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From cuppa joe to concrete arch

John HartMark Keller, construction worker for owner/builder Jim Miller, uses a $40 electric saw to cut the insulated block Tuesday.
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A bunch of old coffee cups could help keep Jim Miller’s house fire safe.

Miller, a Nevada County contractor since 1980, is building a house using blocks that are 85 percent recycled polystyrene, a common ingredient in styrofoam coffee cups. The remaining 15 percent is concrete and water, two fireproof materials that might make it easier to go to sleep in a house on a steep hill above a campground on the banks of the Bear River.

“There’s zero flame speed, which is important if you’re above a campground,” said Steve Markham, who owns Tech Block of Northern California in Marysville, which manufactures the blocks Miller’s using.



The blocks, a patented use by Phoenix-based Tech Blockr International, are stacked over rebar and filled with a concrete mixture, making the house meet seismic grade four, Markham said. San Francisco is in a seismic zone four.

The polystyrene and concrete material is sandwiched between boards of “oriented strand board,” a material similar to plywood made from waterproof wood strands arranged in cross-oriented layers, according to the Web site of the American Plywood Association – the Engineered Wood Association.




“We always encourage the use of OSB for innovative products,” said Jack Merry, director of industry communications for APA. “There are lots of innovation in terms of products that are cheaper, better, faster, as the marketplace looks for ways to become more efficient, look for product manufactured that’ll do the job better.”

For a first-time observer of Tech Blocks in use, it’s unnerving to see a construction worker pick up a chain saw to cut what appears to be a concrete block.

But the mostly polystyrene material cuts so that “blocks may be lovingly shaped,” Markham said. For Miller’s house, channels are cut in the blocks so that concrete may be poured through them.

Soundproofing and impermeability to termites are other practical advantages to using Tech Blocks, but “where this product shines is in arches,” Miller said. Miller likes the block’s flexibility for design purposes: A huge feature of his new house is a front wall curved on an 18-foot radius.

Markham, whose background is in construction, noticed the use of Tech Blocks in Arizona where the material is prized for its insulation value of R-35. (R-19 is standard)

“I wanted to do something different,” he said. He and Bill Checkvala opened the Northern California franchise in 2001 and are slated to give a presentation about building with Tech Blocks to the El Dorado County building department next week.

Miller’s house is one of only two in the area using Tech Blocks – the other one is in Newcastle in Placer County – but Checkvala and Markham think the construction type common in Arizona and New Mexico will become popular here as well.

The cost of building with Tech Blocks is four to seven percent more than using conventional materials, Checkvala said.


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