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Sustainable Business Oregon: Oregon company to build paper houses in Haiti and beyond
Author: By Lee van der Voo
Posted: June 30, 2010

Portland-based Pacific Green Innovations is set to build up to 10,000 homes in earthquake-ravaged Haiti - out of paper.

The business was created in October 2009 to help bring a German-made product, known as a SwissCell, to the United States. The SwissCell is a building panel made from 100 percent recycled paper and coated in a tough, recyclable resin that makes it both fire and waterproof.

According to Charles Fox, a partner in Pacific Green Innovations with Ted Meyer, the honeycomb panels are lighter than Styrofoam with the strength of concrete. They fit together with a tongue-and-groove technique and are glued in place. Four or five people can assemble the panels into a house in one day.

Marketed abroad by German company CONSIDO AG, Fox said SwissCells were once used for constructing movie sets until their inventor became interested in home construction on a trip to Africa.

Pacific Green Innovations spied opportunities in green construction for the United States and began lining up private investors and working to get SwissCells approved through federal building regulations here.

The company is forming CONSIDO US to market SwissCells in America. Meanwhile the panels are being tested for toxicity, fire and moisture resistance, strength, bending, seismic and other properties at Portland State University. Further tests for hurricane resistance are planned in Florida.

After the testing began, Fox said, "the earthquake hit in Haiti and we realized there was something we could do with the product immediately that could make a lasting impression."

Fox has since traveled to Haiti, worked with the Clinton Foundation, numerous charities, and the Haitian government to set about building homes.

In 10 weeks, Pacific Green Innovations will build their first 1,000 homes in Haiti, with the prospect of building 10,000 homes over 12 months. Fox said the company would build 20 homes a day by manufacturing the panels on site with machines that can produce enough panels for 20 homes a day. Local labor will be used to assemble the homes, up to 5,600 workers. Fox said materials like windows and doors would be acquired from Haitian suppliers.

Of the $9 million price tag for the homes, PGI is absorbing $2.5 million of the cost with the rest coming via the Clinton Foundation and other Haiti donors.

"After being there and seeing things and talking to people - that doesn't even scratch what's needed," said Fox. After a recent visit to Haiti, nearly six months after the earthquake, he said: "You would be hard pressed to know it didn't happen yesterday."

To spread awareness about both SwissCells and the continued need for housing in Haiti, a demonstration project took place on the Portland State University campus June 7, where a U-Haul truck brought 60 panels and a map for building a roughly 700-square-foot home.

About 20 architecture students used the materials to build a house in just more than a day. It now sits in front of Shattuck Hall, home of the university's Department of Architecture in the Southwest Park blocks in Portland, as a museum about the product and its involvement in the Haitian effort.

Fox said SwissCells can build more elaborate construction than the simple houses planned for Haiti, but plans call for the homes to fit with local architecture and culture.

He said SwissCells curve easily and are suitable for mosques and dome roofs. Thicker panels can be made and used in multi-story construction. The panels can also be coated in finishing materials, like granite or glass.

So far, bureaucracy appears to be the biggest challenge in bringing SwissCells to the United States.

"Even when you get it through on the federal level, when you take it to the micro level, say I want to build in Clackamas County, what is Clackamas County going to accept?" Fox said.

"It's probably going to be best in a place like Haiti in the beginning," he said. "As we get farther along in the development of the  product, changes can be made that will better suit people's desires."