Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | January 5, 2009

YOUR HOME IS GARBAGE

Bradley Robinson’s home is made out of maple saplings, duck tape and blue tarps, yet for the past ten years he has dedicated himself to self-funded research on a revolutionary new building material. His makeshift home stands in a pristine grove of trees somewhere in the rolling hills of the Gatineau Park, but the primary component of this new building material is something that’s at the heart of civilization: garbage.

He calls his home a “bender” – a design that’s been used by different peoples for millennia, made from bending young, flexible trees into the centre of a circle to form a dome, then covering it with whatever water resistant materials are available. The tarpaulins are a modern innovation. “If the Navajo had had duct tape, they would have used it,” jokes the soft-spoken Brad.

He calls the experimental building material “Bioblocks”. “It’s basically a reengineered straw-bale,” explains Brad. In conventional straw-bale construction, bales are stacked one on top of the other, then covered in layers of concrete. The Bioblocks employ the same concept, except instead of employing bales of straw, they use bales of waste fibre.

“Obviously you can’t just take straight garbage and bale it up and use it as a building material,” states Brad. “It has to go through processing.”

He envisions such processing to be composed of several different stages: first, the valuable glass and metal would be removed for recycling, as they already are; then plastics could be extracted and made into plastic wood – a highly structural material that could be used to reinforce buildings. That would leave organics from a variety of sources – not just solid household waste, but also waste from the agricultural, industrial and forestry sectors. It would be shredded and digested, using anaerobic bacteria, splitting off in the process volatile hydrocarbons that could be converted into bio-fuels like ethanol and methane for use in automobiles. The final step would be to remove the compost – to be used in organic farming. What would remain, says Brad, would be a “clean, sterile, inert material” that “looks a lot like peat moss. Upwards of 40% of the material that went in would come out as durable fibre…fibre that’s going to withstand the test of time.” It’s from this fibre that Brad believes he can make Bioblocks.

This summer the Bioblocks were subjected to the tests of building science, at the Department of Civil Engineering at McGill University. The study was funded by a shoestring grant from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Suddenly Brad, accustomed to life in the woods, had to spend eight weeks in downtown Montreal, building and testing the prototypes.

The basic concept of a “stress-skin assembly” – where two columns of rigid material are supported by a softer core sandwiched between them – can be adapted to any number of different materials. Brad says that he opted to use expanded polystyrene (EPS), a type of Styrofoam, as his core material for the trials at McGill, because “it’s a little easier to visualize as an appropriate building material, as opposed to organic material, which people often get confused with.” At 1 part resin to 50 parts air, it’s an excellent insulator (unlike fibreglass insulation, it’s airtight), and it’s endorsed by Greenpeace and the United Nations Environment Program because it’s recyclable and its manufacture creates no ozone-depleting gasses.

He then encased the EPS in one inch of concrete. But not before paying close attention to the size of the block he was creating. What he came up with, in fact, could more accurately be described as a panel.

“What you want to do,” explains Brad, “is use as little material as possible to achieve as much strength. Originally, I noticed a similarity with the panels to an archetype that’s used in the film, 2001. Then I read the book, by Arthur C. Clarke.” As he dug deeper, he found out about things like the Golden Mean, which is “a ratio of proportion that artists use to achieve proportion and developing a scale of proportion in painting. But I also found references to it being used in literature, music, architecture, and you see it in the natural world a lot. The natural world uses ratio and proportion to develop itself into highly complex structures. And ratio and proportion was used by (the architect) le Corbusier, who developed our modern module (which is a 4×8 foot panel).”

The archetype from the film 2001 that inspired this investigation into the mathematics of harmonious proportions is, as you may have guessed, the monolith. The monolith is proportioned 1:4:9, “and when it came down to working with these Styrofoam panels,” continues Brad, “it was advantageous to go to a nine foot height, because of ceiling heights. Traditionally, eight feet is used, but higher ceilings create much better space, and you can get more light into the building. (Also), because a one-foot thick wall was desirable, it just happened that the proportions I needed were very similar to the ratio proportions (of the monolith). So I just thought, well, there’s a good chance that if I use that ratio proportion I’ll be able to achieve a very good ratio of materials to strength.” He concedes: “It’s hard to evaluate. You’d have to do a lot of comparative testing to find out whether you’re getting that kind of optimization.”

