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Styrofoam Homes? 

by Cara Gardner

Those Swiss, they really know how to make good quality stuff: army knives, cheese, chocolate, watches, Rastra. Not many Americans know about the latter, though that's changing. Rastra is building material made from 85 percent post-consumer polystyrene waste (i.e., Styrofoam cups and the like, which would normally end up in landfills) and 15 percent cement slurry. It's making waves not just for being a "green" building option for the ecologically concerned, but because it's superior to other building materials in a variety of ways. According to Rastra advocates, it's cheaper, easier, safer and more efficient than building with lumber.

"I spent 30 years in the Air Force and have been all over the world," says Al Bobst, taking a break from moving into his brand-new 2,300-square-foot Rastra home in the Spokane area. "This just makes sense. Not just ecologically but financially -- and also as an owner and builder." Bobst says he started investigating alternative construction materials when he decided to build his own home. He found Mike and Jim Hidy, local builders who work with Rastra. Bobst was sold on Rastra after adding up the benefits.

"I [planned] to build my own house and sub out the things I wasn't competent with. [Rastra] was like putting together big Lincoln logs. We used a two-man bucksaw they used over 200 years ago in Oregon -- that's how easy it is to cut the blocks. You don't need special tools."

With Rastra, you don't need air conditioning or as much heat, either. Rastra has proved a popular home-building material throughout the Southwest deserts because of its remarkable natural insulation, keeping a house cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather.

"You don't have to insulate on the inside or outside," Bobst explains, noting the cost-savings of not having put siding up. "I just have a stucco finish on the outside." Bobst also tallied up his energy savings for using Rastra: "I expect to save $1,200 to $1,800 a year."

Rastra doesn't support the growth of mold and won't harbor insects, either, so you'll never have to endure those mysterious smells or listen to scurrying behind the walls. In addition, Rastra is virtually fireproof, hurricane-proof and earthquake-proof.

"It's something like 100 times more fireproof [than lumber]," Bobst explains. "[Rastra] has a burn rating of 4.9 hours at 3,700 degrees. That's important for me living here."

The incredibly durable substance makes this kind of green architecture almost a no-brainer. And that's how Rastra is promoting itself: It's not just an alternative building material, but one that makes sense for a variety of building needs and a vast array of homeowners. Finally, Rastra costs just about $42 per square foot, as opposed to the increasingly expensive price of lumber.

Insulated Concrete Forms were originally developed in the late '60s, but weren't economical. A German company came up with the idea of using polystyrene beads and concrete, and by the early '70s, this technique was perfected by Austrian and Swiss engineers. The building material is now the product of the Rastra Company, based in Switzerland, with multiple overseas locations (including two here in the States). Rastra is used widely throughout Europe and China - and now in America. Rastra tends to look somewhat like adobe, but the material can be cut and worked in any way, so there's no limit to architecture style.

"I like it real well," Bobst says, obviously proud of his new home. "It's super, super quiet. I'm spending my first night in it tonight."

Publication date: 11/18/04

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