ONARCHITECTURE- Man of steel: Scouten touts new technology

According to architect Alan Scouten, ThermaSteel is the answer. The answer to what, you ask?

Since the mid-1970s, Scouten, who taught urban planning at UVA, has been looking for an alternative way to build houses. In fact, his interest dates back to his school days, he says, 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 as well. I've always felt there was a necessity for an alternative building strategy, and I've constantly been looking out for something."

In the late 1980s, 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. "I felt that panelization was important at the time," he says, "but after the Culpeper project I realized that wood was not the answer and started looking for alternatives."

Scouten first looked at SIPS, or Structural Insulated Panels, which have since become widely used as an alternative to "stick-built" house construction. SIPS are pre-cut panels filled with polystyrene or polyurethane foam and sandwiched between two layers of strand board, plywood, or fiber-cement. 

"I'll never do another stick-built house again," Charlottesville architect Jim Rounsevell said in a March 2006 column about SIPS. Rounsevell designed his first insulated panel house in 2003 and had three more on the drawing board. At the time, Rounsevell said the insulated panel technology was even making converts of builders.

"The construction industry is typically slow to change," he said, "but increasing labor costs and the ease with which these panel houses are put together, combined with their structural integrity, is making this kind of construction more attractive to builders."

However, Scouten wasn't sold on SIPS.

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

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 styrofoam actually bonded well to steel with a strong adhesive. 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."

According to Scouten, Dickens, who is 80 years old now, has been tireless in his efforts to promote his technology, selling and buying his company back several times, trying to keep his vision on track. In 1992, Scouten went to work for Dickens in Radford, and they ended up building ThermaSteel houses all over the world.

In 1995, 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, 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 unfolded and snapped together. 

Indeed, as Scouten describes it, ThermaSteel construction beats wood frame construction in almost every way. Although extremely lightweight, it is twice as strong as a wood frame construction. For example, TheramaStructure houses he built with Dickens on the island of Guam were undamaged during a 1993 typhoon with 250 mile-an-hour winds, while stick-built houses simply 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 in Ivy 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 dud. The 1990's saw class-action lawsuits against supposedly progressive materials such polybutylene plumbing pipe (aka Qest) and hardboard wood siding (aka Masonite). At this point, however, the critics and the lawyers haven't yet found the fly– or the termite– in the soup, so Scouten is free to evangelize.

Three members of the 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 the Radford factory for his EcoMod 2 design-build project, an ecological, modular and affordable house built for Habitat for Humanity in Mississippi. 

"It's not a miracle product," says Quale, mentioning it can't span as far as SIPS can, but he still shares Scouten's enthusiasm for the product. He's particularly impressed by ThermaSteel's resistance to moisture, it's strength, and the fact that its more easily recycled that wood frame houses. 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," says Quale.  

As 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. But occasionally you'll find a rare pioneer," he says. 

Architect Alan Scouten outside his "styrofoam" house in Ivy, which he describes as "twice as strong" as wood frame construction.