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Styrofoam homes built in a flash

Utahns shipping kits to Pakistan, China for displaced people

Published: Thursday, Aug. 6 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Nick Haslem, left, and Lance Shotwell put finishing touches on a 361-square-foot house of metal and Styrofoam that was put up in less than an hour Wednesday in Draper.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

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DRAPER — When Ryan Christensen was in the U.S. Navy, he saw thousands of Indonesians living in homes made of cardboard and tin. When he got home he decided to do something about it.

Christensen and his co-founder of Tote International, Jim Haslem, are shipping thousands of homes to Third World countries in hopes of giving quality, affordable housing. Together with Haslem's son, Nick Haslem, they developed a 361-square-foot house made entirely out of metal and petroleum-based Styrofoam that can be built in under an hour, costs $12,000 — and can withstand up to a magnitude 8 earthquake, a category 5 hurricane or a 10-foot snow load.

"It's a tough little box," Nick Haslem said, pointing to the house he and two co-workers had almost erected in only an hour. The three of them jumped up and down on top of the foam roof to prove its durability. The sturdy little house, thanks to its foam walls, is also almost completely soundproof and can be adequately heated with a single pilot light.

Tote International was founded nine years ago when the company built custom homes in St. George and Parowan using the foam technology. Those homes were much larger, Christensen said.

The group came up with the idea for the small homes after the tsunami disaster in Indonesia three years ago. They weren't, however, able to make a deal before different aid groups stepped in before them, Jim Haslem said. So now, the company is selling their houses to China and Pakistan.

The company sells the houses to the government at $12,000 apiece. It costs about $9,000 to manufacture each one, Christensen said.

Military conflict in Pakistan displaced about 600,000 people a few months ago, according to advocacy group Refugees International. Christensen and the Haslems are close to shipping 50,000 houses to shelter the refugees. They're also shipping 150,000 houses to the earthquake-devastated Sichuan province of China, where more than 10 million people were suddenly without a home.

They'll show the new homeowners how to build their residence on their own in 60 minutes or less. The impoverished communities will also learn how to take it all apart in the same amount of time, so they can take their whole house with them if they need to move — whether they're refugees or want to avoid a disaster.

"It's meant to be picked up and moved wherever they need them," Jim Haslem said.

But they're not stopping at humanitarian efforts — they're going to put displaced and impoverished communities back to work, and reduce the planet's waste.

Christensen pulled a lightweight, green slab out of his pocket. It was made entirely out of waste and rubber tires. He and Jim Haslem are in negotiations with a London-based company, ERT, to make equally if not more affordable walls out of recycled materials and waste instead of foam.

"It's called ecosheet," he said. Developing countries around the world have more waste or recyclable material than they know what to do with, he said. He and the Haslems can take it all off their hands at no cost and turn it into cheaper homes for those countries' homeless. It would even create construction jobs, Christensen said.

"It's all about helping others to help themselves," Nick Haslem said.

e-mail: mmcfall@desnews.com

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