I am always exploring building technologies and techniques here in Panama.
I enjoy sharing what I have learned.
Today, I am sharing my experience using M2.
M2 construction panels have the advantages of ease-of-construction and cost savings.
And one huge disadvantage, damage to the environment.
M2 is a popular building material. It is made of Expanded Polystyrene foam board (EPS for short) encased in a wire mesh.
EPS or Styrofoam
Most people know EPS as Styrofoam. Styrofoam is a brand name for EPS.
Styrofoam is created from polystyrene beads. Polystyrene beads are a petroleum-based plastic. The polystyrene beads are processed using chemicals that are steamed, causing them to expand, and creating the substance EPS.
We see EPS used every day as packing materials, coffee cups, to-go containers, and more.
M2 building materials
M2 is an increasingly popular building material. As I mentioned, M2 is EPS (aka styrofoam) panels sandwiched between 2 layers of wire mesh.
M2 building panels are versatile, sturdy and cost-effective. They can be used for a wide range of building elements: loadbearing walls, floors, roofing, stairs, partitions and curtain walls.
The wire mesh allows concrete stucco to be easily sprayed onto the panels.
This system provides a strong wall with a smooth concrete finish.
M2 in Panama
In Panama, M2 is commonly available as styrofoam panels.
The panels come in various thicknesses (2″, 3″ & 4″ thick) and sizes (4′ x 8′, 10′, 12” & longer panels). (For a stronger house, it is best to use 4″ thick panels.)
I have observed the use of M2 over the last 2 or 3 decades, both in the US and in Panama. Recently, I experimented with it in our Living in Panama model home.
Initially, I was attracted to the styrofoam panels because of its speed of assembly.
The panels allow for much faster assembly of concrete walls than is possible using concrete blocks.
Much faster than the typical concrete house construction, which stacks & mortars individual concrete blocks with rebar. Then the cement stucco is applied to the concrete block walls.
(Note: We actually used both M2 and concrete blocks in our Living In Panama House model home, so that we would have a side-by-side comparison of these two construction processes.)
With M2, instead of assembling hundreds of concrete blocks, one at a time, we simply had to:
- Secure lightweight M2 panels
- Cut out windows and doors openings in the panels
- Trowel on concrete stucco, in a two-coat process
Using M2 greatly reduced the assembly time compared to any concrete block construction project that I had previously participated in.
M2 Costs More, But Is Faster
For the same sized wall, the cost of the M2 panel materials is higher than the cost of the concrete block materials. But the savings in labor and time more than make up for the higher materials cost of M2.
In short, it is clear that it costs less to build with M2 than with concrete blocks.
However, even before I had tried building with M2, I had had a nagging suspicion that it couldn’t be good for the environment, especially at the beach.
Most of us have witnessed washed up styrofoam on the beach somewhere in the world.
Today styrofoam waste is everywhere on our planet. Not a pretty sight. This styrofoam waste poses a tremendous risk to our and our planet’s health
M2 Disposal & Cost
Let’s talk abit about the elephant in the room.
“What do we do with the off-cuts of M2 that we don’t need for the project?”
“How about the styrofoam “dust” that is created when you cut M2?
Styrofoam Particles Travel by Air & Water
At our job site, I saw M2’s fragile, crumbly, “styrofoam” nature first hand. This started me thinking hard about whether I should build with it again.
However, what made my decision not to use M2 again final was a family trip to the Chiriqui Mall in David. At the time, they were expanding the Chiriqui Mall to house a department store called, City Mall.
As I stood outside the half-completed building, I noticed an accumulation of about an inch of white, styrofoam particles in the gutters. Then I saw that the wind had blown the styrofoam bits into the parking lot and beyond.
Even the light gusts of winds produced by passing cars were enough for the ultra-lightweight styrofoam particles to swoosh and travel through the air.
Clearly, this “chemical snow” was a result of having sawn, ground, or otherwise cut the numerous M2 panels required to build the new City Mall.
It was also quite obvious that there was no plan on the part of the builder, or any other entity, to contain or dispose of this M2 debris.
In short, all these millions and millions of fine lightweight particles were free to be blown, or floated by the next rain, to the nearest drainage culvert, and then into streams and rivers (see photo). No doubt, within 1 or 2 weeks, much of this fine, polystyrene “snow” would be in the ocean. Where it will stay forever. Okay, maybe not forever, just a million years or so.
Obviously, this situation is not limited to Panama. The problem of disposal of EPS waste is worldwide. It is a great equalizer among nations since super lightweight EPS finds its way literally everywhere on our planet.
EPS/Styrofoam’s Negative Ripple Effect
Although using M2 to build your home will save you time and money, it does have a negative and compounding ripple effect on the world around you. Check out the bullet points below to get a sense of EPS/styrofoam’s impact on us, animals and our planet.
- Styrofoam takes more than 1 million years to decompose. One reason is that it is resistant to photolysis, or the breaking down of materials from sunlight.
- Benzene and dioxins are used in the production of EPS. These chemicals are known carcinogens affecting factory workers as well as the general public. (Note: Environment-damaging HFCs or hydrofluorocarbons are no longer used to create EPS. )
- In developing nations, such as Panama, where styrofoam & other waste is often burned, these carcinogens are released into the air and consequently inhaled by people and animals. Locals often lack the awareness of the true environmental impact of burning non-biodegradable waste.
- Although styrofoam can be recycled, it is not cost-effective and is rarely offered as an option. (Even Seattle, where we live part-time, with its super-progressive recycling programs does not offer to recycle styrofoam.)
