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Common Foam May Be Answer to Housing and Energy Crunches


The world is facing an energy crisis and the price for a barrel of oil has now reached an all-time high. A lot of research is being done to find new ways to save energy. We found a man in the southern U.S. state of Alabama who may have part of the answer; he's building houses made of Styrofoam and he says his houses can cut energy bills by 75 percent. VOA's Craig Fitzpatrick went to Alabama to look at these houses. Ted Landphair narrates his story.

This may look like an ordinary house in an average American neighborhood but it is really quite extraordinary - its outer shell is constructed with panels made from expanded polystyrene foam.

Most people know it by its brand name, Styrofoam. It's the Styrofoam in these panels that keeps Architect Ed Bondurant and his wife cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Ed specifically designed his house to take advantage of this new technology. “A lot of people refer to this as a Styrofoam house but really I think it more aptly should be called structural insulated panels. They are structural, they form the structure of the house, they are the insulation for the house and they come shipped to the site in panels that go together somewhat like an erector set.”

Everyone is familiar with the insulating properties of a disposable coffee cup - only 4 millimeters of Styrofoam protects a person from coffee that is over 80 degrees Celsius. Imagine the insulating properties of polystyrene foam 15 centimeters thick.

For years some of the world's top scientists have been looking for a building material that is inexpensive, lightweight and saves energy.

The search ended when Hoot Haddock, a high school graduate from Alabama, stepped forward with his foam panels.

Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, says that Hoot's sandwich of material is ingenious. “Well, the basic technology is extremely simple, this is expanded polystyrene, you have a 4 x 8 sheet of this stuff, it's a commercial product, widely available, and you simply glue a cement board on the inside and outside.”

On the day we caught up with him, Hoot was surveying a church that he built about five years ago, a structure with a ceiling 12 meters high. But he started much smaller, building a house for his daughter in Alaska in 1984. He says the environment in Alaska was a good laboratory for testing his panels. “Alaska has the highest winds, the most earthquakes, and the heaviest snow loads of anybody and the house is performing perfectly.”

To further test his panels and to meet government standards, Hoot built one of his houses on a seismic simulator, or "shake table", at a lab in Cincinnati, Ohio. This table reproduces the tremors found in earthquakes.

Describing the results, Haddock says, “A G-force of 4 is the hardest they've ever known a shake to be, and we shook ours past a 7, and we did it 5 times, and we didn't damage the house at all. We did break the machine that was shaking it though.”

But keeping his daughter warm in Alaska was the main reason Hoot invented these foam panels in the first place and the insulating properties are amazing. Along with lower energy bills, people can also downsize their air conditioning and heating units.

A 400 square meter library, for instance, would normally take an 8-ton air conditioning unit but one Hoot designed is keeping its occupants cool with a 2-ton unit. “That's a tremendous savings” says Haddock, “not only in buying the unit, but the utility bills savings also.”

Hoot claims those utility bill savings can be as much as 75 percent. And the panels themselves do not take much from the environment. The foam core is made from air and the waste products from petroleum. The skin of the panel is a mixture of cement and recycled newspapers.

Although Hoot Haddock and other manufacturers do cover some panels with wood, most of those wood skins are from disposable wood chips found at sawmills. People who live and work in Styrofoam buildings say they are quieter and the air quality seems better as well.

And Hoot has a few more reasons why homeowners should build with Styrofoam. “It eliminates termites, black mold, mildew, and it don't burn and it don't rot.” Could these houses actually save lives, especially in countries that are prone to hurricanes and earthquakes?

Hoot thinks so, and is working with scientists and governmental organizations to spread the word about the advantages of Styrofoam houses.

He has built houses in Mexico, Russia, Turkey and a half dozen other countries. If his present success continues, these houses could address the world's energy problems and go a long way toward providing safe housing for the world's poor.