A new company in Portland, Oregon is gearing up to manufacture large quantities of the latest product in the ICF (insulated concrete forms) world. BluBloc offers a twist on standard ICF products – it uses recycled styrofoam instead of manufacturing new for use in the forms.
BluBloc is 85% recycled polystyrene foam (styrofoam) and 15% cement. Like other ICF products, the “blocks” interlock to form the outside structure of a building. Cement is then poured inside the forms, creating a solid and interconnected structure. From there, interior and exterior treatments are added. ICF can be used in virtually any type or size of building, residential or commercial.
The advantages of ICF include increased insulation properties, soundproofing, and disaster, pest, and moisture resistance. One of the down sides has been than most products are made of new petroleum-based styrofoam. BluBloc takes post-consumer styrofoam, grinds it up, adds cement as a binder, and casts its forms from this material.
Michael Miner, CEO of BluBloc, estimates that more than 1,200 truckloads of polystyrene are hauled to Portland-area landfills each year (polystyrene is not recycled curbside or at the landfill). An average home constructed using BluBloc would use 2,500 pounds of the material, he said.
BluBloc has attracted the attention of some Portland architects who’ve used similar products. Portland architect Hilary Mackenzie, principal of Sundeleaf Mackenzie Architecture, said she has used other building materials similar to BluBloc. Homes built with polystyrene and cement blocks often are the only ones left standing in neighborhoods hit by a wildfire or hurricane, Mackenzie said.
A Portland multifamily project Mackenzie designed called the Graham Street Lofts was built using a similar product and the insulating polystyrene and cement walls block out most of the traffic noise from a busy thoroughfare.
Some architects may be intimidated that it’s different, Mackenzie said, but the building material appeals to her creativity. “I like that you can sculpt it,” she said. BluBloc can be cut using a chainsaw and shaped using a rasp, allowing for flexibility in shaping. “I like that you can stack it. It’s like building with blocks. There’s something very appealing to me about that.”
The fact that the polystyrene is reused makes BluBloc a better choice than other ICFs. But Jordan Palmeri, a science and policy analyst in the green building program for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, cautions that combining it with cement doesn’t make it an entirely sustainable building material. It takes a lot of energy and more carbon emissions to produce cement versus lumber used for wood construction, he said.
However BluBloc is more green than concrete-only construction, which would require even more energy to produce. “Recycling the polystyrene does significantly cut down on the (environmental) impact,” Palmeri said. “If this is replacing typical concrete construction, there could be a lot of benefits.”