But the tests that followed bore out the fortitude of his chosen proportions. Using a giant specialized press, Brad and several other researchers subjected the panel to thousands of pounds of compression, racking and bending force, simulating earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as testing the load bearing capacity of the panel as a wall or a floor.

“It was amazing,” says Brad, “Most of the work that went on during those eight weeks was slow, but during the last ten days, when all the results came in…we were awed by it.” In one loading test, they took it up to ten times what the building code requires for a one-story residential house. “You’re talking a phenomenal amount of strength.”

Assistant Professor Yixin Shao, who worked with Brad on the tests, says that they “achieved more than he expected”. He believes the material has good potential, but that on site quality control of the mixing of the concrete is key. Since one of the touted advantages of this kind of modular construction is that it require little building experience, Professor Shao says that they are currently working on putting together detailed concrete mixing guidelines for the layman.

But even with good quality concrete, how can EPS that is mostly air and an inch of cement support the weight of a house?

“The whole system works together,” answers Brad. “The cement would never perform up to what it does if it didn’t work as a system. Basically, you have a core material that stabilizes the skins. So instead of crimping like a sheet of paper would, the (core) causes the (outside) layer to go into tension.” The panel utilizes curvilinear form – in other words, its edges are slightly rounded, deriving its strength in much the same way as an egg or an aircraft fuselage from its curved structure.

And this strength was obtained without any reinforcement, such as rebar, which you would find in a traditional cement wall. “A conventional cement wall is very strong compressively,” says Brad, “but has no bending strength at all. They have to add a lot of bending strength by using…steel. (Consequentially), the wall is much thicker than it needs to be – upwards of 8 inches of cement. And cement is extremely expensive – the economic and ecological costs of producing cement are not negligible. Cement (production) actually accounts for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions.” According to the International Energy Agency, “the cement industry is a major emitter of CO2,” contributing 5% of the annual output from human activities worldwide.  

Bioblock construction uses about a quarter of the cement used in a traditional cement wall, claims Brad. For the amount of cement “you would use to build a regular foundation for a conventional house, you could build two complete houses (made of Bioblocks).”

Another advantage of the material is its energy efficiency. Insulating capability is measured on a scale of R (resistance) value – the higher the R-value the better. The standard for modern energy efficiency, sometimes referred to as R-2000 housing, begins around R-30, but most conventional wood-frame housing falls short of R-20. A Bioblock with a one-foot thick EPS or peat moss core, on the other hand, achieves an R-value of 40.

“To build energy-efficient housing (using conventional techniques) is, by and large, unaffordable,” says Brad. “The wood-frame becomes oversized and overbuilt simply to accommodate increasing amounts of insulation. And it also takes a lot of skilled labour. It’s a leaky material. There’s a lot of cracks and settling. (Bioblock) assembly is inherently tight, just the process of building it makes it a very tight envelope. You don’t have to have a lot of skill to do that, it’s a virtue of the material.”

Wood-frame housing has decades of tradition behind it in North America, but due to price volatility, increasingly high lumber prices, and what some see as the decreasing quality of lumber, some builders are beginning to look for alternatives. The increasing popularity of steel framing is one indication of this disenchantment with wood. The Metal Construction News reports a 5% increase in the market for residential steel framing per year for the past nine years. Mike Vailencour of Steeler Inc. says that, “It takes 63 recycled cars to make a steel frame house, but an acre of trees (to make a wood one).” And according to the Master Builder’s Association, panels such as SIP’s (Structural Insulated Panels), which are very similar to Brad’s expanded polystyrene panels, except they commonly use plywood skins instead of concrete, are enjoying the same increased popularity.

Not only do Bioblocks not use wood, but they also achieve an efficiency of materials by using “the insulation as the form to build the structure, as opposed to building the structure to hold the insulation.” It’s a paradigm shift akin to Marshal McLuhan’s famous statement: “The medium is the message.”

