The world is facing a
housing crisis. About 100 million people on the planet are homeless,
and 31% of the world's urban population lives in slums. Armed
conflicts in many countries continue to damage communities and drive
thousands of people into refugee camps, where housing is never
Some scientists think a common material that's usually thrown out
with the trash could go a long way to solving the world's housing
Polystyrene foam - better known as Styrofoam - is most commonly
seen in the form of a coffee cup. It's a great insulator, keeping
hot foods hot and cold foods cold. But the material those cups are
made of - basically, petroleum and air - can be put to use in a much
larger way… building a house.
Hoot Haddock is the
founder and owner of ThermaSave
homes, an Alabama business that designs and builds
houses out of foam panels. He explains that the foam is cut to size
and 2 sheets of cement board are glued to either side, sandwiching
the polystyrene inside. "You can get it as thick as you want it and
it works just exactly like plywood," Mr. Haddock says.
Building a foam house is like erecting a giant puzzle. The panels
- which can be as tall as 3½ meters -- are numbered, because they
have to be put up in the right order. They're hoisted into place and
connected using special fasteners.
Mr. Haddock says that's one of the panels' advantages over
plywood. Unlike traditional "stick built structures" that have a row
of nails every 1/2 meter, foam houses only have fasteners every 1 ¼
meters at the top and bottom.
Furthermore, it only takes about a week to erect the outer wall
of a foam house. A standard construction of wood and drywall could
take at least twice as long.
Architect Ed Bondurant works with Mr. Haddock and has built a
foam house for himself. It looks like any other on the street --
it's painted blue, and has large windows under a long, slanted roof.
The inside is stunning … with high ceilings, a modern kitchen and
hardwood floors, laid on top of 20-centimeter thick ThermaSave
Anything exposed to the elements at all -- be it floor, roof or
wall -- was constructed using the Styrofoam panels. That takes
advantage of their insulating qualities, Mr. Bondurant explains,
because foam tends to store heat, like during the day when the sun's
shining, on it and then that would give you heat during the night.
It stays about the same temperature in here all the time."
The panels are also sturdy enough to stand up to earthquakes,
which make them a good building material for places like Afghanistan
and Iraq. Hoot Haddock has seen it first-hand, in the first house he
built, in 1984. "It's in Alaska," he says, "where we have the most
earthquakes, we have more than in California, the highest winds in
the country and, of course, we've got the heaviest snow loads. It's
performing perfectly, there's no problems with it, and it's been
performing perfectly for 20 years." His daughter still lives in it.
There's now scientific proof to back up his claims. Earlier this
year, a two-story ThermaSave house underwent what's called a
"shake-table test" … basically, the structure was placed on a
platform and shaken the way it would be during an earthquake. It
passed with flying colors.
Rachel Jagoda, Project Manager for Housing Technology for the
Federation of American Scientists, says that makes foam houses a
natural for earthquake-prone regions, from the Andes to
Afghanistan. "In Afghanistan, what they have used for
thousands of years is adobe bricks to construct their homes. And
those are incredibly unsafe in earthquakes. But if you have a panel
home with some stucco coating it actually looks pretty close on the
outside and inside to an adobe home."
Once the security situation in Afghanistan is stable enough, the
Federation and ThermaSave will begin putting up new homes. Ms.
Jagoda says the FAS and Mr. Haddock are also talking with
development organizations about using the material for
reconstruction in Iraq but, again, they'll have to find a way to
overcome worries that a foam house will just fall apart.
The Federation of American Scientists thinks the technology could
go a long way toward solving the affordable housing crisis here in
the United States and is hoping to get more Americans interested in
building foam panel houses. So, with help from the U.S. Department
of Energy, it's building a model home in Houston -- with more
planned for the future if all goes well.