November 18, 2010
Sometimes, just considering the awe-inspiring properties of some of the new materials available on the market, offers an exhilarating exercise in beautiful possibilities! For the collective benefit of us all, brilliant engineers at the German company Consido AG have developed a non-toxic, extremely durable and light weight honeycomb panel made from cellulose and a recyclable resin. It goes by the name of SwissCell. The 4 x 8 fireproof and waterproof panels have a compressive strength of 200 tons per square meter (!), and can be machined with regular woodworking tools. The panels fit together using a feathering technique resembling traditional tongue and groove joinery, and are secured with glue. One single tree is enough to create enough panels to build a standard U.S. home. If insulated, the panels have an impressive R-value of 78 – double that of contemporary U.S. construction industry standards.
Pacific Green Innovations – a sustainable technology startup company based here in Portland, OR – is introducing SwissCell to the U.S. market. However, a trip to earthquake-ridden Haiti, triggered an idea in founder Charles Fox. Much of the destruction was caused by the collapsing of concrete homes that were stacked one on top of the other on the hillsides surrounding Port-au- Prince. Fox envisioned the use of SwissCell panels to help the island nation rebuild its devastated areas, and he wanted it done in Haiti, by Haitians. His vision grew into a collaborative effort with the Haitian government and backed by the William J. Clinton Foundation, with the goal of constructing up to 10,000 low-cost houses within a year, using approximately 6000 Haitian workers. A typical Haitian house will take four people four hours to erect and cost between $5-7,000. In this case, one tree will be enough to produce enough panels for three houses. Since the panels are made using a single machine, the import of a couple of those machines enables the Haitians to also manufacture the panels on site. One machine can make enough panels for twenty houses in one day. The houses are modeled after indigenous Haitian housing requirements. Most will incorporate electricity, and feature natural ventilation and airflow appropriate to the tropical climate. In addition, they will incorporate three bedrooms, as well as the ubiquitous porch, which is a vital part of social interactions in Haitian culture.
I wish PGI and its collaborators the best of luck with their noble endeavor, and I can’t wait to see future developments by Consido AG. Who knows, perhaps other, more fast growing plant fibers such as bamboo, hemp, sisal or abaca, etc., can be used as well, with similar results as that of wood pulp? If so, what are we waiting for? Such developments could mean countless opportunities for farmers of all nations and climates, provide excellent low-income housing solutions to needy, and employ scores of workers around the world. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.