This new approach also makes for a very plastic medium, allowing greater architectural freedom, such as vaulted ceilings. But one could also replicate conventional architecture by not making use of the Bioblock’s potential. “You wouldn’t really notice the difference,” says Brad. “If you wanted to reach market acceptability, you could still out-compete existing wood-frame, producing almost identical structures.”

So Bioblock buildings are fast and easy to assemble, they are strong, have a high insulation value, and have minimal ecological impact. But what about the make-it-or-break-it consideration: are they economical?

Brad thinks they are. In fact, he believes that we could transform garbage into a building material cheaper than we can bury it.

“On average, it now costs about $200 a ton,” explains Brad, to sanitary landfill our waste. That figure does not include transportation costs incurred from the garbage collection system or transport to the landfill site, costs which would still be part of the picture if waste were being funnelled into housing instead. Brad believes that we could produce the fibre needed for Bioblocks for less than that $200 a ton figure. “That means that you could actually produce a building material that you could give away, and still make money based on what it costs to bury it.”

In the case of Toronto, which currently faces high transportation costs to ship its garbage hundreds of kilometres to landfill, turning waste into useful materials could be accomplished much closer to home, thus eliminating the need for transportation.

 Add to this the potential revenues from bi-products of the processing, such as compost and bio-fuels, and – even if Brad’s cost estimate turns out to be overly optimistic – it still equals some pretty favourable economics.

A lot of people think of garbage as a problem, but Bradley Robinson is determined to challenge that notion. He begins by asking the question: what is garbage? Ultimately, he concludes, “garbage is the place you live, the place you work, the car you drive, and your consumer goods.

“The solution is inherent in the problem.”

 

 

 

Bradley Robinson attended Canterbury High School, in Ottawa, when it was both a technical and an arts school. He focussed on the technical classes, but, he grins, “the arts corrupted me.”

While most associate Ottawa with government and, more recently, the high tech sector, it also has a reputation as a world leader in building science. After graduation, Brad took advantage of this fact by learning the art and science of building from experts while on the job. Eventually, concerned about the increasingly “precarious situation” he saw the world sliding into ecologically, he gravitated towards alternative building practices. “I felt I could be doing more,” he says.

He spent two years researching environmental building practices, at first being attracted to the idea of straw-bale housing. But encountering the limitations of straw – problems relating to rotting of the material and the inefficiency of transporting it from rural settings, where it is produced, to urban ones, where it is needed – prompted him to search for alternatives.

It was a genuine “eureka” moment when he first thought of using garbage to build houses – the product of a chance commingling of circumstances. He was working on the construction of a greenhouse at the time, and had been collecting the scrap wood and paper in a pile, not really knowing what he would do with it. He had also invested in a shredding machine, again for reasons that he couldn’t logically explain.

The final inspiration came from the news, which at that time was running a lot of stories about the problem of overflowing landfills. CBC Radio appealed to anyone who had any ideas about what to do with the excess of garbage.

Brad says he looked at the pile of scrap construction materials, looked at the shredder, and the idea clicked into place. The idea, at that stage, was to make what he called “Biocrete”, a mixture of shredded material and concrete, meant to reduce the amount of cement needed. It’s a similar concept, and perhaps inspired by, the adobe houses found in Mexico, the south-western U.S., and North Africa, which are made of clay-like soil mixed with straw.

At first he thought he was crazy. Then he thought of the people he respects, figures like Gandhi and Thoreau, and realized that they must have felt the same way at one point, yet they overcame their fears.

He had a harder time convincing others of the sanity of his concept, though. Dismissed by the establishment, he was forced to choose between paying for his research or paying rent. He chose the former.

That’s how, four years ago, he ended up living in Gatineau Park. But he’s far from bitter. In fact, he’s even grateful for the lack of support. “It forced me to be resourceful in the field of resource scarcity,” he says. In the process of having to live off of minimal means, he has had to rethink the whole purpose of shelter, conceptually rebuilding it from the ground up. The result has been, as he puts it, a marriage of “folk art with building science”. 

Brad also speaks of a metaphysical aspect to his home. He is reassured by the fact that people have been living in these hills, much in the manner he is, for some ten thousand years, and solace in his intimate relationship with nature. “When I lived in town,” he says, “I lived in the most abject poverty imaginable.” But in the forest, the same rules don’t apply – nature is as beautiful to the squatter as it is to the millionaire.

