IN THE SPOTLIGHT
BioSIPs: From Egg Cartons to Eco-Panels, “Green Design” Comes of Age
What’s in a humble egg carton? Low-grade waste materials, simple molded fibers from newsprint, but also much more, according to Julee Herdt of CU-Boulder’s Center for Innovation and Creativity.
“There’s engineering in these shapes, a grid, though it’s weak, because the fibers are pulverized low-grade waste, but I thought that there’s got to be more we can do with this process,” said Herdt, a professor at the College of Architecture and Planning and the owner-founder of BioSIPs, Inc. From that humble beginning has emerged a new technology, BioSIPS, that offers promise for large-scale, 3D fiberboard and structural insulated panels as petroleum-alternative construction.
Herdt and her students are working to produce construction materials from agricultural, forest, and construction waste fiber resources. “In the early 90s, I started experimenting with engineered molded fiber, or EMF, which is a technology invented by the USDA Forest Products Lab,” she said. “By scientifically determining the arrangements of fibers of different lengths and types of underutilized wood and agricultural waste, we are now turning fiber residues into useful products, and at CU we’re advancing EMF to create petroleum-alternative, high-performance building materials that are strong and lightweight.”
In 1992, Herdt and other researchers marketed a 3D honeycomb waste fiber product called Gridcore. “We were ahead of our time, because hardwoods were still cheap and widely available,” she said.
Perhaps most satisfying, though, was back-to-back wins for CU in the U.S. Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon competition. Herdt was the architecture faculty lead in both winning competitions. In the Decathlon, students design and construct an operational solar home. “Through the Decathlons, the students use standard structural insulated panels. SIPs were originally developed by FPL in 1935 to construct buildings in a panelized system that reduces the need for solid wood framing,” she said. “In 2005, we applied a fiber-based SIP idea that I’d developed at CU.”
Herdt had already used SIPs on her Boulder home constructed in 2000, demonstrating that agricultural products can outperform standard petroleum-based materials. The house also incorporated geothermal and solar applications and thus it costs less to operate than traditional stick-frame construction. “From the house project, I got the idea to use the Gridcore material I’d helped develop in the 90s as bio-based stressed skin, and that became BioSIPs – and the building system for the 2005 CU Solar Decathlon project,” she said. In 2008, Herdt founded BioSIPs, Inc. to begin the process of bringing BioSIPs to market.
“We recently completed structural testing at CU’s engineering lab and BioSIPs have met or exceeded all SIP structural requirements,” said Herdt. “The product that we currently have is almost ready for the marketplace. Our goal for five years from now is fiber-based products that can be completely exposed to the elements—we’re not there yet but our continued research is yielding success.”
Today, Herdt works with one of her former students, Kellen Schauermann, a graduate of both CU-Boulder Environmental Design in 2006 and UCD College of Architecture in 2009. Schauermann serves as senior research assistant and co-principal investigator for the CU BioSIP Project. “I took a design studio with Julee after the 2005 Solar Decathlon, and I became really interested in her research,” he said. Schauermann, who started his BioSIPs work as an independent study student, is assisting Herdt with grants, and is engaged in computer software modeling and material science for the BioSIP project.
In June 2010, the BioSIP team, in conjunction with Boulder’s ReSource, a local salvage yard of used construction and architectural materials, and with State of Colorado and Heimbold Foundation grants, begins construction of an experimental BioSIP building at the corner of 63rd and Arapahoe. The building will measure18x10x12, utilizes solar tracking, and is a test site for BioSIP prototype panels. “Through the state grant we are donating the building to ReSource so students and the public can learn solar and alternative building applications, and they can see how BioSIPs perform,” said Herdt. “In the Solar Decathlons, our CU teams proved that energy and resource efficient design pay off in many ways. And, green design is now part of the Department of Energy’s call for proposals. As a professor, as an architect, environmentalism will always be the heart and soul of the work,” she said.
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