Originally created 11/28/98

Retiree builds with foam



AIKEN -- While other retirees are driving their golf cars at Woodside Plantation subdivision in Aiken, Sam Thomas, 67, is maneuvering his backhoe.

Up and down a small hill he goes, as he builds his prototype house.

Mr. Thomas, a retired Army intelligence officer and engineer, is building his home out of concrete-filled polystyrene blocks -- basically the same material as Styrofoam coolers.

The blocks, Mr. Thomas said, are lightweight, energy efficient, sound absorbent and resistant to fire and wind damage. Foam blocks have been used to build homes for years in Florida and California but not in combination with standard wall construction, he said.

"The technique we're using is unique," he said.

Some builders in the area say they've never heard of such a block.

Ken Richards, vice president of Pierwood Construction, has.

From what he knows about them, he said, the blocks sound like good building materials because of their insulation value.

But Mr. Richards said he has never used them and isn't sure if he ever will. Pierwood builds homes and commercial buildings using mostly "old world" techniques, he said.

"I wouldn't rule it out," Mr. Richards said "But probably not."

Mr. Thomas' two-story, four-bedroom house is near the 7th hole at the Woodside Plantation golf course. When complete, the 5,700 square-foot house will look like most of the other homes in the subdivision, although constructing it is very different.

"I've never done this before," said Timothy Pree, one of the half-a-dozen men building the home. "It's a challenge. You just don't throw it up there."

In contrast to cement blocks, the hollow foam is extremely lightweight. Foam blocks can be cut with a knife or hand saw, and cost considerably less than concrete blocks, Mr. Thomas said.

Workers stack the foam blocks together and fill them with cement when the wall is up. The foam blocks are made by a Ohio-based company, Insulate Concrete Efficiently (ICE) Block Building Systems Inc.

By combining standard wall construction with foam blocks, Mr. Thomas' house will have something other homes built with foam blocks do not -- a basement.

That's because building codes prohibit the exclusive use of foam blocks in underground walls. But Mr. Thomas' selective use of the foam blocks allows him to meet code.

He plans to distribute the ICE Blocks and market his technique to other builders in Georgia and South Carolina.

"This thing could be a boon for building," he said.

Frank Witsil can be reached at (706) 823-3352.