He has survived two winters in his uninsulated bender with a homemade woodstove and layers of warm duvets to crawl under at night. His only other possessions could be carried in one load: a guitar, some files, a change of clothes. His food comes mainly from a local restaurant, whose gardening and maintenance he takes care of. He admits that he misses the comforts of plumbing, electricity and heat offered by more permanent dwellings, but that he lives like this out of necessity. “Depravation gives you time to think,” he says, “but not to enjoy.”

“People are controlled by the socio-economic system,” he says. “They’re often so busy just making a living that they don’t have time to question things.” To a certain extent, he says, one has to step outside that system in order to affect any change. He did not run for the hills to escape from society, but rather to see it more clearly, and to do what he could to steer its fate away from potential collapse.  

He chooses to live in public space consciously, hoping that the solutions he comes up with will be shared collectively. Although he sees the potential for profit from his invention, he has no interest in “owning” the idea. “If I become proprietary,” he explains, “I stop learning.”

This summer, just as he was finishing his work at McGill, his bender was discovered by officers of the NCC, the government commission that oversees Gatineau Park. When confronted, Brad told them that he was living there to research building techniques. They did not believe him, but, after he had left, they took his files back to their headquarters for perusal. They were later returned.

Brad was delighted that they took the files. He hopes that the officers now have a better idea of what he is trying to accomplish. The experience did not deter him from living in the Park, however. Of the options available to him, he decided that defying the NCC was still the best one. He moved to a different location in Gatineau Park.

 

 

The Bioblock idea has amounted to more than just theory. Nearly ten years ago Bradley incorporated a company with Bob Platts, an engineer and consultant, and Louis Rompré, a neighbour and friend inspired by Brad’s ideas. Internatural, as they called their enterprise, was originally formed with the intention of exploring the possibilities of Biocrete. Then Bob Platts came up with the idea of making a “structural sandwich drypack”, which Brad later named the Bioblock. They chose waste bark from lumber mills as their core material.

“We looked all around,” says Louis Rompré, “but when we found this stuff we knew it was perfect.” It comes pre-shredded and only needs to be dried before it can be packed tightly into bales and used for building. Lumber mills are burdened with towering piles of this stripped bark, which must be kept hosed down to prevent spontaneous combustion until it is trucked off to a dumping site. Internatural offered to take it off their hands.

The next challenge was to develop a way of baling this material. They designed and built a machine that operates on the same principle as a cigarette machine: the shredded bark is stuffed down into a sleeve of plastic mesh using a hydraulic press. The mesh holds the material together, producing a bale of manageable dimensions – 2 feet long by 16 inches high by 1 foot thick – that can then be stacked to form a wall and surfaced with cement.

They got the chance to put their concept into practice when a neighbour commissioned them to build a one-story structure to be used as a small-scale honey-processing plant. The results of that proved positive, and in 1996, armed with a grant from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), they did “proof of concept” testing, assessing the same structural parameters that Brad later would with his EPS-cored blocks at McGill. The findings were equally encouraging.

The Bioblocks themselves were produced for between $5 to $6 each, making them very competitive. The company also highlighted wooden palettes used to ship goods, particularly auto parts, as another promising source of waste wood that could be shredded and used to make Bioblocks.  

The company’s founders then went looking for capital investment and a larger pilot project. They were particularly interested in exporting the technology to developing nations, where they saw the need for affordable housing was the greatest. In a way, says Louis, they had “borrowed the idea of adobe housing from the south, and now we wanted to give it back in this updated form.” But they also looked north for a possible market. Instead of relying on imported materials and labour from the south, they argued, northern native communities could produce Bioblocks from more local sources, and ease unemployment by using local labour. The high insulation value of the blocks also made it a perfect fit for the north. After brokering a partnership between CMHC and Makivik Corporation – the body charged with administrating the billions of dollars received by the Inuit in compensation for their lands being flooded by the James Bay hydroelectric project – they were on the verge of getting their long-awaited pilot project when it fell through at the last minute.

