In the 1960s, engineer and laboratory design consultant Earl Walls pushed manufacturers of wood laboratory casework from their old face frame techniques into frameless lab cabinetry with melaminesurfaced, high-density particleboard boxes. He later did much the same with steel laboratory cabinets. “I think there was a price on my head,” jests Walls, whose celebrated career includes collaboration with icon Frank Gehry and awards for work with Louis I. Kahn on the Salk Institute. “I had to watch who was sitting behind me on an airplane.”
At the time, most commercial-grade casework was made the same way with much unnecessary labor in both wood and steel. So Walls began incorporating new materials and composites to value-engineer his designs. Now, on the horizon of a new era in materials technology, he’s embracing a promising sustainable lightweight panel called ECOR® as an investor and advisor. “I could build a 3-foot cabinet I can pick up with one hand,” Walls says. “I just wish I was younger. The future is so exciting.”
If you ask ECOR® creator Robert Noble, the future is now, and there’s no looking back – unless to reflect on his path here. An ecopreneur, inventor and visionary, Noble sees architecture in simple terms of problems and logical solutions. In 30 years, he’s developed several lightweight structural panels from readily available waste materials: a wall system from wheat straw suited for easy construction in third-world villages, a recycledfiber product called Gridcore® developed in the early ’90s with the USDA Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wis., and ECOR® Nature-Engineered Composite Panels from Noble Environmental Technologies Corporation (NET), also with the USDA.
The most recent, ECOR® panels, incorporate waste into value-added materials through a wet process that requires no binders or additives but only the hydrogen bond of cellulose fibers under extreme heat and pressure similar to paper-making. Old corrugated cardboard (OCC), and water are the primary ingredients in the hydro-pulp that’s reduced in a mold. Adding old newspaper (ONP), Bovine Processed Fiber (BPF) from cow manure or other natural and synthetic fibrous materials to the stew customizes the result for aesthetics, performance and/or price. “We are transforming $50-per-ton raw materials into $50,000-per-ton finished products. It’s sort of ‘value add’ on steroids,” Noble says.
FlatCOR™ single and multi-ply sheets and WaveCOR™ corrugated boards comprise what Noble calls the proton and electron for constructing ECOR® atoms and molecules. These two basic shapes can be used independently of one another, married in stress-skinned Environmental Structural Panels (ESPs) or used with composite cores or laminate surfaces. For example, the honeycomb-panel HoneyCOR™ product is made of strips of basic WaveCOR™ glued together with water-based PVA white glue or Titebond GREENchoice adhesive. HoneyCOR™ sandwiched between sheets of FlatCOR™ is called HoneyCOR™ ESP, which has a particularly high weight-to-strength ratio. A new HoneyCOR™ PLUS offers increased rigidity and strength for even higher-performance applications.
Throughout his education at Berkeley, Harvard and Cambridge and his entire architectural career, including his years as CEO of Tucker Sadler Architects in San Diego, Calif., Noble was passionate about environmental technology. He outfitted his Envision Solar International photovoltaic-array company with ECOR®-constructed office furniture. “As an architect dealing with environmentally responsible materials, it was very hard to get those kinds of products throughout the decades because they’re expensive to develop and manufacture initially,” Noble says. “The building industry is slow to assimilate and accommodate new materials, and the cost can’t go down until the scale of production goes up, which depends on high demand.”
As panel products go, ECOR® won't be a comodity – at least not at first. Building the “Line 1” facility and later “Line 2” is part of a plan to start fullscale production of 4-by-8-foot boards. A threepronged ECOR® scalable business model will license ECOR® plants in specific markets and locations near abundant agricultural sources, forest industry offal locations and urban areas where clean postconsumer waste is available. The Pilot Line starts at $1 million, a fully automated single opening line is $5 million and a five-opening line is $10 million. Capital investment for 10 or more openings depends on location, product lines, desired market focus and other variable requirements of licensees. “We have the patents pending and knowhow,” Noble says. “It’s an adaptive reuse and revitalization model for the U.S. to create industry with readily available resources and a process that’s not futuretechnology dependent. This is right now.”
For example, facilities in the agriculture sector will produce panels from cellulosic BPF extracted from anaerobic digesters that break down manure. The biomass from a dairy farm of 3,500 cows produces enough methane gas to generate about 2 megawatts of power a day when burned. A farmer could essentially harvest enough BPF and power to operate a colocated, selfsustaining plant that creates jobs. A forest industry company could share staff and facilities with its ECOR® line. The urban model offers clean technology that is scalable and can be located anywhere at low cost. ECOR®, therefore, is a forest product, an urban product and a farm product all rolled into one.
“Why disregard valuable raw materials that still make up more than 50 percent of landfills when they have great possibility?” says Jim Torti, ECOR CEO in San Diego, Calif. With that in mind, the ‘YourCOR’™ and ‘ReCOR’™ programs turn paper and packaging at the bottom of the waste cycle into panels a company can use – and reuse. For instance, displays containing ECOR® from brand-specific print collateral build a highly sustainable corporate image. Offices, waste management facilities, amusement parks, and public spaces with abundant paper waste are excellent candidates that should be motivated to add incremental and diversified revenue to their business through an economically and environmentally sustainable model.
“Materials have to be costeffective, attractive, highly versatile and differentiated and must reflect positively on you and your organization, but more importantly, you want to tell a great story, something about who you are and what you really care about.” ROBERT NOBLE
Noble and Torti are discovering ways to bring ECOR® to market even while producing batches of 2-by-8-foot sheets. Target markets are point-of-purchase displays, trade show booths, lighting fixtures, commercial signage, dimensional installations, RTA furniture and uses where its light weight, flexibility and environmental attributes are important. It makes sense for designers seeking green solutions that are highly adaptable for their specific intent. (see sidebars) Torti plans to launch an ECOR® e-commerce site, www.ecorstor.com, and says the company is working on exterior finishes with AFM Safecoat® as a strategic partner offering panels finish-treated with 100-percent environmentally friendly coatings including stains, high-gloss paints, lacquers and other water-proofing solutions that can be tailored to specifications. Other customized solutions include molding for automobile interiors, hydroforming and post-forming.
“The impact and implications of what we’re doing are so vast that the possibilities can be hard to imagine,” Noble says. “It starts by reducing the concept and scaling it back to problems and solutions. From my point of view, there are always solutions to problems. You just have to have the perseverance, patience and time required for industries to change.”
Click here to view additional photos and informative sidebars (page 8, The Shape of Green to Come?) in the digital edition of the Autumn 2010 issue of Surface & Panel.
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