The archetype from the film 2001 that inspired this investigation into the mathematics of harmonious proportions is the monolith proportioned as the square of the first 3 integers or 1:4:9, “ 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 better space, and you can get more light into the building. Also, because a one-foot thick wall was needed thermally, ” it just happened that the proportions I needed were very similar to the ratio proportions of the monolith. So I thought there’s a good chance that the use of this ratio in its proportion works then I’ll possibly be able to achieve a very good ratio of materials to strength and performance at low cost. ” 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, at mcGill in sept 2001 Brad and several other researchers subjected the panel to 1,250,000 pounds of compression, and tested shear and bending forces, simulating earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as testing the load bearing capacity of the panel as a foundation wall floor and roof.
“It was electrifying,” says Brad, “ the work that went on during those eight weeks was slow, but during the last days, when all the results came in…and a few of us were simply awed by it.” In one loading test, they took it up to one thousand times what the building code requires for a one-story residential house. “You’re talking a phenomenal amount of strength.”
McGill U Assistant Professor Yixin Shao, who worked with Brad on the tests, says that they “achieved more than he expected. ” He really believes the material’s andapproach has significant potential, but that issues like 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 an efficiently integrated system where the skins are the stress structure. 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 layers to go into tension or compression. ” Additionally the panel edges re-utilize curvilinear form– in other words its edges are slightly rounded adding to its strength in much the same way as an egg or an aircraft fuselage gains from its curved structure.
“A conventional cement wall is naturally very strong compressively,” says Brad, “ but has no almost no bending strength and near zero insulating value.” Consequently bending strength is aided by adding steel reinforcement in the core and minimal insulation is added later. In general the concrete wall is much thicker and stronger in compression than it needs to be simply to make the system work in bending – often upwards of 8 inches thick of concrete. Cement is energy intensive and expensive to handle. It’s global production 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 15% of the annual greenhouse gasses output from human activities worldwide).
A Biobloc construction uses a fraction of the cement commonly used in a traditional cement foundation wall. For the same amount of cement “you would use to build a regular foundation for a conventional house, you could continue and build the entire house made of Biobloc’s. ”
Another advantage of the material is its energy efficiency. Insulating capability is measured on a scale of R thermal resistance value – the higher the R-value the better. The standard for modern energy efficiency, code compliant in R-2000 housing begins around R-30, but most conventional wood-frame housing falls short of R-20, in truth R6 is the wider average. A Biobloc with a one-foot thick EPS or recycled waste 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 building envelope. There’s a lot of cracks and settling. A Biobloc 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 Vailencourof at 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 Biobloc’s not use wood frames 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 allows for a greater architectural freedom, such as vaulted ceilings. But one could also replicate conventional architecture by not making use of the Biobloc’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 Biobloc 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 even at the early stage’s in the development they already were cost competitive to wood frame and significantly better in performance. In fact, he believes that once we begin to transform waste into a building material for less than we can bury it, waste will become a commodity
“On a broad 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 raw fibre needed for Biobloc’s 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, and most urban centres, are currently face high transportation costs to ship its garbage, often hundreds of kilometre’s 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 recyclables, fertilizers, fuels, and durable clean fibre – even if Brad’s cost estimates turn out to be overly optimistic – it still equals some pretty favourable economics.
The Biobloc is an idea has amounted to more than just theory. Nearly 20 years ago Louis Rompré a neighbour and friend inspired by Brad’s ideas initiated andincorporated Internatural, was formed with the intention of exploring the possibilities of Biocrete. Bob Plattsan engineer and consultant improved on the idea of making a “structural sandwich dry pack,” which Brad had initially named the Biobloc. They chose waste bark from lumber mills as their core material.
“When we found this stuff we knew it was perfect. ” explain’s Louis Rompré, “ 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 about 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, 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 Biobloc’s themselves were produced for between $5 to $6 each, making them very competitive to similar bales of commercial baled cellulose insulation. The company also highlighted construction and demolition waste and wooden palettes used to ship goods, particularly auto parts, as another promising source of waste wood that could be shredded and used to make Biobloc’s.
The company’s founders then went looking for capital investment and a larger pilot project. CMHC were particularly interested in exporting the technology to the Canadian north and developing nations where they saw the need for affordable housing was the greatest. Instead of relying on imported materials and labour from the far south, they argued that northern native communities could produce Biobloc’s 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 northern communities. 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.
Bob Platts’ likes to refer to the Biobloc 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 a fire would melt the Styrofoam and the structure would collapse before the fire department could even get there.
However significant and recent advances in the reinforced concrete structural system that completely entombs the foam and results in an inherently fire resistant assembly, the load bearing component is fire resistant even in the case of the core completely disintegrating due to excessive temperatures.
The key attribute is that the building itself does not contribute fuel to the fire and overall the level of safety exceeds the margins of conventional wood frame.
There are about 80 companies currently manufacturing SIP’s, serving North America and the Pacific Rim. According to the Structural Insulated Panel Association, ( HYPERLINK "http://www.sips.org/" http://www.sips.org/) 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 research focus initially was on the Biobloc guided by Bob Platts, 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.
Around 1998 Brad 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 from a garden centre.
Although he does not advocate using mined peat moss– 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 split from it in the decaying process… degradation , it’s already done most of what it’s going to do.”
Recycled EPS is principally used for the foundation, where moisture is of primary concern, 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, you can use organic materials for the above grade building envelope, the different core materials are dimensionally compatible.
Any type of conventional insulation can be used. In the case of the Carmannroad barn roof vault he chose lightweight fibreglass insulation as the core material. “Fibreglass is made from sand, We built a domed roof reinforced with rebar and coated with cement.
“It’s interesting to note, “that the cubic foot cost of all those materials is relatively much the same, based on today’s economics, about a 2-4 dollars 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.”
Brad’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. In respect to the rise of the high tech sector, material resources 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, the figures are near 100% when the built environment is considered as a singe entity.
Obviously, the forestry industry would be directly affected, however demand for the raw resource it provides would greatly increase in value and the industry would be vastly more sustainable. Its reasonable to assume every industry that puts material into the waste stream will be affected, there is hardly a human activity, in fact, that does not produce waste of some sort.
While the implications could be radical, says Brad, “ the simple technologies needed to produce the Biobloc are already well-established.” Peat moss balers, the waste-collection infrastructure and recycling techniques, would need little modification to adapt to a system of integrated waste management. Efforts at large-scale composting and deriving biofuels from waste have been underway for some years, particularly in Europe.
“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, fertilizers, hydrocarbons, recyclables and the significant proportion remaining is digested clean and durable fibre, a clean building material.
Compost fertilizers need to be competitive with agro-fertilizers and the source has to be free simply because of the cost of trucking 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 really no end market,” states Brad. “They can produce all kinds of this material, but they can’t find a market for it. ” the Biobloc 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 it’s testing was complete, Brad rented a truck and brought it here from Montreal. After painting it a monolithic black, a local artist, Pierre Lalonde, convinced Brad to let him paint a mandala on it instead.
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.
“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”