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Structural Insulated Panels Design Considerations

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"This new SIPs design tool is going to be a game changer for architects to offer more choices and better designs for their customers."
Engineers in the Know
"A new SIP-specific design guide will be much-anticipated tool in every engineer's design toolbox."

Although structural insulated panels (SIPs) have been around for over half-a-century, they do not currently have a single set of engineering calculation approaches governing their use. This means design professionals are left with questions
and no unified place to find answers, aside from code reports supplied to them by the manufacturers. These reports provide information about the product but not the calculation basis to incorporate them into a building system design.

This leaves designers in the unfavorable position of having to rely on their judgment on how to best use engineering practices as they relate to SIPs.

The Structural Insulated Panel Association’s (SIPA)
Structural Insulated Panel Engineering Design Guide is about to change this. Once complete, the guide will become the go-to tool for the uniform, single- source guidelines that are required
for SIPs to gain more widespread acceptance throughout the construction industry.

“It was just a confusing situation for engineers, especially when you compared SIPs to other materials that have ready-design references available,” says Tom Williamson, Chair of SIPA’s Technical Advisory Committee. “It was a major roadblock that was keeping this industry from advancing so we decided that if we really wanted to expand the market for SIPs, we needed to provide engineers and architects with a solid design guide that could be on hand, where they could just plug in their design information and obtain the answers they required.”

The launch of the
SIPA Structural Insulated Panel Engineering Design Guide project was predated by a decade of work done by SIPA member NTA, Inc., a building product evaluation and testing company. The company took on the work as an in-house project to better help its engineers design with SIPs. While the scope of this initial project was limited, it did enable NTA to better assist their clients.

Eric Tompos, Vice President/ Director of Compliance at NTA, Inc., has been working on the manual since 2007, when NTA, Inc. was approached by a company to start over and take a fresh approach with their SIP panels. “For us, this was an interesting opportunity to start from scratch. What we are seeing now in the more recent SIPA design guide is the culmination of that early work and what we have been collecting since 2014.”

SIPA approached NTA, Inc. in 2014 about the possibility of creating a document with a larger scope; one which all engineers could use. Work began in May 2014 and the goal has been to complete the manual in four years. Completion is just around the corner; a draft of the full guide and commentary was provided to SIPA this past March and the completed
SIPA Structural Insulated Panel Engineering Design Guide and companion design software is slated for release in July 2018.

Throughout the development process, members from industry have remained closely involved, providing direction for scope and determining the content for the guide. Williamson says, “We’ve been fortunate to have a good team at NTA that has kept us in the loop.”
NTA, Inc. and SIPA’s Technical Advisory Committee set up an industry task group that reviews progress through a series of regular, hour-long webinars. The task group looks at what NTA is doing, where they are at, and provides suggestions for change.

“The whole process has been as smooth as possible for us because NTA has been willing to have this group provide guidance and – in the end – it’s going to result in a really good design guideline for SIPs,” adds Williamson.

There were a few challenges in the creation of the
SIPA Structural Insulated Panel Engineering Design Guide, starting from the point of even establishing a firm definition of what constitutes a structural insulated panel. Another challenge stemmed from the need for additional data on the ways designers wished to use SIPs, which requires additional research and testing in order to determine how the SIP product might respond in real-world applications. Most of the testing that had been done previously had been the general, standardized tests dictated by certification agencies and were not necessarily well suited for coming up with the information NTA, Inc. required.

“Some of this challenge was mitigated by NTA side-programs and studies,” says Tompos. “Any time we had extra panels from qualification testing, we would perform ad hoc tests to ll in some of those information blanks. So, while some of the provisions found in the guide may be lacking in terms of firm supporting data, if nothing else, the provisions of the guide will serve as something that could be tested further in a laboratory and re ned down the road.”

Initially, drafts of the design guide were only made available to members of the industry-based task group. Recently, however, the decision was made to open up the draft to a wider audience in order to gather additional feedback and perhaps catch problem areas the initial task group might have missed.

“So far, response to the draft has been positive,” says Corey Nigh, Test Engineer at NTA, Inc. “We’re now receiving feedback from industry engineers to help further improve the guide, and those who have used it have told us how appreciative they are to now have a SIP-specific design guide in their design toolbox.”

Going forward, SIPA and its members will continue to provide feedback over the months to come and any updates to the guide will be made before its final publication, scheduled for July 1, 2018. Nigh says that there are still holes in some of the information, so future versions are likely as additional data on SIPs is produced and more design applications are explored over time. This could result in future updates to the guide.

In terms of this first edition though, Nigh says, “it has been very exciting to work on something that is so needed and desired by the SIPs industry.”

Reprint from SIPA Fall 2017 Select SIPs publication.

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