Nev Hyman: From Mowing Foam To Building Homes

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Talking Heads

...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! 

Click to visit the Nev House website.


blindboy's picture
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blindboy Wednesday, 6 Apr 2016 at 10:31pm

A really inspiring piece. More power to the man!

zenagain's picture
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zenagain Wednesday, 6 Apr 2016 at 11:21pm

Now if they could just harvest the plastic from the North Pacific Gyre they could build a metropolis.

Go Nev!

black-duck's picture
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black-duck Wednesday, 6 Apr 2016 at 11:30pm

While i applaud the principle of using waste for purposeful, constructive use, binding timber with plastic gives me the heebee jeebees. The construction world is full of similar new composite materials. The article doesn't state what the binding agents are that combine the waste plastic and timber but i'm betting it's not flour and water. What do you do with the end product when it's reached it's use by date? How do you separate plastic from timber in a chemically bonded form? How does it break down? What will the locals do with it? Does the product fit a 'Long Life, Loose fit, Low energy' principle? Re-binding and reconfiguring waste product is seen as a fit for purpose, useful benefit but the longer term is troubling. I know this is a somewhat spurious argument given the highly chemical and industrial nature of the type of products used daily in manufacturing processes, yet i wonder at our hubris.
Notwithstanding, i'd rather see the plastic in a building than the Pacific Gyre, yet i think that complex combinations of materials and their binding agents create a significant problem for the future. They will be less and less recyclable.

clif's picture
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clif Thursday, 7 Apr 2016 at 1:53am

So what you in effect are saying is that in keeps in circulation certain ecologically-damaging materials, diverts investment away from materials that are not and are truly recyclable, and defers problems to further down the track. Given this, shouldn't the principle aim be to take plastics out of circulation altogether? What you write does take the shine off the approach of Nev Houses.

Sugar-coating capitalism with philanthropy ... I recall this

"Philanthropy has always been dependent upon inequality and hierarchy. Inequality perpetuated by capitalism is the reason why philanthropy is needed and the riches of the more fortunate are what provide the material for the philanthropy. So inequality [perpetuated by capitalism] provides both the reason and the resources of philanthropy." The comprehensive critique is here:

( you know, as a counter-point to the philanthocapitalism)

Hako o hakonde ni-biki no inu's picture
Hako o hakonde ni-biki no inu's picture
Hako o hakonde ... Thursday, 7 Apr 2016 at 5:41am

Very good point Daffy, many thing made to environmentally standards such as this, recycled, organic blah .blah, aren't durable therefore something that lasts 4 or 5 times longer but doesn't tick the greeny boxes often more eco friendly, less energy used to make one product over a period of time than five and less material to dispose/recycle

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tonybarber Thursday, 7 Apr 2016 at 1:18pm

Good point BD. Interestingly with a fellow forensic specialist we went through a decision process of using plastic / timber decking boards as opposed to good old timber decking. The plastic composite was more expensive but had the advantage of no paint / stain. you have raised good points plus the fact that once this plastic composite gets past its use by date what do you do with it - burn it (as they seem to do at present), land fill (maybe). The powdered PE then moulded into some product will also be problematic down the track. This form of PE tends to break, get brittle under UV but will not change its molecular structure. The Nev house does seem to help in providing a quick and effective housing solution but I would be interested to see how its constructed and its associated wind loads spec.
But by recycling PE into another shape or use would have to be better than whats happening now.

BobC's picture
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BobC Thursday, 7 Apr 2016 at 6:01am

I'm sure Nev has done his homework and the material he is making is recyclable again and not just another future problem. I hope so anyway. I was thinking that rather than blending plastic and wood, that it would be better to make 100% recyclable plastic posts, decks, bearers and joists made in Australia, then pure timber slot in wall boards etc. This would separate the two materials and make both reusable and recyclable in the future. Dunno, good on him for having a crack as he's doing more for people than I am .

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indo-dreaming Thursday, 7 Apr 2016 at 8:01am

Even if in 30-50 years time the material is useless, that's 30-50 years of extra use.

