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Philomath company hopes tests will open new markets for its green building product

A local green building materials manufacturer is hoping a commercialization grant from the state will help knock down one of the barriers holding back its growth.

The Portland-based Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center, known as Oregon BEST, announced the $74,000 grant on Wednesday.

ShelterWorks Ltd., which set up shop five years ago in a converted storage building at a Philomath log sorting yard, will use the money for testing to establish the structural properties of its Faswall building blocks, which have won a following among do-it-yourselfers but have been slow to catch on with commercial contractors.

“At that level, people want more of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Tom Van Denend, the company’s chief executive. “The takeaway of the testing will be what we’re calling an engineering bulletin that we can hand to project engineers.”

The Faswall blocks, which resemble oversized cinder blocks, are manufactured from waste wood taken from mill ends and worn-out freight pallets. The shredded wood fibers are coated with a proprietary mineral blend to prevent rot, then mixed with a slurry of water and cement and formed into blocks with tongue-and-groove connectors.

Concrete is poured into the hollow blocks, which are linked together with steel reinforcing bars to form a solid but breathable structure that ShelterWorks touts as extremely durable, mold-resistant and environmentally friendly.

“Generally speaking, we’re a little more costly than a stick-built home at the end of the day,” Van Denend said. “But you’re getting a superior product.”

The company recently landed its first big commercial project, a two-story business technology center in Bismarck, N.D. Van Denend is hoping the test results will persuade other contractors to follow suit.

The testing will be carried out early next year at Portland State University’s Infrastructure Testing & Applied Research Lab, a research facility for Oregon BEST. Experiments will provide third-party data on the strength of a wall built with Faswall. Based on preliminary testing, Van Denend believes his company’s wood-based product will prove substantially more shock-resistant than other insulated concrete forms, known as ICFs in the construction trade.

“The vast majority of ICFs are made of foam,” he said. “There’s no (structural) value for the foam — it’s weak. Our blocks have value structurally.”

ShelterWorks has grown slowly since its inception in 2007, with nine employees and about $800,000 in annual sales. Most of its business is in the Northwest, and about 90 percent of it is in residential construction.

If the PSU lab validates the company’s claims for its building blocks, however, it could open the door to mainstream acceptance in commercial building. And that, Van Denend believes, represents a major opportunity.

“It could be pretty large,” he said. “Getting into the commercial market should double our sales within a few years.”

The ShelterWorks testing grant is part of a $1 million program administered by Oregon BEST, and the institute’s executive director said the Philomath manufacturer was exactly the kind of company the funds were intended to help.

“We’re pleased that another of our commercialization program grants will help an Oregon company advance a unique green building product that will ultimately create green jobs and advance Oregon’s reputation as a cleantech innovator,” David Kenney said Wednesday in a news release announcing the award.

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald