|January 20, 2005
Home passes quake test
Dan Klepal Enquirer staff writer
Polystyrene has worldwide building potential
EASTGATE - The earthquake and home were fakes, but the shaking was very real.
A huge laboratory at Trentec - an engineering company that designs, fabricates, installs and tests special doors for nuclear containment airlocks at power plants - used its hydraulic earthquake simulator to test a new material that could be used in earthquake-proof homes in Afghanistan and other third-world countries.
The homes could be built in the United States, too.
Trentec has one of only three simulators large enough to handle the test for the Federation of American Scientists, which wants to find an affordable, energy efficient, durable and environmentally safe building material for earthquake-prone regions.
The simulator can shake objects as small as a valve going into a nuclear power plant, or as large as the 10-foot square, two story "house" in Wednesday's experiment. The test was meant to prove a material called polystyrene, similar to commercial Styrofoam, could withstand the pounding.
After four tests - the first equivalent to the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, and the last generating more energy than the world's largest known earthquake - the house was standing tall. The simulator shook the house with a force of 5 Gs (or five times the force of gravity) in three directions simultaneously.
"After 1 G, it's like throwing the house up in the air," said Garry Chapman, who ran the test for Trentec. "We were basically trying to make it fly, and it held together. That's good stuff."
The foam is glued under high pressure to concrete material, which replaces plasterboard both inside and outside. The homes can be put together with unskilled labor. In developed countries, they would look like any wood-framed home while being more energy efficient.
Hoot Haddock, 67, a home builder from Florence, Ala., has spent decades and millions of his own money refining a building system with polystyrene. He's built several homes with the material, and has received certification for his designs and materials from the International Code Council.
Haddock said his ideas about the use of foam haven't caught on in the mainstream, and he hopes the scientific backing provided by Wednesday's tests will help.
"There was no damage and we just simulated an earthquake beyond any in the history of the world," Haddock said. "So I'd say I'm quite happy. It's taken me 20 years to get to this point."
The polystyrene also meets other practical requirements of the federation:
It provides good insulation.
It's resistant to fire, wind, pests and moisture - along with earthquakes.
It's relatively cheap.
Rachel Jagoda, the federation's project manager for housing technology, said a model home made of the material will be constructed in Houston this summer.
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