Plant Based Houses: Future Homes for NZ

12 August 2005

A house made entirely of plant based materials including flooring, insulation, acoustic padding, roofing and wall claddings. A house that also is warm at no cost, is less expensive to build, costs less to live in, looks good and feels comfortable. A pipe dream?

Scion says not. It is the house of the future, and they are developing it now using Kiwi research and ingenuity.

“What if exterior claddings were made from maintenance free wood-based biocomposites? If polystyrene insulation could be swapped for foam insulations made from plant derived materials? If floors could be made of wood and warmed from beneath using the thermal mass of water?” asks Dr Russell Burton, Group Manager Investments, for Scion.

Scion concedes it is not yet there. But it is well on its way.

Beacon’s “Now Home” opening today (Friday 12 August) in New Lynn Auckland, is a step towards the goal. Scion was a key part of the concept, design and construction of the “Now Home”.

The organisation was instrumental in bringing together shareholders, a collaborative consortium of five partners (including Scion).

The Now Home has now been developed by Beacon Pathway Limited, a company set up with the five shareholding partners*.

The four driving principles in the Now Home were affordability, aesthetics with comfort, performance and sustainability.

“The Now Home is a successful balance between these four competing requirements,” says Dr Burton.

“It shows we can build high performing, warm, sustainable homes at an affordable price. Our job now is to make these homes even better and Scion believes the solution is in the plants and trees around us. We have the embryos of those solutions now in our laboratories. The Now Home allows us to test laboratory based concepts, and deliver New Zealand-based solutions.”

Since the Now Home, Scion has been further pushing the boundaries on new housing materials and systems to improve the performance and sustainability of housing.

“There are two further projects under way conceptually,” says Dr Burton.

“The first project looks at the far horizons of biomaterials in housing and construction. It is developing technologically advanced systems, that are not yet commercially available. For instance Scion is developing and trying out new generations of insulation from renewable biomaterial resources.”

In the second project, Scion is developing ‘The New Bungalow’, a modern look at an old subject.

“The Californian bungalow, built in the 20s and 30s in New Zealand, was mostly wood. We’re exploring a similar theme. What would today’s expression of a modern bungalow be? What is the quintessential modern wooden home?” he says.

Rather than just staring down microscopes, Scion is applying the research techniques of science to find ingenious solutions to modern problems.

While its scientists still look at timber engineering including the performance, strength and growing of wood for construction, Scion’s brief has widened.

The organisation is reviewing a wide variety of plant based materials for options in composites, in deriving more eco-friendly plastics and polymers which might be used for construction and a huge range of other applications.

Systematic analysis and interpretation of future trends in, for example, demographics and the social environment, allow Scion to plan research and development with a greater degree of insight than usual.

“We look intensively at consumer behaviour. We drill down and ask specific questions about what is important to consumers, and how they use the products in houses. We canvas different parts of the product’s life cycle. From this information, not only can we develop new products say for the roofing market, or flooring market, which appeal to customers, we can specify these products technically to the manufacturer,” says Dr Burton.

So is a plant-derived house a possibility for New Zealand housing in the future? Most probably a version of it is, says Dr Burton.

It is just a matter of time.

“One thing we do well in New Zealand is cropping plants, including pine trees. Our biomaterial production is efficient. Scion is actively researching to add value and develop new industries out of what we do well.” He adds that in commercialising research ideas and discoveries, Scion is actively collaborating with industry partners.

Scion is a Crown Research Institute, based in Rotorua and formerly known as Forest Research.

Its goal is to develop sustainable biomaterials, and to that end it is focused on plantation forestry, wood, fibre and the development of biomaterials from renewable plant resources.

It entered into a joint venture with Australia’s research group CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products.

The joint venture, known as Ensis, has the largest forestry related research team in the Southern Hemisphere.


* Shareholding partners in The Now Home are: Building Research, Fletcher Building, NZ Steel, Scion and Waitakere City Council.