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Aug 042009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

While people scurry to devise new green components for homes, Don Blalock is in the enviable position of launching one that he’s been nursing along for the last six years.

His Aeonian brick will build houses that are significantly more energy efficient than conventional homes; help them qualify for LEED platinum certification and withstand hurricane force winds up to 240 mph. They’ll also resist heat, mold, mildew and termites, says Blalock, whose goal is to build “the most structurally sound house that’s livable (and) that will last for a very long time.”

Blalock, a onetime music teacher and 35-year veteran of the construction business, knows he sounds like someone peddling a secret sauce on an infomerical – “But wait! There’s more! We’ll throw in termite and fire protection with your durable new home!”

But he explains that he simply set out to build a better brick, one that would repel the water damage he repeatedly saw while overseeing reconstruction of houses for State Farm Insurance. Seven out of 10 homeowner claims involved water damage, from an array of sources including leaky pipes. Water damage led to mold “explosions” inside walls on receptive drywall and wood supports, compounding the damage and the indoor air quality.

Experimenting with brick, he says he developed a chemical process that tinkered with the molecular properties of clay to make it intrinsically more water resistant — creating a product able to leap over concrete block as a useful building base (and compete with sealed brick as a viable exterior).

The idea attracted enough private investment that the company broke ground on its first model home outside Charleston, S.C., on Monday. It’s expected to be done by November and will serve as a demonstration building and offices for Aeonian Brick Homes, which will sell whole-house plans that can be built with the brick.

A Charleston builder, Jessco Homes, also plans to build a house from Aeonian brick as a prototype of a net zero energy home.

“We ran across the technology a couple months back and decided we’ll build a home out of this material and couple it with some other features to try to build a zero energy home,” said Jessco CEO Jeff Stahl. The Jessco model, a one-story, will use high-efficiency heating and cooling systems and new lighting installations to cut energy use. The Aeonian brick will play a major role in reducing energy needs, acting as a heat barrier.

“In a normal stick home, you don’t get the thermal energy mass you do with this,” said Stahl, whose company is launching a green building incubator program called Eco Sustainable Aeonian Brick, he says, has “huge potential” to protect homeowners from escalating electrical bills — as well as hurricanes and termites.

Can Brick Be Green?

Brick has been known to last for the ages. In desert climates, ancient ruins made of bricks have largely survived. But in wet areas, fired clay bricks erode and can absorb water that can nurture mold and mildew issues in a home.

Aeonian brick homes will keep mold out, Blalock says, and be revolutionary in other ways, too, starting with how they’re built. The smooth, 8x8x4-inch bricks are made from compressed clay that’s been precision-molded and fit seamlessly together, like Legos. The bricks form the house’s exterior surface and serve as frame, insulation and drywall. Electrical wiring and plumbing are embedded during construction. The result is a nearly airtight, water-resistant structure that Blalock hopes to see embraced by builders in hot, humid and hurricane-prone areas.

The key is the material and their tight fit. “This material is so precise I can make a brick today and I can make a brick next year, both will be within 1/100 of an inch,” Blalock says.

Even though the bricks use regular clay, which takes resources from the earth, the process is greener than traditional brick production. Regular bricks must be fired at high temperatures over an extended period of time (many days) whereas Aeonian brick is molded and steam cured, replicating ancient processes and using far less electricity.

It also claims green points for removing the need for stick framing, saving trees. More green savings accrue by subtracting the drywall. The price for all this? About the same as for conventional building, Blalock estimates, because the savings in multiple materials make up for the costs of the unique new brick.

The bricks are formed like compressed earth products, but perform better because the clay is altered with a chemical that makes the clay water resistant. The catalyst is derived from oil slag, but Blalock swears it’s non-toxic (and claims competitive privilege in concealing the formula). The petroleum byproduct involved has been tested in other uses and proven to be safe, he says, noting that the Aeonian process makes use of waste material.

“This is the essence of recycling. This is recycling something you want to get rid of that the companies
are having a hard time getting rid of.”

The houses can be scored, molded and painted to blend in completely with an existing neighborhood. The paint bonds to the material, inside and out, and will not require repainting, he promises. These houses won’t look weird, Blalock says, and can be made to look “exactly” like other homes in the area. (Which may or may not be a good thing.)

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