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Foam Home Advocates Tout Energy Efficiency, Strength, Fire Resistance

5 min read

Foam homes have their believers.

Now those believers are doing their best to convince others of the virtues of foam homes.

Jimmy Rapert, a former Fayetteville bar owner, formed Bailey Park Properties because he wanted to get into the construction business. When he thought about what kind of houses he wanted to build, he knew he wanted to do something that was different from what was already on the market.

“I wanted to focus on energy-efficient homes,” Rapert said.

What he found was expanded polystyrene. The technique uses the foam — EPS — in combination with a steel frame that advocates say make a home airtight, flame-resistant and termite-free.

“It’s the most energy-efficient home in the country,” said Ronnie Minnick of the Reata Foundation in Hot Springs.

Minnick’s group has built 14 EPS homes in the past two years, and Rapert’s will be the first constructed in northwest Arkansas. Rapert is finishing a 1,700-SF home on Wilkerson Road in Johnson.

The secret, foam home believers say, is that the compacted foam forms an airtight seal around the home while the steel frame provides structural strength. Minnick and Rapert said the house has a rating to stand up against winds as powerful as 170 miles per hour, much more than the 90-mph standard of stick-frame houses.

Because the interior of the foundation is steel and EPS, there is no danger of mold, termites or other problems that may plague traditional stick-framed houses. The airtight foam also can create dramatic savings on heating and cooling costs.

Rapert said the target buyers of EPS homes are those who are concerned about utility bills and the environment. Rapert said an EPS home costs less than $1 a day in heating and cooling.

“It’s unique,” Rapert said. “A lot of people assume it’s not strong. I think there’s going to be a niche market. The niche is for people downsizing or young couples.”

Costs vs. Benefits

This is the time to talk about how expensive the EPS houses can be. Clearly, a home built with manufactured steel and foam is going to cost more than one with a wooden frame.

Minnick, though, points out that tax credits for energy-efficient housing can offset some of the additional construction cost, and the savings from lower heating and cooling bills can quickly offset any upfront expenses. An EPS home can use a 2-ton heating and cooling unit for every 3,000 SF, while a traditional home requires 1 ton for every 500 SF.

Rapert said an EPS home is about 15 percent more expensive and he expects the 1,700-SF Johnson house to be listed for approximately $220,000. Minnick and an EPS manufacturer said the premium for a foam house can be from $5 to $10 more per SF.

“If I could build you the most energy-efficient house in the state, obviously that will cost more,” Minnick said. “It’s not cheap. At the end of the day, it’s a wash. It may be cheaper.”

Mark Harper, the vice president of sales for CFS Green Homes in Monticello, said Rapert’s home in Johnson is an important “first step.” CFS manufactures the steel-and-EPS panels that are assembled as the house’s frame.

The foam is produced by Drew Foam of Monticello.

The EPS panels have channels through them for the steel frame, which is affixed with “aircraft-grade” adhesives. The entire frame is then strapped every few feet to the concrete foundation with the straps running over and around the entire frame to make it much more structurally strong than wooden frames.

Harper said the first EPS house was built nine years ago without the steel support. That requires EPS panels approximately 16 inches thick and restricted the amount of design flexibility.

With steel framing, the EPS is 8 inches thick on the walls and 12 inches thick on the roof panels. Harper said proper bolting means there is no leakage through the foam, which never deteriorates.

“The house gets its strength from the steel, and the foam never loses its [energy-efficiency] rating,” Harper said. “We built a few houses early, but it was a constant learning process. Now we feel very comfortable bringing it to market. The steel really improved the product 100 percent.”

Homebuilders Wary

Harper said about 24 EPS homes have been built in the past two years as the company has concentrated on bringing the technique to market. There has been reluctance from homebuilders to use EPS instead of traditional stick-built frames.

“We did everything we could to contact builders to build this house,” Minnick said. “We got no takers. They want to do what they’ve done the last 100 years. Stick-built is cheap. It’s going to take the homeowner pushing the product.

“Builders just don’t have an interest. They want do what their dad did, what their granddaddy did.”

Rapert came aboard, but he is a novice. The EPS house on Wilkerson is the first house he has constructed, and the frame was erected by a Reata crew.

But it’s a start in that an independent builder is using EPS.

“Jimmy realized this is a difference-maker,” Minnick said. “It’s frustrating that you have something that is a needed product and no one knows about it.”

Rapert’s house on Wilkerson is up, a tall block of white and steel. Once the house is completed, though, it will look like any other traditional home sheathed in drywall on the inside and brick, wood or siding on the outside.

Rapert eventually wants to build a string of 800- to 1,200-SF homes in the EPS model. One advantage of the EPS house is the panels come in 60-pound units and then just require assembly according to the blueprint.

Harper joked, half seriously, that all you need to assemble the frame was one contractor and three gophers. Rapert said he and his two sons, Luke and Jonah, unloaded all the panels and the home was erected and “dried in” in a matter of days.

“It’s like Legos,” Rapert said. “We just put them together.”

Harper said the EPS is recyclable because there is technology that allows the foam panels to be broken down and reformed. Advocates also say if you set fire to the panels, they will melt but not hold a flame.

“You can’t burn this house down if you wanted to,” Minnick said.

Harper said EPS houses don’t have to be cookie-cutter boring, either. His company has about 30 pre-set blueprints on file but they can configure the panel outlay to custom floor plans.

Because of the material there are some limitations, Harper said, but the EPS model can be used on any “modern, simple” design choice. It takes his crew of two full-time workers and one part-timer about three weeks to configure panels for a house build, Harper said.

The quick build time on site is another bonus. Minnick said it took a crew a few days in winter weather to erect the house for Rapert in Johnson.

“We don’t need any heavy equipment,” Minnick said. “The system is an alternative to stick framing. This is going to make stick framing obsolete.”

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