not failing. The panels themselves are very durable but we have recommendations on product storage and application and as long as those are abided by, we do provide a warranty. As of early next year we should have Codemark as well which is the New Zealand government guarantee of warranty. To get Codemark you have to go through an ISO type process where the factory will be audited, the product assessed, there’ll be testing protocols to pick up any potential defects.


Can SIPS be retro-fitted?

If you want to retro-fit what we can recommend is that you take off the weatherboard or external cladding and then fix what we call a “renovation panel” to the exterior of the framework, creating a double skin. We haven’t done one of these yet, although I’m actually looking at doing our bach down in Riverton as a test for it. It does a couple of things because it can help with vermin management and obviously significantly improve insulation. Generally, in most cases the clients would be looking to upgrade their joinery at the same time. As a renovation product I’d consider it as a significant renovation application scenario.


Have you seen a change in the building industry here in Queenstown over the last few years?

As a town and industry we need case studies to see shift. I feel like as a business we’ve tried to play a role in making other ways of building more accessible. If you said the words “structurally insulated panel”, “prefabrication” or “passive house” five years ago you’d just get completely blank faces. But if you say those words now a significant number of people will have an understanding or connection to what that means so I do feel like we are seeing a change for the better locally and that it will continue to happen.


What would you like to see more of in terms of the way people build?

As an industry we have the capacity to supply a better performing product for a similar existing price point and so it shouldn’t always be about the client having to pay a premium to get a better product. That’s part of our journey with localising the factory in Cromwell. It’s about the client and the builder having a product that is better performing but doesn’t equate to having to invest more money to get that better performance.

The homes for the last 15 years have been very “active” houses, made up of a matrix of mechanical systems to help that house be comfortable (i.e. central heating, heat pumps etc). Houses are now becoming more passive and by focusing on insulation, airtightness, better joinery and pre-fabrication you get a very high performing, comfortable home without having to have multiple layers of equipment and technology actively working to achieve that comfort so the homes will become a lot more passive mechanically and also passive in the sense that as a home owner you don’t have to run around flicking switches or opening things to achieve that comfort so that’s probably the main shift I see.


What would your advice be to people embarking on building their home?

There’s nothing wrong in becoming a bit of an internet guru! Try your best to find examples on Pinterest, Houzz or any of those types of image gallery resources where you can create a scrapbook of the home you aspire to live in.

This allows you to create a platform, so when you connect with the design or building industry you have a clear idea of your aspirations making the professionals job easier as they then understand the direction you want to go.

Of course, and this is from my own personal experience and from me looking at the industry as a whole, I do think it’s really important that once a client is clear about what their aspirations are for a home and they know what their budget is, they then interface with a Quantity Surveyor to truly understand whether their design and budget match. And to do that as early as possible in the process so they don’t over-invest in design without knowing it’s actually going to meet their budget.


Find out more about SIPS and arrange a meeting with the NZSIPS team by visiting nzsip.co.nz.

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