Alternative Building technology Expanded Polystyrene Panel (EPS technology)

EPS panels are a form of walling and in some form, roofing. EPS is what many people call Styrofoam. Styrofoam is actually a brand name. Same thing how Americans call SUVs ‘a jeep’, or in Kenya you hear some go like ‘Ile colgate mpya ya red yenye inaitwa close up’ , or you can hear some ladies discussing ‘ile omo mpya ya aerial ni poa’ or how we call combis/vans ‘Nissan’ yet almost most of them are Toyotas.

EPS panels are like a sandwich where the meat at the centre is the ‘Styrofoam’ then the bread is a thin layer of reinforced concrete (The reinforced concrete consists of a steel mesh and a mixture of cement, sand, ballast). What one gets is an amazingly light, yet strong panel. These panels can hold tremendous weight (compression) and can handle other forces that subject It to tension very well- like earthquakes. These panels may be precast at a factory. This means the panels are moulded as per a design and all panels are manufactured at a factory. The panels are then transported to your plot and assembled on the ground. I have also experienced other sites that ‘naked’ panels are set up on site. By ‘naked’ I mean the panels only have the ‘Styrofoam’ in the middle and the steel mesh. Once the panels are placed on site and firmly held together, a concrete spraying machine blows wet concrete on the ‘naked’ panels for that ‘concrete’ look. There is a ‘private developer’ who has used this technology not too far from my place and he claims that that its cheaper to buy the ‘naked’ panels and you apply the concrete top layer ‘yourself’. We hope to verify his claims soon.

As we review the technology, kindly note we DO NOT sell EPS panels.

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  • When a design is done, EPS manufacturer’s custom make panels to fit the design. On site, all that happens is connecting the pieces like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle in a matter of days/few weeks. When well planned, there is a saving on construction timelines. One major reason is the ‘lightness’ of the panels. Have you ever tried to life ONE stone? Try it and see how you will strain your back and pick up ‘dawa ya kuumwa na mgongo’ at your local chemist, only for your wife to discover it. ‘Kwanini unaumwa na mgongo? Kwani ulikuwa unafanya nini strenuous na wewe unakaanga kwa kiti siku mzima kwa cashier ya Tumaini supermarket…bla bla… Basically, wheelbarrows will be less on site, panels are easier to carry, you can actually have some weak woosies build an EPS house. You don’t need to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger to be a casual on such a building site.
  • The construction sites are fairly quiet. There are no concrete mixers and stone dressers chipping away etc
  • If you may have a well manicured garden and you want to put up a structure without spoiling your grass, you may consider this technology. There is little disturbance to a site.
  • Ladies picture this, you have been eyeing a hot guy in your building then he asks you out. Picture how meticulously you will be eating. You will be slicing those steaks like a drawing from Leonardo Da Vinci, you will be chewing with a consistent and calculated cadence as you blink systematically to flash your fake eyebrows to confuse the dude. Walks in a two year old rascal at the dinner table with a bowl of rice, the whole place will be a mess. EPS construction sites can easily be as clean as your dinner table, whereas conventional construction is very messy like a two year old feeding themselves and clean-up costs are high.
  • If you are a treehugger it is good to note that to some degree panels are useable after the lifespan of the building is complete. I am just not sure whether it makes economic sense.
  • Have you ever showered with a strong soap, then you go to dress up only to remember your cute little rascal ‘cooked’ all your lotion in a sufuria the previous day and you forgot to buy a new one? So you diss that petroleum jelly at the back of the shelf and just go for breakfast. Your facial skin is so tight, when you are chewing an arrow root you feel your facial skin is pulling follicles on your scalp? This is the same way EPS panels work. The structure is rigid and holds firmly like a supermarket trolley.

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  • Have you ever tried eating a tough 2 year kuku kienyeji of jogoo gender with a fork and knife? Yes, you will eat the meat but you can’t fully extract all that the tasty meal has to offer. Same for EPS. The constraints are potentially more than ‘conventional’ construction. For this technology to be cheaper, a modular system needs to be adopted. Hence least wastage, eliminate filfe, pilpe, ‘filperage’ and easen logistics of mass production. Modular houses definitely have a degree of rigidity.
  • I was once on an EPS construction site when pipes and electrical conduits were being laid and they had this machine with a hot rod at the end…. Okay let me stop lying, they had a hot pipe they were roasting on a jiko made from a paint bucket. When the rod got red hot they melt a linear hole on the Styrofoam. I was then informed that that’s where the pipes and conduits are to pass and that made me very edgy. Further investigations revealed that there are better ways of doing it, but best done at a mass scale or at a factory for a STANDARD design.
  • Have you ever seen ‘hardcore’ being ‘poured’ from a tipper with and the dereh is gauge? Foundation walls in general, experience such trauma during this process. ‘Hardcore’ is those big shapeless stones that are used to fill up the hole that is created when a foundation is dug. For foundations, I would only be comfortable with a double EPS panel for foundation walling. However, this must be costly and I guess that’s why you see most construction sites using EPS technology do a ‘kawaida’ foundation, then panels from the ground floor slab upwards.
  • I only moved to the big city as a big boy an you can imagine the culture shock I got when my family moved from a peaceful , lush green compound to the heart of Zimmerman. So on one good day my dad had gotten a bonus so he decided to buy njivas for my sibblings and I. So I go to a kibanda and ask ‘Unauza chips pesa ngapi?’. This lady looks at me in the strangest of ways and after a brief pose and says ‘Wewe unataka za ngapi?’ Basically scratch as much as you can now, the place you didn’t reach you can scratch later. For EPS panels, piecemeal development is tricky. One has to build most of the house ‘at once’. And you know us Kenyans want to take 5 years to fully finish a house. You can find a finely dressed bank executive in a half complete house like ‘Nitamaliza plaster tukishaa ingia, wacha tuhame kwanza, fagia hiyo vumbi vizuri’…. Na choo daddy? ‘Choo tutatumia ile ya nje ya shimo, ile ya mjengo kabla tununue WC’… bla bla….. And I have to live with the traumatised look on the hapless kids faces. I am now really wondering whether this is a good or an advantage or disadvantage….

My Opinion remains the same.

IN MOST CASES, Housing is not a technology problem. There is nothing right or wrong about using EPS panels for walling or using mud. Every geographical region has got a material they can use for construction. In Nairobi, there are plenty of rocks, in Kisumu and Kampala clays are available for sweet bricks, In China, bamboos are available, In kayole you can plaster your neighbour’s wall and it becomes yours etc. Build to respond to your environment not be caught in multiple marketing gimmicks. If you have 2 months to complete a house, together with your architect, contact an EPS expert and get the best value.

So tomorrow the rubber hits the road. We compare the COST of EPS panels vs. Stones (Masonry).

The writer of this article is an architect at Wanda Synergy

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