Making new homes and good jobs in a jiffy

HIS name is Jesus Alicea, and on this crisp December morning he has arrived bright and early at the construction site. Something exciting is happening in this neighborhood of sagging houses and empty, rubble-strewn lots, and Mr. Alicea won't miss a minute of it. That excitement comes in the form of new housing - the first new construction in 22 years - employing an innovative technology that could help turn this community around. Most significantly, it enables untrained local youths, with minimal technical guidance, to do most of the building.

To those behind the project, including Mayor Willie Mae Leake, the homes are a first step in the planned revival of Chester's depressed East Side; to Alicea and five fellow high school dropouts, they are the key to a new life, the provision of skills that could open the door to opportunities undreamed of a few months back.

A combination of several factors brought the project into being: the Lutheran Housing and Development Corporation's decision to develop the prototype housing in this town some 15 miles south of Philadelphia; the acceptance of the idea by the East Side Caucus (a neighborhood group), and the return to the United States of a technology that was more readily accepted elsewhere in the world after being developed in the US decades ago.

The system employs 4 x 8 or 4 x 10 panels of wire and polyeurethane foam that are erected and wired together to form the shell of the building, including the roof, along with all the inside partition walls. Once in place, with window and door openings cut out, they are plastered inside and out with a cement mortar. The mortar adds rigidity to the panels and turns the entire building into a single, very strong composite structure that is airtight, fireproof, and termite resistant. Electric wiring and plumbing conduit are snaked between the wire and the foam before plastering.

Buildings constructed this way have proved themselves repeatedly, coming unscathed through typhoons in the Far East, and surviving earthquakes in the Near East and elsewhere. While they tremble a good deal, they have survived, with barely a crack, tremors that topple most stone and brick structures. They withstand wind damage because the cement plaster turns the house into a single structure with no nailed-together sections, like roof beams, that can tear off.

Homes using this system have gone up in rural areas and on spacious suburban lots. But the technology is particularly well suited to the inner city.

``Ideal,'' is the way James R. Bancroft, director of the Lutheran Housing and Development Corporation, sees it. ``In the inner city, homes are packed in so tightly that your neighbor's house fire quickly becomes your own with conventional construction,'' he explains. For the same reason, there is nothing to stop your neighbor's termites from moving in, too.

Yet another plus for the new construction: Though the walls have an effective 20-plus R value (a measure of insulation), they are narrower than conventional walls which means ``we get more living space onto an inner city lot,'' says Mr. Bancroft. The absence of hollow walls also means that rats and other vermine have no convenient place to set up house.

The origins of the panel and plaster concept go back to the 1930s, when Victor Weismann of Pasadena, Calif., was a young engineer specializing in gunnite work at an oil refinery. Gunnite, commonly used in the construction of in-ground swimming pools, is a process in which concrete is sprayed in place speedily and with relative ease.

``One day it occurred to me that this process could be adapted for the construction of inexpensive housing,'' Mr. Weisman said in a recent telephone interview, ``because the process could be made simple enough that unskilled workers could be easily taught to build the houses.''

That has since proved to be the case, because around the world, people with no prior building skills, from shepherds in Yemen to housewives in Indonesia, have put up and plastered these panel houses. And while the system was developed using sprayed-on mortar, it has since been found to be just as effective when the mortar is troweled into place by hand.

Although it received all building code approvals, the system was not readily accepted in the US, partly because wood was plentiful and inexpensive, and because of some reluctance on the part of construction workers to accept a new technology. In areas where wood was expensive, however, the idea has been welcomed. The Italians, with a long tradition in concrete and masonry work, have led the way, and from there it has moved into a dozen other countries, notably in the Middle East, Asia, and Central America.

In fact, when Bancroft first heard of the system, he understood it to be an Italian process, but further research turned up its US origins. Two factories, one in Florida, the other in California, now make the panels.

Bancroft found that unskilled workers could indeed readily learn the principals of panel construction, and that erection time would be substantially cut ``in half the time once the crew has had some training,'' he says.

In Chester, one skilled electrician was the crew boss, who, with six previously unemployed and unskilled local youths, erected the three townhouses and helped to gunnite the first floor in six weeks.

While the gunnite work was subcontracted out to a professional company, it was with the agreement that the young men be given training in the work. Satisfaction and pride creep into Alicea's voice when he speaks of the plastering process: ``I mix [it], I grade it down, and shoot it, too.'' In the followup project Alicea and his colleagues may well learn the skills of hand plastering the panels, says Bancroft who will compare the methods for ease and cost-effectiveness.

One of the ``most satisfying payoffs is already obvious,'' Bancroft says. It comes in the growing self esteem, self confidence, and reliability of the youths.

``The first couple of days we had to go and drag some of them out of bed to get them to the site, but since then they have been here at 7:30 every morning, often staying to 5 and 6 at night. No one has missed a single day.''

A worker with a drinking problem was told he had better turn up sober if he wanted to keep the job. ``He's been there every day with no problem whatsover,'' says Bancroft, ``and it's not just because he wants a job, it's because he loves this job.''

Alicea also aludes to a new-found cameraderie among the youngsters. ``We could make this a career. The country's going to need a lot of houses like this, and the people we got here right now, you know, we can do it. It's like a team right here.''

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