Construction is arguably the most conservative field of technology. But building with traditional concrete, bricks and mortar is slow and energy-intensive. And it requires skilled labor and materials which are not as readily available as most people think. These problems become especially poignant when dealing with sudden, large scale homelessness caused by a natural disaster. An innovative building technique using stackable, sand reinforced polyester bricks offers a solution to these problems.

When the successful, German businessman Gerhard Dust met his compatriot, the engineer Gunther Plötner, he did not jump at the chance to invest in his innovative ideas to use sand reinforced polyester. By mixing in a bit of polyester resin and hardener, Plötner could turn ordinary sand into a building material stronger than normal concrete. And the material allowed complicated shapes to be made extremely accurately. But Dust had turned his book wholesale business into a market leader, enabling early retirement. All he wanted now was to grow old in his new home in Florida with his wife and daughter, and work on his golf handicap.

Then, on January 12, 2010, just a few hundred miles away, an earthquake hit Haiti. Over 150,000 people were killed, 200,000 buildings were destroyed and nearly 2 million people were rendered homeless.

When faced with such a disaster, first order of business is survival: food, clean water and shelter. You can hold out without food for a few weeks and without water for a few days. But without shelter, exposure to the elements can kill you in one night, depending on the environment.

Dust saw the devastation and human suffering and wanted to help. That's when he remembered Plötner's work. So he came out of retirement and flew back to Germany.

Four months after the earthquake, they founded PolyCare (www.poly-care.co.uk and www.poly-care.de). A research team of less than a dozen people set out to develop a system that would enable disaster victims to quickly rebuild their own houses at low cost and with materials found onsite. The firm was set up in a former glass factory in Gehlberg (Germany), where in 1895 the first x-ray and cathode-ray tubes were made.

The new construction system had to meet German quality standards and it had to enable laymen to quickly build houses and take them apart again just as fast. This meant producing bricks in a mobile factory to high tolerances. That took over two years to develop: longer than initially expected.

This article appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of Reinforced Plastics.

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