Ph.D. candidate Amol Vaidya and Nasim Uddin, an associate professor of Civil Engineering, show the difference between their multifunctional composite for panelized construction and traditional structural insulated panel after a recent debris test. Uddin says the composite designed and manufactured by his team can be used to build homes that can better withstand the force of Mother Nature.  

It’s been two years since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast and changed the lives and livelihoods of many living along the 85-mile stretch of Interstate 10 between Biloxi and New Orleans.

The Category 4 storm ripped some houses from their foundations and flooded thousands more, making those unsafe and unlivable.

Nasim Uddin, Ph.D., is working on a project that soon will lead to homes that can better withstand such forces of Mother Nature. The associate professor of civil engineering is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation-sponsored project to develop a multifunctional composite for panelized construction.

“Traditionally built homes can tumble like a house of cards against tornados and hurricanes,” Uddin says. “Maybe the time has come to move beyond traditional construction materials and begin looking at smarter materials.”

Uddin and his team are designing, developing and manufacturing housing material that protects against damage from higher winds, debris and floodwaters more than traditional building materials do. The new material is made of fiber-reinforced polymer composites that form a sturdy, new-age Structural Insulated Panel (SIP).

SIPs traditionally have consisted of plywood or similar face-sheet materials and use molded expanded polystyrene as the core material. However, these have poor resistance against wind-borne debris, are heavy, foster mold buildup and disintegrate under floodwaters.

Uddin’s team overcomes these issues by replacing the plywood and strand board with thermoplastic face sheets produced here at UAB. The sheets create light-weight composite SIPs with high strength-to-weight ratios.

Uddin recently simulated a test in which the equivalent of a 15-foot piece of wood traveling at 130 miles per hour hit the less than 6-inch-thick SIP. The object barely made a dent on impact.

“Now, imagine that’s a tree limb being slung at your house during a tornado,” Uddin says. “It’s essentially a missile. These panels have better penetration resistance against wind-borne missiles during weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes, and these tests prove it.”

Other benefits
The UAB-created composite panels, which use similar materials to those widely used in aerospace, marine, automobile, building and other industries, possess many qualities superior to current construction materials, says Uddin.

They are lighter, stronger and much thinner than traditional SIPs. They also are not susceptible to the mold buildup that creates an unhygienic and unsafe atmosphere – and the loss of millions of dollars in flood prone areas.

“No matter how you want to sugarcoat it, many of the homes left standing after Katrina stink or are unhealthy because of the flood waters,” Uddin says. “The traditional SIPs and other construction absorb moisture and can easily disintegrate under floodwaters. You don’t have those worries with the multi-functional composite because the thermoplastic face sheets protect against those elements.”

Uddin also says the composite also will reduce the amount of time it takes to construct a home from months to hours.

Large-size panels can be pre-manufactured, resulting in easy design, reduced construction time and strong structure. The floor, roof and wall panels all could be manufactured (even in different colors), transported to the site and assembled according to the home’s floor plan.

“There are so many potential benefits,” Uddin says. “There practically is no construction waste, and the home literally could be assembled in a few hours. The panels also would provide greater sound and thermal insulation, which results in higher energy conservation.”

Big change
Studs, exterior sheeting, insulation and sheet rock pretty much describe materials of which a house is constructed today. “We’re trying to change an industry,” Uddin says.

Uddin says some builders are very receptive to his research and results, and that he is being contacted by the on a regular basis.

Uddin says his research resolved two challenges — producing a structure that can resist flying objects traveling at a high rate of speed and doing so cheaply. He says his research meets both criteria and will be produced more cheaply in the future using natural fiber-reinforced composites of jute, sisal, and coir and kenaf.

For example, kenaf, a member of the hibiscus family related to cotton and okra, grows well in many parts of the United States and rises to heights of 12-14 feet in as little as four to five months. Uddin says the plant can be used to construct the thermoplastic composite face sheets, making the product less expensive while maintaining its durability.

“I have no doubt in my mind that what we are developing has the potential to beat the existing industry in terms of costs, labor and life cycle,” Uddin says. “It has a real chance of revolutionizing the home-building industry.”

The work, which includes Professors Uday Vaidya, Ph.D., Fouad Fouad, Ph.D., and Ph.D. candidate Amol Vaidya, is being funded by a three-year National Science Foundation grant.