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The Technology

How do you build a home that is stronger and more comfortable, yet more environmentally friendly, energy-efficient, and affordable?

These are questions that Deane Evans, executive director of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) asks every day.

"All of these things are available, and PATH is really set up not only to encourage new research and development to make the products, but also to move innovations into the market faster," Evans says.

PATH is a public/private initiative that developed out of Vice President Al Gore's efforts to bring energy and environmental improvements to the home building industry. Managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, PATH was formally launched by President Clinton in May.

With partners and committee members such as Habitat for Humanity and Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, PATH hopes to bring cutting-edge products to the mainstream. In turn, better homes can be an expectation, not just a dream, for everyone, says Evans.

Working with Habitat on Michelle Hayes' house was not only an opportunity for PATH to lend a helping hand, but to highlight some of the most exciting innovations in housing available on the market.

"It's really showcasing a large number of technologies in one place. Wherever you go, you're pushing the state of the art, whether it's the foundation, the walls, paint, carpeting, appliances -- everything," Evans says of the Yonkers, N.Y., home.

One of the construction features contributing to the home's sturdiness and comfort are the structural insulated panels, or SIPs. The panels consist of two outside "skins" made of plywood or oriented strand board (OSB). Usually, the skins sandwich an inner foam core.

Click here to see blueprint.
A SIPs manufacturer such as Premier Building Systems can pre-cut the panels to the architect's specifications. The panels re delivered to the construction site like large jigsaw puzzle pieces. They are also pre-engineered to ensure that they are able to withstand such conditions as heavy winds and snow loads.

The task of raising the structure is easy and very fast. The SIPs are basically tipped into place to create the house's shell. SIPs are an ideal product for Habitat, since volunteers inexperienced with construction can assemble them, all in a day's work.

Darren Harris, spokesman for APA - The Engineered Wood Association, was instrumental in introducing SIPs technology and other wood product innovations to the Hayes' house.

New products have been created, partly due to government restraints on forestry, Harris says, and partly due to the construction industry's use of younger, faster-growing trees. Trees such as aspens or cottonwoods were previously considered "weed trees," because they were unusable for building purposes. Researchers have now developed materials like SIPs that, roughly, reconstitute the wood and reinforce it with glue to make it just as strong as a solid cut of timber.

"These engineered wood products allow the house to use less wood, but still carry the same amount of load-bearing, structure, and engineering into the house that are necessary to make it sound," Harris says.

SIPs can save up to 30 percent more in energy bills than average housing materials.

When Harris first discussed televising the construction of a house with Habitat and with homebuilding expert Bob Vila, they decided to use these technologies as a way of illustrating how a comfortable, affordable home of the future might be made.

To find a good blueprint for this "extraordinary" home, Harris contacted residential architect magazine. Editor Susan Bradford Barror ran a contest called "The Ultimate Challenge," which received 175 entries from architects across the U.S.

The winning design created a simple, but beautifully traditional one-family home using SIPs technology and other energy-saving products, such as insulated glass.

"The floor plan efficiency, the exterior design, and also the construction efficiency were the three things that sold the judges on this particular design," Barror says.

Architect Ed Binkley of the Evans Group in Orlando, Fla., also used photovoltaic shingles - a roofing system that converts solar energy into electricity without the usual clunkiness and unattractive appearance of large solar panels.

To further conserve energy, Binkley designed the house without air conditioning. Instead, he drew plans that allowed for cross-drafts to flow through the house in a natural cooling system that will be enhanced by ceiling fans.

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Click here to see blueprint.
Other features of the house include Louisiana-Pacific Corporation's trademarked SmartSystem siding. The siding is made from a new species of fast-growing trees. Louisiana-Pacific has developed new ways to use the sustainable supply of trees to create highly durable, natural-looking, and environmentally friendly wood products.

"The technologies being incorporated into [the house] will seem kind of Flash Gordonish, but some of these things will one day be more commonplace," says Jim Killoran, director of the Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Yonkers that organized the construction of the Hayes' home.

With the encouragement of PATH, other organizations took the opportunity to contribute their innovative products toward the extraordinary house. Down to the hi-tech Category 5 wiring donated by Lucent Technologies, the home is a model for buildings in the year 2000.

The wiring makes homes not just computer-ready, but "smart." It allows residents to do such things as access their security systems and electricity with a push-button telephone while they are away from home. The technology was used in the '80s in many luxury homes, but is now more widely available and affordable.

"I think to be empowered in the 21st century as a citizen in the United States, you're going to have to be Web-sufficient and computer literate," says PATH's Evans. "And that's what this kind of advanced wiring helps you to be. It equalizes that house with any mansion. You know, suddenly, your house can help you get access to the knowledge you need to make you better for your situation."

Written by Benita Green with graphic design by V.A. Burcop.
Copyright 1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved.

Sponsored in part by Louisiana-Pacific Corporation and the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing.

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