About 20 years ago, I watched a video about a house being built with structural insulated panels, or SIPs. It was the first time I'd seen the process: Instead of framing one stick at a time, the carpenters were installing entire sections of wall, which had arrived on site sheathed on both sides and insulated. It impressed me as a faster and better way to build, so I tried SIPs on my very next house. That first one was difficult because I had no one around to explain the technical details. But we stuck with it, and now my company builds only projects that include SIPs.

SIPs are made by bonding a sheet material — OSB, plywood, steel, or fiber-cement — onto both sides of an expanded polystyrene (EPS) or polyurethane foam core. By themselves, these materials are not strong enough to support loads, but once they're made into panels they can be used for structural elements like walls, roofs, and floors. The most...

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