- Styrofoam easily breaks into small bits. Unfortunately, land and aquatic animals eat these styrofoam pieces. These animals can die due to starvation after these pieces block food from entering their stomach. They have also died of toxins ingested along with the styrofoam.
- New scientific research has shown that after a month in the ocean, 3 common varieties of plastic acquire an odor that signifies food to many birds and marine life. So not only do plastics often look like food, they smell like food too. (Learn more about this research, here)
- Styrofoam floats for a long time before it becomes waterlogged enough to sink. Thus, it is one of the main components of visible marine debris. This also means that it spends the first part of its “life cycle” posing as food to ocean surface feeders, which include many fish and marine bird species.
- Given EPS’ porous nature, it also absorbs many carcinogens found in the ocean, like DDT (which is still produced in many countries).
- Over time, EPS sinks to the bottom of the sea where it pollutes the seabed. There it poses as familiar sorts of food to an entirely different set of marine animals. A false food that contains an accumulation of toxins. Many of these animals are on the lowest rungs of the food chain. This means that the styrofoam is transferred from one host to another host. Often the final consumers of styrofoam, with all the toxins it absorbed while in the ocean, are the largest carnivores on the planet. This includes, in part, sharks, bluefin tuna, bears, and of course, humans.
Unused and cut-outs of M2 panels
There is a surprising amount of waste using M2.
What do you do with all the window and door cut-outs of your M2 panels?
If dumped in a landfill, over time this fragile styrofoam will be pulverized into small particles. From there, wind and rain carry those styrofoam bits into the ocean.
What to do with any unused or extra M2 panels?
What about all the tiny powdered styrofoam in the grass on the job site?
Of course, you could store the unused M2 for future projects. However, this would begin to mitigate some of the cost savings. You must now also pay for the transport and safe storage of the M2. Or, you would have to give it or sell it to a responsible builder who knows how to handle the product safely.
It seems questionable to give it away to people who are not educated about the environmental dangers of the exposed styrofoam. Without proper care, this styrofoam will definitely make its way into our rivers and ocean.
What about remodeling and demolition of M2 walls? We all like to think that our work is “timeless.” However, the truth is that remodeling of existing homes is constant and shows no signs of letting up.
What happens when you sell your M2 home, and the new homeowners decide to remodel. Let’s say you live in your M2 home for 40 years. That is a long time. However, in Styrofoam years, 40 years is only 30 seconds. All the M2 debris from the new owners remodeling your M2 home still has 999,960 years left to contaminate the environment, from top to bottom.
To be perfectly frank, the awareness among many Panamanians of the permanent environmental consequences of their actions is not very high. Just as Puerto Armuelles, feels like a beach town of 50 years ago, so too the environmental awareness movement in Puerto is far behind that of North America.
Concrete Block Construction Advantages
Cement block is the traditional method of building here in Panama. Builders here are reasonably competent at it. Concrete block is strong. With careful attention to detail, you can build a high-quality and reasonably-priced concrete block house.
Plus much of the waste from concrete construction is sand and gravel. Both are natural materials. This means that their disposal will have almost no impact on the immediate environment.
What’s more, it is easy and cost-effective to use any leftover sand and gravel to re-top your driveway or level the ground at the construction site. These materials ‘blend” seamlessly into the landscape, without causing any environmental harm whatsoever.
Negative Impact of Cement
Yes, cement products also have a negative environmental impact. For instance, cement production is responsible for 5% of our greenhouse gas emissions.
However, M2, also uses cement. M2 panels must be covered with a cement stucco to retain its integrity. So not only does M2 use toxic EPS panels, but it covered with cement.
Our Future Use Of M2
After using M2 and doing a lot of research on the product, we have decided not to use M2 again.
I believe that concrete block is currently the most ecological, economical way to build a house in our area.
We are happy to report that our next Living in Panama House will be built entirely of quality concrete blocks. We will use traditional steel reinforcement, grout with a solid concrete slurry and employ a vibrator to remove air bubbles to assure a high-quality result.
However, I always keep tabs on eco-friendly alternatives for building houses in the tropics.
There have been small-scale tests of straw and grass blocks and panels for construction in Europe and North America. Although, these products are probably not suitable for our humid, tropical climate.
However, it is just a matter of time, before more eco-friendly products are developed that are well suited for the tropics. Unfortunately, the oil industry tends to buy up any potential – non-petroleum-based – products that are developed. Therefore, it may take some years until alternative technologies for eco-friendly construction can become widespread.
However, it would not surprise me if bamboo can be used successfully to build excellent, affordable, and eco-friendly houses. It is being used successfully in nearby Costa Rica. (Check out our article on bamboo houses in the tropics.)
Perhaps someone in Puerto Armuelles will discover the next affordable eco-sustainable building material.
If you have any information to share about alternative building methods in the tropics, we would love to hear from you.
If you are an alternative builder who wants to move to the tropics, by all means, come and check out Puerto Armuelles. Perhaps you can help us to develop more eco-friendly housing solutions.
Thanks for reading,
Check out our other “building a house in Panama” articles
- Which Is The Best Building Material To Use?
- Why Use Concrete To Build Your House
- Pros and Cons Of Building A House Of Wood
- Build Your Tropical House Out Of ShippingContainers
- Is Building A Bamboo House Viable?
- To Remodel Or Not To Remodel
- Your Tiny Home In The Tropics
- Build A Cool & Comfortable House – WITHOUT A/C