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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 August, 2004, 07:31 GMT 08:31 UK
Polystyrene homes planned for Afghans
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

Many people in Afghanistan have lost everything, including their own houses, during the country's long decades of war.

Aftermath of 1998 quake in northern Afghanistan
Earthquakes in Afghanistan have cost many their homes
Rebuilding usually means putting up the same mud-brick structures used for centuries.

But those homes become death-traps during the frequent earthquakes that hit the area.

Now, some American scientists, engineers and architects think they have a better way to rebuild Afghanistan, using polystyrene.

Leading the project is the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

Affordable, strong homes

The organisation are particularly interested in finding new ways of making homes safer, and more efficient, especially for those across the globe who live in sub-standard housing.

"We got very interested in Afghanistan after seeing some of the devastation from earthquakes over there, and the fact that the US was about to rebuild a lot of housing over there," said Henry Kelly, FAS president.

Thermapanel house in the Dominican Republic
The materials have been used for homes in the Dominican Republic
"So, we put a team together to see what we could do to focus on that particular market."

The FAS set a challenge for the scientific community - design a house that is affordable, energy efficient, and earthquake-resistant.

That meant finding a cheap, lightweight material that could easily be adapted to the Afghan building style.

They found the answer in Florence, Alabama, in the shape of H H "Hoot" Haddock.

He has spent the last 20 years, and millions of his own dollars, developing a building system that uses polystyrene.

"The polystyrene foam that we use is just like the stuff you drink out of," said Mr Haddock.

Testing materials

Polystyrene foam is a great insulator. It keeps cool things cool, and hot things hot. And it is also resistant to moisture, mould and mildew.

Mr Haddock uses the foam to make insulated building panels, which he says can endure extreme conditions.

Pick-up truck on a panel
The panels can take the weight of a pick-up truck
"We built our first house in 1984," he said. "It was a 2,000 square foot house in Alaska, where we have the highest wind loads, the most earthquakes, and the heaviest snow loads.

"That house, I stayed in it the last two weeks, with my daughter. It's performing perfectly, no problems with it, and we do have buildings all over the world, pretty much, and it sounds like we may be going to a lot of other places."

The Federation of American Scientists wants to export Mr Haddock's method to Afghanistan.

The group is now conducting tests, including an earthquake simulation, to ensure that the foam housing is as safe as Mr Haddock says it is.

Rachel Jagoda, the Federation's Project Manager for Housing Technology, says one of the advantages to the Haddock idea is that polystyrene products are made all over the world.

"There's not somewhere in Afghanistan at the moment manufacturing them, simply because they've had such trouble with economic development since the 70s frankly," she said.

"But you can get them over in Pakistan."

In Afghanistan, the foam would be wrapped in a low-tech layer of chicken wire, then covered in a thin layer of concrete.

Living in polystyrene

The Federation of American Scientists contends that the foam houses are easy to put up.

It has asked architect Harry van Burick, of the US-based group Shelter for Life International, to design a two-room starter home for Afghans, using the foam panel system.

New Harmony House, designed by Roger Rasbach using SIPs. Courtesy Jane Owen
The New Harmony House in the US is seen as potential model
The organisation has been building houses in Afghanistan for 25 years and Mr van Burick can see the potential of the technology, though he admits selling the idea will take some work.

"That is the challenge," he said, "people have to accept it, that it's absolutely safe to live in a Styrofoam house, safer than in an adobe house.

"Let them feel it. Let them dance on it. Let them see that it is strong."

The project faces another challenge - the ongoing violence in Afghanistan which has disrupted the work of many non-governmental organisations.

The group Doctors without Borders pulled out of the country earlier this week.

Because of the unsettled situation in Afghanistan, the FAS is reluctant to set a specific start date for its project.

But the group hopes to build its first foam house in Kabul by the end of this year.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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