Im sure the product can also be burnt to dispose of which may sound terrible, but the reality is in places like Indo most plastic's end up getting burnt, if it goes to a tip a lot of it gets burnt and in most areas outside of citys there is no tip or garbage service and people burn most of there waste including plastic.

Most surf camps/resorts in remote areas of Indo (mentawai's, North Sumatra) are faced with this disposal of plastic dilemma, they have two choices.

1. Burn it on site, out of site of guest in the off season or when no guest are around.

2. Send it back to places like Padang which cost money and where it will most likely be burnt.

simba's picture
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simba Thursday, 7 Apr 2016 at 2:30pm

or as in Lakey Peak back in the early 90s bury it..........out of site out of mind .

stunet's picture
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stunet Friday, 8 Apr 2016 at 12:06pm

It's slightly bruised Fong, but my ego will be fine by tomorrow, maybe even later this afternoon.

What you read above is an abbreviated version of a much longer interview, upwards of 6,000 words, with Nev explaining in details the materials used and the process to manufacture them. Unfortunately I had to condense the interview for the sake of brevity. While some may have read the whole interview my experience shows that most people wouldn't have. Hence the link to his website which has all the info.

Craig's picture
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Craig Friday, 8 Apr 2016 at 11:24am

I'm kinda with Fong on this one.

After talking to my mate who's a guru on recycling and plastics in particular, this seems not the best idea for the future.

As Blackduck said, combining plastics with wood is eliminating the chance for the end product to be recycled ever again. In 100 years we'll have un-recyclable products.

As my mate put it..

"But once mixed the timber which could have been more or less infinitely recycled as particle board or mulched and used in gardens is trapped with the plastic. And the plastic which also could have been like almost infinitely recycled as a pure polymer will no longer be accepted into plastic recycling cos of the wood."

"So argument is we have just down cycled two products that could have been recycled several times."

"Like that product is 100% destined to landfill when it's finished."

zenagain's picture
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zenagain Friday, 8 Apr 2016 at 11:49am

In a hundred years time maybe the technology will exist that can recycle the wood/plastic combination?

Moreover, in a hundred years time maybe a more environmentally friendly alternative may exist?

I'm with Fong on this one too especially in regards to a recyclable and more sustainable path.

Craig's picture
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Craig Friday, 8 Apr 2016 at 11:57am
zenagain wrote:

In a hundred years time maybe the technology will exist that can recycle the wood/plastic combination?

That's similar to saying.. in a hundred years time maybe the technology will exist to absorb and retract all the excess carbon we've injected into the atmosphere and ocean.

Not the best way to look forward :p

zenagain's picture
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zenagain Friday, 8 Apr 2016 at 12:16pm


But as they say- 'necessity is the mother of invention'.

That's not a cop-out, just another perspective to add to the points already put across.

stunet's picture
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stunet Friday, 8 Apr 2016 at 12:01pm

Things is, there's the other side of the equation to look at: cheap housing for people in need.

That aspect hasn't been addressed thus far.

Craig's picture
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Craig Friday, 8 Apr 2016 at 12:09pm

This is true.

indo-dreaming's picture
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indo-dreaming Friday, 8 Apr 2016 at 12:11pm

I guess it also depends on the type of plastics used, i may be wrong but i dont think all plastic's can be recycled?

I guess it's how you look at it, it easy to say its better to recycle but the reality is most plastic doesn't get recycled and either gets buried or burnt, so in 100 years with most of the current plastic out there it's not going to be recycled anyway.

So whats better some of this being used in building materials or be in the ground or burnt?

BTW. Fong, i agree with you on the whole houses are dirty thing being a bit of crock (i can only speak about Indo), but ive been to some dirt poor villages in Indo, and despite the houses being basically timber huts with thatched roofs, normally without any furniture (plastic chairs if lucky) they are rarely dirty and are generally well ventilated as dont have glass windows etc.

Id actually think there is more risk with many brick houses, as in Indo atleast most have rising damp problems because they rarely use a damp course, and where you have damp you get can also get moulds that can be quite toxic, plus a large number of Indo houses have asbestos.

I guess if they have a dirt floor health risk are increased, but really i think the bigger problems health wise for most poor villages is not the housing but would be poor sanitation etc lack of quality drinking water, no toilets so spread of disease and parasites etc through feces and just a basic lack of access to health care.