Since then Internatural has looked for investment from companies involved in waste management, plastics, and forestry, as well as agencies like the Suzuki Foundation and CIDA, but so far with no success. When I talk to him, Louis Rompré is visibly frustrated, but remains committed to the solidity of the Bioblock concept. “Maybe it’s too good an idea,” he offers.

Bob Platts also thinks it’s a good idea, but more so for the developing world than for North America. “Wood-frame is hard to beat,” he says, in North America, because of the relative abundance of timber. In many developing countries, on the other hand, there is less wood but “all kinds of fibre” from various grasses and other native plants. Although he is currently applying for a patent for the Bioblock, he has “no idea how it can make a lot of money.” He likens the Bioblock technology to a saline solution in its simplicity: a “plain and simple saline solution can save the day” for millions of children suffering from diarrhea around the world, but drug companies would rather push more expensive medications. The unfortunate reality of the marketplace is that the low cost of Bioblocks may similarly translate into a low financial incentive to promote it as a building material.

Bob Platts likes to refer to the Bioblock as a “vertical landfill”. He concedes that it could beat wood-frame construction for cost if the manufacturing of the blocks were mechanized, cutting down the time it takes to produce a block from several minutes to several seconds.

As for Brad’s efforts with EPS as a core material, Bob Platts says that in many ways the material “is ideal, but it has one tragic Achilles heal: your fire safety is down to minutes.” The danger is that if a fire ever got inside the wall, the Styrofoam would melt and the structure would collapse before the fire department could even get there.

Yet there are about 80 companies currently manufacturing SIP’s, serving North America and the Pacific Rim. According to the Structural Insulated Panel Association, an organization devoted to promoting SIP’s, fire performance is not a major obstacle. Fire safety regulations have been met by protecting the SIP’s with Gypsum Wall Board. Buildings made of Styrofoam have been in use in the arctic since the 1950’s.

While the Bioblock was Bob Platt’s concept, he credits Bradley’s early, “mucking about with waste – and I use that term with reverence – ” as the inspiration to begin thinking of garbage as a building material. He says that Brad has served as an inspiration and catalyst for many people along the way.       

Brad is definitely an ideas man. He was too interested in the overall picture to remain committed to the nitty-gritty of seeing Internatural’s idea through to commercial production, and although he remains with the company on paper, he drifted away from it and its birth struggles as his ideas continued to develop. This characteristic is not a weakness if it is recognized, and Brad seems to, concentrating instead on what he is good at: innovation. He is content to think up ideas, test them, and then leave them for others to develop into viable businesses. 

Last year, he was commissioned to build a new barn for the Carmen Trails Youth Hostel, about 20 minutes drive north of Ottawa. Wanting to employ new ideas about using digested fibre as a core material, but lacking the equipment to make it himself, he bought pre-made bales of peat moss instead.

Although he does not advocate using mined peat moss habitually – as it’s a relatively non-renewable resource – it does have the advantage of being very similar to the end product of the process that could turn garbage into a building material. “Peat moss is quite stable,” explains Brad, “it’s already been biodegraded from raw organic material, all the hydrocarbons have basically migrated from it in the decaying process…if there’s some moisture migration into it, it’s already done most of what it’s going to do.”

Just in case any moisture did in time work its way through the cement walls to cause decomposition of the interior core, he used EPS for the foundation, where moisture is of primary concern. “Obviously,” begins Brad, “you can’t use organic materials, even if you’re using something as stable as peat moss, for sub-grade or any area where the moisture gradient is occurring, which is the foundation upwards of two feet off the ground, more or less.”

For the roof, Brad chose lightweight fibreglass insulation as the core material for the Bioblocks. “Fibreglass is made from sand,” states Brad, “but it can also be made from waste.” He made a domed roof, and reinforced it tensilely with rebar.

“It’s interesting to note,” continues Brad, “that the cubic foot cost of all those materials is relatively the same, based on today’s economics, which is about a dollar per cubic foot.” If this is any indication of the cost of turning waste into similar building materials, it could, he believes, translate into substantial savings for the homebuilder. “If you take what you save on the building envelope and invest that in the finish quality, then you’ve got a competitive edge.”

