Nev Hyman: From mowing foam to building homes
...and not just any old homes either.
The ginger genius behind Nev Future Shapes and Firewire has put his mind toward Nev House, a venture that he struck upon almost by chance. Yet from unlikely beginnings Nev has created what he calls a "social, economic, and environmental solution to a global problem."
Nev recently spoke to Swellnet about Nev House.
Swellnet: Nev, you've owned two of the more progressive surfboard labels of recent times in Nev Future Shapes and Firewire. What's your current relationship with Firewire?
Nev Hyman: I'm still a designer for Firewire. So my relationship with them is that I am on call for team riders to do boards. I'm taking a bit of a back seat in relation to being a creative designer for Firewire, and I'm quite happy about that. I don't want to compete with Kelly as a designer. I don't wanna compete with Tomo. I don't wanna compete with Pyzel...or Dan Mann for that matter. I mean these guys are all brilliant designers. You know, I just go whoa, "Hey I'm losing this contest right now, thank you very much."
I'm not belittling myself, I'm just saying that I really don't have the energy to put into coming up with an incredible new surfboard design. I would be if that was all I had to do, but I've got other things that I wanna do.
And so, you've branched off now into Nev House. It seem like an unlikely venture, can you explain how it arose?
Yeah. Thirteen years ago I invested in a plastics recycling company with the aim of doing a little bit of good for the environment. I wasn't aggressively involved with it, but what eventuated is that, in 2009 I ended up having to jump in the deep end because the guy that I invested with passed away. I had to take over the company and remodel it. At the time the company was called Jet. It took seven codes of plastic and turned them into wood replacement products. So you know, without going into a long story about how I ended up where I am now, it started as an investment, and I like the idea of doing something for the environment.
Then it evolved into building affordable houses in disaster-prone regions. I had to engage the best architects and engineers to come up with building a home out of recycled materials. What was an investment has become a life-changing experience for everyone that's involved with the company, and also for those going to receive the homes.
Okay, you've mentioned quite a few things there and I'm gonna tackle them just one by one. The first is the product, it's a cyclone-proof house that clips together. Is that correct?
Yeah, it's a modular home. This is version two of Nev House. Version three is coming soon, and version four is going to be exponentially better. What they are is a modular construction that's made out of multiples panels, and that panel is unique in its design because it all clicks together: the panel becomes the louvre; the panel becomes the external wall and the internal wall; the panel becomes the floor. In version three of the house the panel will also become the roof. The whole house is a module, which is nothing new, but our architect, Ken McBryde from Hassel, is an expert in this area
The current version has wood plastic composite for the panels, and it has laminated veneer lumber, which is a sustainable timber that's structural in its integrity. It ticks the environmental box, because the more you plant plantations the more carbon you take out of the atmosphere and the less natural forest is being removed. So from an environmental point of view it's a great solution.
Do you owe any of this knowledge to your prior career working with surfboards?
No, not really. It would be nice to say that, but really surfboard materials have got nothing to do with the polymers that are involved with what we're doing. The bottom line is that plastic is demonised. It's like, "Oh my god, plastic is so terrible!" But there's nothing inherently wrong with plastic. It's the misuse of plastic that is the problem.
So how are you using, or reusing as it is, plastic?
Well, one of the big things about plastic is it's as much the visual pollution as it is the environmental and chemical pollution. You know if you have organic-based plastics that do in fact break down over time, fantastic. But the fact is plastic is still going to be floating around in the Pacific and it's still gonna be sitting in creek beds and the backstreets of wherever, for a long period of time. So literally it's still always gonna be a problem. So what's the solution? Use the waste...except it's not a waste, it's actually a resource. Use the resource of second-use plastic and turn it into something. But you've gotta turn it into something that's really sexy for people to be bothered collecting the waste and recycling it, because at the end of the day, wood replacement products, or bollards, or plastic pallets, or whatever, aren't very sexy. Whereas a house for someone that does not have a house, is incredibly, you know...should I use the word sexy?
Probably not, but I understand what you mean. Is there any quantifiable way of measuring how long the plastic that you're using will last?
Well, plastic will be in the environment for centuries. Some plastics don't deteriorate, they're never gonna disappear. So you can build houses from it. And if the houses are able to withstand the elements - hurricanes, earthquakes all those sort of things - and if the material doesn't require a great deal of maintenance, which ours doesn't, then theoretically that house made out of recycled polymers will be there for a hundred years or more.
Where are you sourcing the recycled polymers?
Well for version two we're using factories in China. Now don't jump up and down. We're using factories in China that make wood plastic composite and they are chewing up millions of tons of HDPE [High-density polyethylene] to make wood plastic composite. That is a big tick in the green environmental box. Where does China get all that waste? Obviously they get most of it from their own people, but they import a lot of waste from around the world. Now, again, don't jump up and down and say, “Oh, that's terrible. What about the carbon footprint that's in all those containers of plastic going to China?” Stuff is still getting recycled. It's not going to landfill and it's not going out to the ocean. So HDPE and LEPE and PET are commodities that are already currently being used.