Anyway i still respect Nev for getting involved in this.

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wellymon Friday, 8 Apr 2016 at 12:47pm

Good work Nev.
IMO a great product that has been thought about properly with architectural flare, involving basic aesthetics :)

Being an architectural draughtsman by trade, this is an interesting article Stu, cheers.

At the start I was thinking to myself, about fixings with plastic modules, fixings joining the plastic modules to the main timber structures, ie trusses, purlins, bearers, joists and foundations which look like steel piles etc?

Nev, I used to draught custom plans up for 'Lockwood Homes' EnZed in the late 80's, did you get this modular inspiration from this design?

Looking at the photos from your website, they look great, awesome basic design for tropical regions, good work Ken McBryde.
Altho you have stated " In version three of the house the panel will also become the roof." Is that the roof! or the roof structure?, ie Trusses, purlins etc.
I did notice in the photos that, probably 35%-40% maybe! is plastic modular walls, with the floor as well! So the other 60% is timber! right?

Last question if you don't mind;)
As regards to cyclone specifications the use of tie down rods (cyclone rods)?
Are they situated under the trusses in between the posts? I can see one in your internal walls that is exposed, connecting to the rafter. Are there any cyclone rods in your gable walls, which look like they have windows in?

Anyways I really like the design and concept.

The bottom line is " We should stop producing Plastics" that are harmful to this beautiful realm we live in.

thermalben's picture
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thermalben Thursday, 14 Apr 2016 at 4:21pm

Nev will be on ABC's 7:30 Report tonight. Tune in!

blindboy's picture
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blindboy Tuesday, 19 Apr 2016 at 8:07pm

I just watched it, great stuff.

stunet's picture
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stunet Wednesday, 20 Apr 2016 at 7:16am
tonybarber's picture
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tonybarber Wednesday, 20 Apr 2016 at 10:28am

great story, impressed that they got a local to assist in design, purpose built. Good one.
The plastics recycle is a big plus, fantastic.

stunet's picture
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stunet Thursday, 28 Apr 2016 at 4:19pm

Ted Grambeau has posted a few photos from the recent Nev House celebration in Vanuatu.

stunet's picture
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stunet Tuesday, 2 Feb 2021 at 12:03pm

Nev gets a grilling from the Australian Financial Review:

'This surfer told investors he could save lives and make millions. He did neither'

channel-bottom's picture
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channel-bottom Tuesday, 2 Feb 2021 at 3:28pm

Unpleasant reading for Nev and the the high profile investors.

"In September 2014, Nev House claimed that within five years the company could be valued at $US11.6 billion, generating $US1.2 billion of profit after tax and spitting out dividends of $US700 million. To put that in context, that valuation would have made Nev House bigger than all but the top 30 companies listed on the ASX, and worth more at today’s levels than Santos, Scentre Group and Ramsay Health Care."

If it sounds too good to be true.....

velocityjohnno's picture
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velocityjohnno Tuesday, 2 Feb 2021 at 4:58pm

... they put the entire company capital in Gamestop.

udo's picture
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udo Tuesday, 2 Feb 2021 at 12:33pm
frog's picture
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frog Tuesday, 2 Feb 2021 at 12:32pm

Out of interest, why are they cyclone proof? Does the raised floor help?

udo's picture
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udo Tuesday, 2 Feb 2021 at 12:52pm

Frog - think Oct to May weather New Guinea Fiji Samoa etc
Raised floor level - flooding Airflow
Cat 5 resistant is a big call.

brutus's picture
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brutus Tuesday, 2 Feb 2021 at 5:01pm

Story doesn't download.....but it looks like Nev spent $8m, built 10 houses and that;s it....investors saying money spent on business class flights every where , expensive villas booked....millions of $'s spent , not much to show...Sally Fitz and family $500K...ouch scam/hoax/business gone wrong???

udo's picture
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udo Tuesday, 2 Feb 2021 at 5:17pm

Nev Earthfund looked at trying to raise 200 mill Euro to build plastic recycling factory

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo Wednesday, 16 Aug 2023 at 8:54am

Any updates of Nev House?