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Foam sweet foam: Florida builder makes houses with plastic foam

A Wesley Chapel custom home-building company offers a Green Home model made of materials that improve its energy efficiency.
Christopher Mora looks over building plans while working alongside other workers with KHP Homes on erecting foam panels, an alternative, energy-efficient construction method, at the site of a future residence on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020 in Odessa.
Christopher Mora looks over building plans while working alongside other workers with KHP Homes on erecting foam panels, an alternative, energy-efficient construction method, at the site of a future residence on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020 in Odessa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 26, 2020

ODESSA — On a recent dewy morning, construction workers hoisted a towering white panel into an upright position by positioning two men on the ground and one, holding the top, in a cherry-picker.

The men are building a custom home, though its unusual materials make the sight less hammering-on-a-wood-frame, and more placing-cookies-for-a-gingerbread-house.

Sometimes, the panels squeak with the friction of the workers' hands, a familiar sound that most people know from opening well-cushioned packages, revealing its composition: plastic foam.

One worker in a cherry-picker helps place a foam and steel panel that will become part of the Odessa house's structure and insulation.
One worker in a cherry-picker helps place a foam and steel panel that will become part of the Odessa house's structure and insulation. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

While it’s not technically Styrofoam — which is a brand name — it’s a polystyrene foam just like it, six inches deep and sandwiched by steel plates painted white. The foam panels serve as both insulation and structure of the home, making it more energy efficient, according to the Wesley Chapel home-building company called KHP Homes.

“If you’ve been to a Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks you’ve basically got 120-degree hot coffee and 1/8th of an inch saves your hand from being burned,” said Falgoon Patel, sales and business manager for KHP Homes. “We’re wrapping the entire house in six inches of it.”

In addition to the foam panels, the homes are made with steel strips that support the roof and drywall. Patel said homeowners of this model of home are expected to save 50 to 70 percent on their electric bills.

KHP’s Green Home model, such as the Odessa house, also feature more efficient air conditioning and ventilation systems and because they have no wood, there’s no need to treat it with pesticides, Patel said. They also typically have extra-efficient appliances and solar panels.

Since the company was founded in 2009, it has built more than 20 Green Homes in the Tampa Bay area, Patel said.

After the team members cut a panel with a buzzsaw and stand it into place, they drill in bolts along the seam with its neighboring panel and where the base meets steel to secure it. Then they check the plans, spread out on a table on the concrete slab, to see the exact dimensions of the next one.

A construction worker secures the bottom of a foam and steel panel with bolts.
A construction worker secures the bottom of a foam and steel panel with bolts. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Mario Mora, one of the workers, said he enjoys building these houses because they’re a mental challenge.

“On these types of homes, we’ve got to think a lot,” he said.

The Odessa house will have four bedrooms and three and a half bathrooms and a metal roof designed to reflect even more heat. Patel said its contract price tag was about $938,000.

The owners, Kelsey Logan, 33, and Ty Jeske, 35, said they chose the design because they want to do what they can to reduce their environmental impact and be self-sufficient, including running on solar power if hurricanes knock out power lines. They have a newborn daughter, who they said has also granted them more perspective on the future effects of climate change.

“We have two hurricanes in the gulf for the first time in recorded history,” Jeske said. “Every decision we make has to consider the impact it will have to other human beings and the planet as a whole.”

An additional bonus to the green construction was also its construction methods, the couple added, since the foam and steel panels are manufactured in Oldsmar.

“That was another reason to go with it, so we aren’t ... burning diesel to move something halfway around the continent,” Jeske said. “They’re coming just around the corner.”

Ironically, polystyrene is not typically synonymous with being kind to the environment. In fact, at least one state, Maine, has passed a ban on foam packaging because the material is so hard to break down.

However, “a traditional home is not biodegradable,” Patel, of KHP Homes, said. “Styrofoam is recyclable and so is steel. Both can be melted down or reused or re-purposed in some manner.”

And how would one of these homes hold up in a hurricane?

Patel said they’re “extremely effective” in high winds, because the foam and steel panels are designed to sway and flex but not snap. In fact, he said, the idea was inspired by a Punta Gorda home with similar design that survived Hurricane Charley in 2004, a house that now has a featured article on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website. KHP Homes’ owner, Khamir Patel (no relation to Falgoon), came across that piece in the late 2000s and decided to try building them himself.

A close-up of a panel shows the polystyrene foam sandwiched in between steel. The unique construction materials make the homes more well-insulated and energy efficient, according to KHP Homes.
A close-up of a panel shows the polystyrene foam sandwiched in between steel. The unique construction materials make the homes more well-insulated and energy efficient, according to KHP Homes. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Uriel Serrano, who is a “cutman” on the Odessa site — which means he helps cut the foam panels into the correct shape, including windows — said it’s typical on these projects for passersby to stop, take pictures and ask questions, since it looks so unusual. He said the team appreciates having their handiwork admired.

“Even the home inspectors say, ‘I’ve never inspected a house like this before,’” he said.