 

 

On July 11th, 2000, a garbage heap outside Manila collapsed, killing 218 people and leaving a further 300 missing under tons of rotting garbage. The victims of this disaster lived in houses made from scrap pieces of tin, cardboard and other materials, erected next to the dump. Without, I hope, diminishing the tragedy of this event, a more potent metaphor for how the two problems of material waste – in the form of garbage – and material deficiency – in the form of a shantytown – can collide could not be asked for.

The UNDP estimates that “100 million people worldwide are homeless,” and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements puts the number of people living in “inadequate” housing conditions in urban areas alone at 1.1 billion. 

Concurrently, U.S. households throw out some 210 million tons of garbage, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to William Rathje and Cullen Murphy’s classic bestseller, Rubbish, 98% of garbage comes from other sources, such as manufacturing, mining, and agriculture, adding up to a colossal 12 billion tons that in some sense get discarded every year, in the U.S. alone.

While such numbers are hard to contemplate, it is clear that if only a fraction of that tidal wave of waste could be channelled into an affordable, high-quality building material, each problem could be the other’s solution.        

Bradley’s concept goes well beyond what we make our houses out of. The implications of a shift to a much greater utilization of waste could reach into many sectors of the economy. Despite the rise of the high tech sector, Brad says, “materials (still) drive our economies. Our built environments consume the majority of our financial and material resources. Housing is the leading GNP indicator.” According to the World Watch Institute, the U.S. based group that publishes the yearly State of the World reports, 40% of the world’s energy and materials are used by buildings, and 55% of the wood cut for non-fuel purposes is for construction.

Obviously, the forestry industry would be directly affected, with less demand for the raw resource it provides. But so would every industry that puts material into the waste stream. There is hardly a human activity, in fact, that does not produce garbage of some sort.

“To analyse the implication side would take quite a bit of…” Brad pauses. “It would take some organization to make sense of it.”

While the implications could be radical, says Brad, “the technologies to produce (Bioblocks) are already well-established.” Peat moss balers, the waste-collection infrastructure, and recycling techniques, for example, would need little modification to adapt to a system of integrated waste management. Efforts at large-scale composting have been underway for some years, particularly in Europe. And while ethanol produced from grain is gaining popularity as an alternative automobile fuel in the Midwest of the United States, an Ottawa company, Iogen, plans to take that idea one step further and begin producing ethanol derived from waste straw next year.

“It’s not that the parts aren’t there, because they are,” asserts Brad. “The trick now is to get all of these parts to start to work together, so that you have economies of scale and bi-products coming out of it, like compost. Compost, to be competitive with agro-fertilizers, has to be free, because of the cost of trucking it and applying it.”

In an integrated waste management picture, compost could be practically free, because it would be a bi-product of moneymaking materials like bio-fuels and the durable fibre that could be made into Bio-Blocks.

Recycling is a similar story. “One of the big recycling problems is there’s no end market,” states Brad. “They can produce all kinds of this material, but they can’t find a market for it.” Bioblocks could provide the missing connection that closes the loop between supply and demand.

 

 

In a field behind the village of Wakefield, Quebec, 30 minutes drive north of Ottawa, in the year 2001, stands the monolith. After its testing was complete, Brad rented a truck and brought it here from Montreal. After painting it a monolithic black, a local artist convinced Brad to let him paint a mandala on it instead. It stands, appropriately enough, beside the town’s recycling bins. The bins are overflowing, as usual.

Brad is not sure what his next step will be, but says he is considering writing about his ideas. “There are no ultimate solutions,” he continues. “At the end of the story 2001 the astronaut is stranded with dwindling resources millions of miles from home. He can’t go back. He can only go forward – into the mystery of the monolith.”

 

“How obvious – how necessary – was that mathematical ratio of its sides, the quadratic sequence 1:4:9! And how naïve to have imagined that the series ended at this point, in only three dimensions!”

                 – ARTHUR C. CLARKE, “2001: A Space Odyssey” 

 

Copywrite Sean Butler 2002

A shortened version was published in the Ottawa Citizen, Citizen’s Weekly, March 17, 2002, as “Trashing the House”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. Steel SIP construction should be considered for a good alternative building system
    http://www.southernsips.com


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