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Expanded Polystyrene Foam: white, plastic, full of millions and millions of trapped air bubbles and impervious to the elements. They started out making drink containers from it. Now they're making houses from it, and they've got people talking.

One is a newly finished 3,800-square-foot home on Marco Island, Fla. Walls, both interior and exterior, are constructed of EPS, a first cousin of Styrofoam.Just like the hobbyshop ornament balls? Just like the packing around a new television set? Almost.

The material used for home building is far denser than the Styrofoam or other EPS products the public is accustomed to seeing. When used with a special, pre-mixed stucco product, fiberglass mesh and through-wall fasteners, the foam takes on tough, strong structural properties, according to George Wilson, the Southwest Florida contractor who built the house on Marco Island for Will and Madeline Perrigo.

From the outside, the stucco-facade house doesn't look much different from other beautiful, expensive waterfront homes.

The all-white, one-story dwelling - with garage and storage underneath - is set off by its terra cotta barrel-tile roof, arched windows and a 5,000-square-foot pool and patio. But its construction was an adventure for the much-experienced builder.

"I had to do a lot of research before beginning the project," said Wilson, "including a trip to Wisconsin to query mechanics and craftsmen used to working with the material.

"There's no generally accepted textbook describing the process of working with foam, such as there are for other materials. The newness of the technique also resulted in our making many of the fabrication tools we used."

Why choose EPS?

Will Perrigo said he was intrigued by it. A friend, architect Don Grieb, had patented an EPS system that has worked successfully in Wisconsin.

Perrigo said he found two of its properties especially appealing: "The high insulation rating (R-60) enables more liberal use of glass, and the malleability provides unequaled opportunities for artful sculpting." Also, the product won't rust or rot and is virtually maintenance-free.

Perrigo chose a finish that may require repainting five years down the road, but if color is added to the pre-mix no painting is ever needed.

The outer walls are 10 inches thick and there are 10 inches of foam under the clay tiles on the roof.

On the lower level of the home, the foam is used as a skin over masonry/concrete block walls.

Because of the foam's novelty in the area, building code officials decreed that the blocks had to be supported with poured concrete framework and beams. The slab is a patented Epicore-supported slab system, but most of the interior walls are exclusively EPS. Foam is used wherever cinder blocks would otherwise go in a conventional structure.

The cost is somewhat higher than a conventional home, but Wilson attributes that partly to the concrete support system required by local law.