Version two of Nev House is a process called powder injection molding, and it takes all the other plastic waste that doesn't get recycled, that's currently being shipped off to China or going to landfill or ending up the ocean, it now gets crushed up into small particles, put inside a high-pressure mold, and the panel that you see in the Nev House is being made from that particular waste. And what that ultimately means is that all, or let's say some percentage, let's suggest 80, 85, maybe 90 percent, of plastic waste on the planet can be used in this process to build houses for the poor around the world.
I'd like to move on to the business model. You mention philanthrocapitalism a few times on your website. Can you explain to the readers what that concept is?
Philanthrocapitalism is a phrase coined from both philanthropy and capitalism. You know, philanthropy is a good word, capitalism is probably perceived as a bad word. What it basically means is, companies that wish to do well need to be sustainable. The days of charities receiving funds, spending it and then putting their hand out and receiving funds and spending it, are slowly but surely going. Foundations like the Gates Foundation, they only support foundations or charities if they're sustainable. And the obvious reason for that is is that if you give a company, say, a million dollars and they spend it, you gotta go back and give them another million dollars. If you give that company a million dollars and they make 1.5 million dollars from that million and do good with that money, then they're sustainable.
So that's what we are, we are a company that has a bottom line, that does make profit. The company by default is doing good. So that's what a philanthropic company is. A company that is making a profit, a philanthropic capitalist company that is actually using some of their profit, putting it back into the cause, and being sustainable as a company.
At the moment you're issuing disaster housing on Tanna, the southernmost island in Vanuatu, but do you see Nev House being used to supply simple low-cost housing?
Oh, that's just opening a giant Pandora's box. Right now because of Cyclone Pam, all of our focus went to Vanuatu. The last year we've been focused only on Vanuatu as part of the disaster-relief scenario. We were funded for two million dollars to rebuild a village on Tanna Island by a foundation that solely funds post-disaster relief. So whilst our action is post-disaster, initially the focus was on PNG and Indonesia for people that actually didn't have a home.
There are over seven and a half million people in PNG, six million of those people don't really have a true home over their head. Whilst they have grass huts and things like that, and whilst they may love where they live, the level of mortality, and the level of health is affected by the home. The biggest cause of death globally is the home. Because the homes are riddled with disease, because the homes can't be sanitised.
But a Nev House can be completely sanitised. It can be hosed out after a flood, bacteria and mold don't gather as much, and if it does gather you just get a hose or a Gerni and you hose the house out. And the beauty of the Nev House is that the home can be built in three to five days. We're building schoolrooms in Vanuatu now in a matter of weeks. So in post-disaster it's great.
The subjects you've touched upon so far: the environment, poverty, waste, are all fraught with criticism. They're emotional touch points and you must have heard many negative arguments. How do you respond to them?
I'll tell you how you respond to that. Come along with me when I walk into a building in three weeks time and watch a hundred little children running to this community centre that will protect them in the event of a cyclone, that looks like something like what they would normally live in, far better than a traditional Western house, in a village that's never had electricity, still has bush toilets, and doesn't have any form of employment. Our houses give them all of the above, and they've been vetted by anthropologists, and vetted by the chiefs and all key people in that village.
So to me there is no argument, it's a social, economic, and environmental solution to a global problem.
Considering the gravity of the topic you'll have to forgive me for what I'm gonna ask you next, Nev. I just wanna know if you've had enough time to surf?
Oh yes, plenty of time to surf.
You have? Whereabouts are you surfing these days?
You know I'm surfing some pretty obscure places because I get to go to some pretty crazy places. A quick brief on that; I rocked up three weeks after Cyclone Pam to a place on Tanna Island that two years before a lone surfer had been there. I asked the chief and he said, “Oh, and the surfer, he leaves surfboard.” So I said, “You're kidding me.” Because I didn't have a board with me.
I cycled down to this point that looked a lot like Burleigh, and the chief ran off and grabbed the board that was under some collapsed hut. So I paddled out on this point break with three-to-four feet onshore Burleigh kind of waves, and surfed a 6'8" MR in front of the village with three other guys who were in the water riding their wooden logs they had carved from trees. They'd been surfing the same point for hundreds of years. It's the same area where Tommy Tanna came from. The original Tommy Tanna. The first surfer in Australia was Tommy Tanna.
It's also the birthplace of the John Frum cargo cult
Ha ha...John Frum's cult is twenty minutes away. I've met with the chiefs of that village.
You can be Nev Frum.
That's funny you say that because our strategic adviser, his father was the guy that brought independence to Vanuatu in 1980, he said to me, “Nev, if after you do all this stuff you were to rock up in a boat, the people of John Frum cult, will think you were John Frum."
They'd think that John Frum has come back to life.
Yeah, as a ginger!