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Speed of construction, energy efficiency and strength significant factors in region

Briefing paper takes a look at panelized construction

There has never been a need for so much new housing in Mississippi as after Hurricane Katrina.

“Mississippi is at a critical historical juncture,” said Judith G. Phillips, research associate, John C. Stennis Institute of Government, Mississippi State University, Starkville. “The burden of leadership that the citizens of Mississippi have bestowed upon their elected leaders has rarely been more profound.”

Phillips recently authored a briefing paper, “Housing Strategies for Mississippi,” that details a plan to deal with the reconstruction necessary because of the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Katrina. The paper recommends reconstruction with high-quality, energy-efficient residential housing that is also affordable for low-income families.

The report proposes the large scale construction of structural insulated panel (SIP) homes to meet Mississippi’s low-income housing and Katrina rebuilding needs. SIPs are made with two sheets of oriented strand board (OSB), plywood or other material to make up interior and exterior sheathing with expanded polystyrene in the middle for insulation.

Phillips said SIPS are ideal because of the speed of construction, superior energy efficiency (up to 50% lower power bills) and their strength.

“With the advent of the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Katrina, SIPs present a viable option to meet the need within the state to build a residential structure that will meet more stringent building codes with requirements for axial compression, bending movement and shear standards to withstand the damaging forces of high wind conditions,” Phillips said. “There is also a need to increase the energy efficiency and quality of construction of housing in Mississippi, and enable the state to rebuild a significant volume of residential housing.”

The Stennis Institute has worked with PermaR of Grenada and General Panel of Union, manufacturers of ASTM-certified foam core and SIP panels, to develop an efficient flexible home design that reduces the costs associated with using SIPs and realizes increasing economies of scale related to production and on site construction.

“This design optimizes the use of SIPs and is based upon a standardized 24 x 48 building footprint,” Phillips said. “The external façade and internal floor plan of this 1,152-square-foot home can be customized to provide community compatible architectural designs. This home was designed to meet the needs of the low-income housing market in the state of Mississippi with an estimated cost of $70,000 based upon the assumption that buildings sites and site work would be donated either by municipal, county or public housing authorities.”

Affordable housing is one of the most critical needs not just for residents, but for economic development.

“A community’s ability to respond with reasonable cost housing is critical in the industrial development recruiting process,” said George Freeland, executive director, Jackson County Economic Development Foundation. “We are currently in the process of working to recruit some large industrial and commercial projects. By and large, the attitude is that housing and then subsequently the labor availability factor will resolve itself over time. But we as communities have got to be proactive in our efforts to provide reasonable cost housing for our labor pool.”

Freeland said lack of affordable housing affects the labor force, and access to that labor force is always going to be a key site selection factor in attracting these companies. “It is important,” Freeland said. “It is darned important in the economic development equation.”

Phillips hopes SIPs will be used to replace some of the affordable rental housing destroyed by Katrina.

“The Stennis Institute began exploring the financial feasibility of utilizing SIPs by creating a financial model using the Waveland Housing Authority site as a model,” Phillips said. “Prior to this site being scoured of all residential structures by Hurricane Katrina, approximately 70 families occupied rental housing on this site. FEMA was proposing 70 trailers at the site, at a cost of $50,000 per unit to FEMA, at a total cost of approximately $3.5 million. The danger to the health and safety of citizens occupying mobile homes or trailers and the fiscal inefficiency of this policy deserves careful scrutiny. Although this solution may be expedient, it is incomprehensible.”

She believes it is time to revisit the FEMA policy to only provide temporary housing instead of an investment that would better serve taxpayers and residents.

Another alternative may be developers using the Low Income Housing Tax Credits, a subsidy created within Section 42 of the Federal Tax Code to finance the housing. While normally these credits are used by private developers, another alternative is to establish public-private limited partnerships or a limited-liability corporation. Phillips said tax credit deals are complex, and professional management is required to assure proper management and compliance.

Phillips said the briefing paper is not to suggest that the use of SIPs is the sole solution for meeting Mississippi’s housing crisis. But it does offer the ability to expedite the speed with which housing needs are met.
The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) has also promoted SIPs, along with other energy efficient systems and technology.

“We have done some housing workshops on the Coast since Katrina in partnership with Home Depot where we looked at everything from SIPS to anchoring systems to roof tie down so it won’t blow off in a hurricane to promoting Energy Star appliances,” said Kenneth Calvin, director of MDA’s Energy Division. “When people go back to rebuilding, and have to replace all their appliances, we recommend they look for the Energy Star label. That is a program we are strongly trying to promote. The new appliances on the market are far more energy efficient.”

The Energy Division is also promoting solar hot water heating applications in multi-family units. Calvin suggests people consider implementing similar technology in their homes. “Even if your power goes off, you have the availability of hot water in the house,” he said.”

As bad as the Hurricane Katrina tragedy was, Calvin says it gives residents in the state an opportunity to take a look at the way homes are designed and constructed, and to build smarter and more efficiently. “It is bad to have a clean slate like that,” he said. “But when you have a clean slate, you can look at all the different elements that affect buildings in areas of high wind, water and humidity to make them more sustainable. The technology is here.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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