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Cutting-edge, Energy-efficient Building Materials

In a 1-inch (2.54-centimeter) panel, the vacuum insulation panel (VIP) provides as much as seven times the insulating protection as traditional products . This technology may well be the ultimate insulation panel. However, it's currently only available for commercial industrial refrigeration and specialized container systems.

The VIP looks like something out of the old NASA films about spacecraft technology. It's a textured silver rectangle that holds a core panel enclosed in an airtight envelope. Manufacturers can make the panels in any size.

The National Association of Home Builders reports that the biggest installation problem is the panel's fragile surface, which has to be encased in a protective covering. The association is working with The Dow Chemical Company, the chief manufacturer of the product, to make the panels available as insulation for attics in future residential 

If you want to build with walls of rammed earth or adobe, the great advantage is that the material is abundant, free and doesn't have to be transported to the job site. The downside is that you'll have a hard time finding specialized craftsmen who know how to build with dirt.

Countries including China, Peru and New Zealand actually account for this type of building in their codes, but the United States has not established codes for building from the earth. The difficulty of finding craftsmen who can do the job led the National Association of Home Builders to estimate that costs for labor could run at least $80 per square foot.

Even so, researchers at the association note that earthen walls provide excellent thermal mass, and the material comes from the ultimate in renewable sources.