Mike Symons enjoys “creating developments that lead to solutions”. He holds several international patents with others pending – many of these are in the built environment.

The paper house Symons built in 1994 on top of a koppie on the premises of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria, stood for 16 years before being dismantled – not because it was weathered or broken but because it had by then served its research purpose. It had been built entirely from phenolic resin-impregnated paper – walls, tiles, roof, doors, trim and all. “Not only did it have good thermal properties,” says Symons, “it couldn’t be eaten by insects because phenolic prohibits it. It was weather resistant, completely maintenance free and strong.” The system used resin impregnated fibre technology developed as a joint venture with the CSIR.

This was not the first time Symons had built a non-traditional house nor the first time he had experimented with chemically-treated building materials. In the sixties and seventies he built a number of chromated copper arsenate (CCA)-treated timber houses on two Zambian game reserves. This was followed by the development of structures for use as temporary accommodation for the construction industry in Zambia. Symons designed panels of hardboard filled with polystyrene, making them light and slender at only 25mm thick.

Symons holds international qualifications in science, engineering and agriculture. The latter, he says, has been the most useful particularly in the earlier years of what was to become his most empowering venture, Tower Technologies – a joint venture with Plascon Technologies established in 1989 to develop new products based on resins. Working with soft woods, Tower successfully imposed hard wood properties on woods like pine.

What Symons also achieved in the development of the fly ash/gypsum low-cost housing units, is an aesthetically pleasing result for South Africans who have a perception that brick and mortar homes are the most desirable and strong. It is hoped that the panels will eventually be available in builders’ merchant outlets for sale to DIY-ers because there is nothing particularly complicated about using these panels if a homeowner wishes to extend his fly ash home.

With EnviroServe Waste Management recently acquiring 50% of Tower, new product developments include the use of granulated chicken litter as a source of fuel and fertiliser, converting waste bitumen into a roofing product and materials for creating roof gardens. Finally, in true Symon’s style, he has partnered with Sasol, FNB and other interested parties to create a built environment that is not only off the grid but also has intelligent reuse of water systems, solar power and sustainable waste management. “We want to create a green footprint that is just about as good as you can get,” says Symons.


Full article appears in the June-July 2012 issue of earthworks magazine. Image: Elske Kritzinger (www.elskegallery.co.za)