Attractive, energy efficient masonry
InsulStone is being used instead of traditional masonry in the development of a four-story hotel in Anchorage.
Alaska’s climate, specifically the long harsh winter months, isn’t ideal for mixing cement or concrete. The frigid temperatures present a massive challenge for masons tasked with creating brick or stone facades. The state’s brutal winters also contribute to sky-high heating costs for building owners and tenants alike. Ongoing innovations in construction can alleviate some of these challenges.
A close up look at InsulStone being installed on a hotel development in Anchorage.
A New Approach to Masonry
For example, InsulStone, developed in 2007 by ICAP-USA, is a four-step insulation stone and porcelain panel exterior siding system designed to eliminate installation time and provide greater energy efficiency. Used with a foam back application, InsulStone provides what ICAP-USA calls “continuous insulation” which blocks energy loss through transference.
Mitchell Fairweather, a mason with more than forty years of experience in the industry and nearly twenty years working in Alaska, views InsulStone and its foam back as one of the best new innovations in the Alaska-based construction market.
“It’s an absolutely perfect solution for Alaska climate and really makes sense,” says Fairweather, who discovered InsulStone while at a trade show in 2009-2010. In fact, Fairweather became so enamored with the product he quickly enlisted himself as a sales rep and has been busy introducing it to architects, engineers, and construction companies across Alaska for the past several years.
The product offers an alternative to traditional masonry, says Fairweather, as it provides a very similar façade to customary brick and stone yet doesn’t require several of the many steps masonry requires.
“With InsulStone you are gaining that nice masonry look and cutting 50 percent of labor as you’re not putting on a metal scratch coat, a cement coat, then mixing cement and putting it on the stone and putting it on the wall,” explains Fairweather. “That whole process is gone. Now you get a box of InsulStone and you’re taking pieces out and stapling them on as if it was siding.”
The product also provides heating and cooling savings to building owners or operators, says Fairweather. “If you are doing an R30 wall on the inside of a building, which is what they’re doing in Alaska, and you put this on the front at zero temp that R30 wall stays an R30. If you put regular masonry on, that R30 drops to an R9,” he says.
A Hard Sell
As often happens with new products, InsulStone hasn’t been an easy sell. One challenge is convincing construction companies and masons to try something new—something that hasn’t gone through decades of testing, Fairweather says.
Construction companies and masons are cautious when it comes to emerging products and approaches since many have tried new products in the past and found them to be a failing proposition.
“That’s why it’s so tough to get someone to say yes. When you try something and it fails, you go back to what you know and stick with it. So it’s been hard,” Fairweather says.
But Fairweather isn’t easily daunted and through repeat visits he scored a win with G2 Construction.
The Fairbanks-based firm has now used InsulStone on many projects and InsulStone with the foam back application on three builds. The first was a small dental office. The second was an apartment project in North Pole.
G2, founded in 2001 by Paul Gitschel, subcontracted installation on the dental building and the masonry team completed install in one day—a job that typically would have taken four days, says Fairweather.
The third and most recent project is a four-story Staybridge Suites Hotel being built in Anchorage. It is the largest InsulStone with foam back installation in Alaska to date.
Alternatives to traditional application allow masonry work to be done during cold periods.
Installation in Progress
Construction on the 157-room hotel began in the fall of 2016 with underground and excavation work. After a winter weather break, work began again in the spring of 2017 with a projected completion date of December 2018.
G2 Construction recommended InsulStone with the foam backer option for the hotel owner because of the contractor’s experience with the product on earlier projects, says project manager Gary Graves. He says InsulStone offers more pros than cons. In the past, prior to knowing about InsulStone, G2 traditionally went with dry stacked stone with masonry work.
“Four Corners Dental was the first, but before we ever installed the product we could see that, because of the foam backer, it was going to add insulation and improve the install time,” says Graves.
The look of InsulStone is also appealing, he says.
“The product has a very realistic stone look and feel. The foam backing not only adds an impenetrable R11 thermal barrier but makes installation very easy using pneumatic staples,” Graves says, noting that because there are no glue or mortar requirements the product can be installed in any weather at any temperature.
It’s easy to learn to install as well, though Fairweather recommends hiring or contracting masons for installation given their skills handling issues such as the complications of arches and building design. G2 typically hires a mason subcontractor on big jobs and uses internal masonry workers on small projects.
“The only con I can think of is a small one; if you look very closely you can see the panel lines which give it away as a panelized product. But it's not very obvious,” Graves says.
Innovation in Construction
InsulStone is representative of the emerging technologies and approaches taking place within the construction industry, according to Graves.
“In many ways construction technology is similar to what my grandfather and father understood it with some important differences,” he says, noting computers have enabled the industry to be much more efficient on the business end. Administrative, estimating, and engineering software continue to evolve, as well.
“Power tools [cordless and pneumatic] have added efficiencies to the job site, making buildings quicker and cheaper to complete,” adds Graves. “There are many new composite building products that are attractive and extend building life, but in my view the biggest changes have occurred in the improvement of the building envelope [thermal and moisture barriers] and energy efficient designs.”
Products such as these are a boon to the construction industry, given potential savings in labor and lower heating costs that are obviously welcomed by Alaska-based builders and property owners.
According to Neal Fried, an economist with the state’s department of labor research division, the industry has been undergoing a “rough” patch with big job losses in 2016 and 2017 related to the continuing recession and declining capital budget spend for construction projects.
“The amount of activity is relatively low, with the public and private side taking some pretty big hits,” says Fried. Yet there is a positive sign on the horizon.
“The only part of construction [growing], surprisingly, though it’s still relatively small, is construction related to residential,” says the economist.
Fairweather believes InsulStone could prove to be a lifesaver of sorts for the masonry industry as well.
In his experience there has been declining interest in the occupation as many young workers aren’t interested in getting into what’s viewed as a tough and messy job requiring a variety of hands-on skills.
“We [masons] need something with less labor. Young guys don’t want to get into it as it’s too messy, it’s too hard. InsulStone makes [mason work] easy,” he says, noting the average age of a mason is more than fifty-five years.
“It’s a dying talent. It’s either young guys start doing masonry again or new products come out to cover the loss or you stop doing masonry on buildings completely. It’s starting to happen already.”
Judy Mottl writes about important issues country-wide with an affinity for Alaska.