PLASTIC HOUSES:
CAN THEY BE ENVIRONMENTALLY GREEN?


Al Fritsch, SJ & Consultants


There is nothing ecological about plastic houses! They use large amounts of non-renewable resources and energy to produce. Their permanence is questionable; they are expensive; and they burden segments of society who can least afford it with debt rather than affordable and appropriate housing which can often be built and maintained by residents themselves.

In Eastern Kentucky so-called "Ecological Plastic Homes" are now being built as permanent low-cost housing for the poor, yet these houses are neither low-cost nor ecologically sound and their permanence is in question. The basic building material is a high-tech corrugated board made of polyethylene or polypropylene virgin plastic, supplied by Eagle Plastics Systems of Pompano Beach, Florida and its holding company Eagle Capital Management. The company's principal clients are missionary groups trying to supply temporary housing for the Third World homeless and disaster victims. Using this source of materials the Appalachian Development Corporation, a group associated with the Christian Appalachian Project, has begun fabricating plastic four by eight-foot panels that are supported by sheet metal studs and fashioned into structures considered permanent for Appalachian people.

ASPI does not fault the efforts at supplying Third World people with temporary housing. Even such houses which have limited lifetimes and are made from non-renewable petroleum products are satisfactory in such emergency cases. Modifying this technique and adapting these materials for use as permanent housing in our country is a different matter altogether. After considering available data, ASPI comes to the following conclusions:

  • Myth: The Appalachian Plastic House is Ecological.

    ASPI is convinced that housing needs are best met using native renewable materials such as wood, e.g., cordwood (see ASPI Technical Paper 5), stone, clay, pressed earth (TP 37), or a variety of low-cost wood and mixed materials (TP 8). We recommend products that are environmentally friendly, low-cost, easy to handle on the part of builders, and have no environmental safety or health hazards associated with "Sick Building Syndrome."

    ASPI subscribes to the fifth criterion of the "Hierarchy of Life-cycle Stages" for sound building which is found in the January, 1997 issue of Environmental Building News. The fifth criterion stated that "if the manufacture of a building material is very energy-intensive compared to the alternatives, it should be minimized." The examples given for such building materials are aluminum and plastic. The article adds that with energy intensive products the total energy consumed over the life of the structure is not of as much concern as the pollution generated and the energy consumed in its manufacture. This is especially true of short-lived structures.

  • Myth: The Appalachian Plastic House uses Recycled Plastic.

    The literature for Eagle Plastics Systems states that the plastic is not recycled but recyclable - something that is not of prime importance, if the housing is truly permanent. Indeed, most building materials are recyclable.

    The ASPI staff talked with Eagle Plastic Systems's chief officer after hearing that recycled plastics were being used in the Appalachian houses. It was found that the company is not using recycled plastic, but they are researching ways to move in that direction. The company is working with University of Florida and Eastman Kodak researchers on an additive that allows a wide variety of recycled plastics to be used, but the process has not yet been fully tested.

    In all fairness ASPI has endorsed (in one of our "Earth Healing" television programs) the use of recycled plastic timber from a single plastic type for use in exterior decking and lawn furniture. However, using plastic from many sources in an enclosed space may permit volatile substances already in plastic materials to leach over time into the heated interiors contaminating the air. Sources will be difficult to trace for people suffering from ailments due to certain chemicals such as formaldehyde.

  • Myth: The Appalachian Plastic House is low-cost.

    For a housing type to be truly "low-cost" it needs to have both a long-term history of use and low-maintenance costs. Unfortunately, there is no history with the Appalachian Plastic House, and the present program requires the poor to field test these houses. Figures given at a citizens meeting in Prestonsburg in early March indicated that an Appalachian Plastic House would cost between $23,000 and $24,000. The project's director later told ASPI that this figure applies to the smaller house (approximately 640 square feet), and the larger 800 square foot house would cost about $29,000. These figures do not include the cost of land acquisition and development including grading, water well system, and septic system. ASPI estimates that the total cost would be closer to $50/square foot, a much higher figure than for new or used mobile homes and higher than our own recommended houses. Like mobile homes, these plastic houses may depreciate rapidly, leaving people with little left after a relatively severe mortgage payment period.


  • ASPI cannot call this an ecological, safe, or a low-cost type of house. It is questionable whether these buildings will be any better than mobile homes with regard to durability, home renovation and improvement, or energy efficiency. Granted, one advantage is the use of local labor for fabrication and assembly. However, the same labor could be used to build equally acceptable and more highly ecological cordwood houses or other types of buildings which utilize native materials.