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Building a house with Styrofoam

SUSTAINABLE LIVING
by: Eric Norberg, the walls of his forthcoming new home will be made, with a test coating of the concrete stucco finish with which the exterior will be coated.

Attorney Bill Meyer and his wife Carole are building a new home in the Reed neighborhood, and for a key building material they chose….Styrofoam!

This type of foam plastic has often been viewed as an ecological disaster; when discarded in dumps, it may take centuries to degrade. Some years ago, the City of Portland chose to ban Styrofoam cups and fast-food serving trays for this reason.

But the very qualities which make Styrofoam undesirable in trash turns out to help make it a very 'green' choice as a building material. The Meyers chose Sylvan Construction of Beaverton to construct the house and the retaining wall behind it, and Alan Naylor, Vice President of the firm, explained what the lightweight plastic offers.

'It's really energy efficient. Using this material in the walls, you cut the cost of heating and cooling in half.'

That is not to say the walls will simply be glorified packing material! The specific product being used is composed of two construction-grade Styrofoam panels, held apart by rigid plastic bracing, which serve as a mold for a poured concrete wall. The concrete provides the rigidity, but the Styrofoam panels remain in place, to be surfaced or covered in the finishing of the structure. In Meyers' case, the exterior wall will be covered in a concrete stucco material, and the house will have a conventional drywall interior finish.

'Built this way, the house will not burn,' explained Naylor, 'and the Meyers will get a discount on their homeowners' insurance for that. It also will be really quiet inside; if you built this house near the airport, you wouldn't be bothered by the planes.

'And something else, though it wouldn't be such an issue high on the hillside here: It's waterproof! When Hurricane Katrina went through New Orleans a year ago, there was one neighborhood shown in the news where all the houses but one were gone, right down to the foundation. The one exception was still standing and only had some roof damage. That was a house built this way.'

Meyer added that the new concrete retaining wall being built at the back of the property, which overlooks the lake at Reed College, was being poured into the same forms, and some Styrofoam would be used in the fill behind the retaining wall, to minimize the load on the ground underneath--which itself turned out to be fill, full of huge chunks of concrete, dumped there 60 years or more ago from construction on S.E. 82nd Avenue. So in addition to the innovative building materials, his back yard turns out to have been recycled as well!

A professional engineer employed by homeowner Meyer was on hand to monitor all concrete pouring, to ensure that the concrete met the necessary standards for strength and durability. Drainage for the property was built into the new retaining wall to assure dry and stable soil under the home and yard. With the retaining wall completed, work will begin on the house.

The property is located on the west side of S.E. 38th between Ellis and Harold Streets.