Australian surfing icon delivers sustainable houses for communities in need

21 Jul 2016

Author: Myles Gough

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From surfboards to sustainable shelters, Nev Hyman’s latest startup is providing safe, affordable housing to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. His low-cost houses are cyclone-proof, built almost exclusively from recycled plastic and waste materials, and can be deployed to remote communities in a matter of weeks.
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Growing up in Western Australia, Nev Hyman remembers riding the beautiful, big ocean swells that formed near the coastal town of Margaret River. 

Surfing was more than a passion for Hyman; it was the catalyst for becoming an entrepreneur. 

At age 13, he was shaping boards for friends inside his dad’s garage. In 1975, after finishing high school, he opened his first business: Odyssey Surfboards.

Four decades later, Hyman has cemented his reputation as one of the top surfboard designers internationally – one of his startups, Firewire Surfboards, is part-owned by legendary surfing champion, Kelly Slater. 

From surfboards to safe houses

Today, Hyman is attempting to conquer something far more daunting than waves.

“Our motto is housing humanity,” Hyman says of his latest venture, Nevhouse. 

The United Nations estimates more than one billion people globally have inadequate shelter. It’s a problem that could intensify, as more people are displaced from their homes and communities by conflicts, natural disasters and climate change.   

Nevhouse designs and develops low-cost, prefabricated homes from recycled plastics and other sustainable materials. It works with aid agencies, governments, charities and the private sector to rapidly deploy these homes to communities around the world that need support and as part of post-disaster relief.  

“Nevhouse is an economic, social and environmental solution to the need for affordable housing globally,” Hyman says. 

Each structure comes flat-packed and is delivered to the site where it can be built within two to four days by local workers and villagers, who are trained in the assembly process. The permanent dwellings have solar power, sanitation, technology for providing clean drinking and washing water, and require little if any maintenance over their multi-generation lifespan. 

Perhaps most important is the design process itself. Nevhouse engineers and architects work with local engineers and architects to develop tailored solutions that meet the geographic, climatic, lifestyle, cultural and spiritual needs of the community. 

Plastic waste in a pristine place

Another pillar of the Nevhouse business is cleaning up plastic pollution. 

Hyman became aware of the problem of marine debris while travelling in the South Pacific on a surfing trip in the early 2000s. 

“I was shocked at the amount of plastic that was washing up on pristine beaches on this remote island,” he says.  

A study published in Science magazine in 2015 suggests that 8 million metric tonnes of plastic entered the world’s oceans in 2010. 

A separate study by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2014 estimated the financial damage to marine ecosystems caused by plastic waste to be around US$13 billion annually. 

Hyman wanted to help address this problem and in 2004 he invested in a recycling company, which turned mixed plastic into wood replacement products. By 2012, the company had evolved into Nevhouse. 

Between 40 to 50 per cent of Nevhouse’s current structures – mainly the wall panelling components – are made from recycled plastic. This amounts to between two and three tonnes of plastic waste per structure, says Hyman. 

The company is working on ways to recycle more codes of plastic and Hyman hopes the total amount of waste in future designs will exceed four tonnes per structure.

At present, the panels are manufactured in China, but Hyman wants to shift this to Australia, and possibly set up manufacturing hubs in the regions where Nevhouse is operating.   

Nevhouse structures also feature sustainable Australian timbers and steel roofs, and galvanised iron screw piles used for the foundation eliminate the need for concrete, further reducing the carbon footprint and cost. 

Cyclone Pam changes the plan

Hyman was set to begin deploying his sustainable shelters in Papua New Guinea. 

But these plans changed after Cyclone Pam smashed through Vanuatu in March 2015. The severe tropical cyclone devastated the Pacific Island nation, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and leaving over 75,000 people homeless. 

Hyman flew to Vanuatu in the aftermath and met a teacher, who fled with his students from the local school building as it was torn apart by 300-kilometre-per-hour winds. They survived by taking refuge behind a six-metre-wide banyan tree.

“To see these people so vulnerable, with no shelter really rocked me,” says Hyman. 

In the wake of Cyclone Pam, Nevhouse delivered on its first major project: rebuilding the remote village of Enkatelei, on Vanuatu’s Tanna Island.  The project was funded by a Hong Kong based charitable organisation that focuses on post disaster relief. 

Over an eight-week period, villagers assembled 14 Nevhouse structures, including classrooms, a medical clinic, accommodation for nurses and teachers, and other community buildings. Each structure was designed to withstand category 5 cyclones, protecting villagers in the event of future storms. 

It’s the first time the subsistence farming village of 1,200 people has had electricity, and Hyman hopes the new medical clinic and classrooms will improve access to healthcare and education.  

“The children ran into their new classrooms and cheered. They had desks, computers and all this stuff that they couldn’t believe existed,” he says.

Looking ahead to a brighter future

The cyclone-resistant shelters deployed in Vanuatu – which were designed by Sydney-based architect Ken McBryde – were honoured at the 2016 Australian Good Design Awards, winning the top prize for sustainability. 

Hyman hopes to continue helping communities in Vanuatu as the country rebuilds, but also has plans to deploy his flat-pack homes elsewhere.

Twelve countries have expressed interest, including Indonesia, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka and Mexico. 

Aboriginal communities and local councils in Australia have also expressed interest.  

The company’s current supply chain allows it deploy up to 40,000 structures per year, anywhere in the world, Hyman says. 

One challenge, however, is lowering the cost: Nevhouse structures currently range from A$10,000 to A$100,000, depending on the logistics of shipping materials to the build site. Hyman hopes future designs will come in around A$7,000 per structure, enabling wider deployment across the world. 

A new partnership with Australian construction giant Brookfield Multiplex will help Nevhouse achieve these goals. 

For an Australian entrepreneur who has spent his life chasing the perfect wave, the next big adventure is just getting started. 

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