Colombia is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, producing millions of bags of the brew each year — along with 2 billion tons of coffee by-products.
The biggest by-product by far is coffee husks, which are removed from the bean during the roasting process. These husks typically wind up in landfill sites, but this can be very damaging to the environment as the coffee husks release a high degree of methane gas.
One Colombian company, however, is looking to make the process a little more sustainable, by using the largest coffee by-product — coffee husks — to help solve the country’s major housing issue.
Construction firm Woodpecker WPC is combining coffee husks with recycled plastic to form a wood-plastic composite (WPC) that is durable and lightweight to create walls that can be used for housing. And they are using it to provide housing for families impacted by natural disasters.
“We solve two problems at the same time — sustainability and social housing,” said Alejandro Franco, CEO of Woodpecker WPC.
Helping Others Impacted by Natural Disasters
Woodpecker WPC has built more than 1,000 houses and 20 schools with the material. The houses come in a prefabricated kit and can be constructed in five to six days compared to one to two months for normal builds.
The houses are built in communities selected by the government that have been devastated by natural disasters. The communities are usually in rural isolated areas, and there is a huge deficit for housing in these communities.
“This is a huge project,” said Franco. “There are many tasks and activities involved in managing it. We have to keep in mind all the resources we need to achieve the project. We have to control our budget and the cash flow.”
To ensure the project is managed correctly, the company separates the effort into two stages:
Stage 1: Manufacturing the kit.
This includes buying all the raw materials such as the coffee husks and recycled plastic and creating all the designs for the structure of the building as well as for the electrics and plumbing.
Stage 2: Building the house.
This stage involves a lot of logistics related to operations and transporting the kit to the location where it will be built.
“We don't use traditional systems. Our market is in rural areas that are very isolated places,” said Franco. “Sometimes we use canoes or helicopters or nontraditional systems and local labor contractors.”
Franco adds that as part of phase two, teams must also ensure that the right infrastructure is available for the new housing structure.
“You have to check if the house has access to utilities,” he says. “You have to think about the foundation system of the house, sometimes we use concrete slabs, sometimes we use steel stilts when we have to elevate a house from the soil or flooding areas.”
Solving Problems Away from Home
Working in rural isolated areas is not like building a house in a city. “Challenges are always present in this kind of project, and you have to have a plan B in case something goes wrong, which is very common,” said Franco. “You have to take care of all the details of the projects.”
To plan for potential roadblocks, the company sends extra materials — from screws to power generators — with every kit. “There are no hardware stores to buy what you need,” Franco said. “If you leave something at home it’s terrible.”
Woodpecker WPC also trains their staff to be able to perform multiple tasks, so a team member can do several jobs. A person trained in constructing a house will also be trained in electrical wiring.
The teams must also be ready for potential manufacturing and industrial safety risks. Workers need to use ear protection, wear masks and make sure fire extinguishers are on hand. Security can also be a problem, and raw materials are not available all the time. Testing is also undertaken in external labs, as well as their own, to make sure all the materials are of high quality.
For Woodpecker WPC, it is important to learn from the challenges and make sure everyone is working as a team.
“When you learn from the past, it's very common that you will reduce some risks in the future,” said Franco.