BAYARD — Rod Russell has been a builder his whole life, but rather than maintaining the status quo of building methods, he challenged himself 28 years ago. His goal is to develop a better, more efficient way to build houses.
“The rest of the world looks at the U.S. like we’re crazy,” he said. “We keep building these toothpick homes, and the insurance companies just keep paying to rebuild them after natural disasters.”
With the need worldwide for affordable, resilient, sustainable housing, Russell has set out on a quest to tackle those challenges.
He’s launched a new company, Millennium Resilient Housing (MR Housing for short), a name inspired in part by the longevity of Roman concrete structures, which have stood the test of time for roughly 2,000 years.
“The name implies that we build houses that can last for hundreds to thousands of years,” he said. “That’s entirely possible.”
At the start of June, Russell started moving his headquarters into the building formerly occupied by Nebraskaland Tire at 3500 N. 10th Ave. in Gering. The first components of his patent-pending precast concrete construction method rolled off the assembly line the week of June 1. Russell said the materials he uses and his finished product are virtually disaster-proof, a detail he aims to certify with the completion of a survivability test at Texas Tech in the coming months.
Last month, Russell traveled to Ghana, Africa, where he signed a 50,000-home contract with the Minister of Housing to provide much needed affordable housing for that country. He joked that people in Ghana had misunderstood the name of the company, and kept referring to him as “Mister Housing.” The name now seems fitting.
However,the trip abroad brought it’s own share of sorrows — no sooner had Russell’s plane landed in Ghana, when he received word that the class FA-2 tornado which tore through rural Bayard on June 12, wiped out his home, shop and greenhouse.
“If there was ever a sleepless night, that was it,” Russell said.
The building, a former rural school house made of block, brick and mortar, was built in 1965 — the same year Russell was born.
It crumbled like tinker toys, Russell said.
He poured everything he had over the last four years into his property; he constructed an aquaponics green house and pioneered a tilapia fish breeding facility — the first of its kind in the state of Nebraska. The waste from the tilapia fertilized the greenhouse, causing the plants to flourish. Russell’s personal residence was an added second story onto the original school house.
His residence is no longer there. He didn’t have insurance, and now worries about whether his fish will continue to survive.
“This was going to be my year,” Russell said. “I was trying to bring together food security and affordable housing.”
A friend accompanied Russell out to the place to survey the aftermath when he returned to Nebraska. It was then that Russell broke down and began crying.
“I tried to steel myself for it, because I knew it was coming when I got home, but I couldn’t prepare for the reality of it,” he said. “It’s like losing a loved one — you’re used to them being around every single day, and all of the sudden, they’re gone and they’re not coming back.”
But his personal loss has only strengthened and hardened his professional resolve.
“I’d like to prevent this from happening to people,” Russell said. “I’ve always been passionate about it, but that tornado has made it real personal.”
Russell hopes that his new method provides housing, and he also aims to help his neighbors rebuild their permanent agriculture structures — and keep them standing for generations.
The seed for Russell’s method was planted while building a house more than a decade ago. While looking at the designs, Russell noticed that the bathrooms were at opposite ends of the house, which required a lot of labor and components to make things work, In his words, it was wasteful, so he set out to design and patent a core that contains all the utilities a house would need within a 5-foot diameter.
When earthquakes struck Haiti in 2010, Russell and his team were eager to offer help, submitting a proposal to the U.S. State Department which paired his patented cores with a temporary tent to provide immediate shelter for Haitians who lost homes in the quake. The State Department rejected the majority of the proposals it received. Russell’s was among them.
Depressed, frustrated and fed up, Russell sold his truck and traveled to Costa Rica, where he studied a post and single panel construction method spearheaded by Habitat for Humanity. He kept that idea tucked into the back of his head.
Around 2013, he found himself applying his core designs on projects in North Dakota, where the boom in the oil production quickly created a shortage of housing for oil field workers.
“Some guys saw what I was doing, and asked if I could design something for Africa,” he said.
Not shying away from a challenge Russell traveled to Zambia, where he had initial intentions of using the post and panel method he’d seen years before. He quickly discovered that’s not what the locals wanted.
Using locally sourced sand, gravel, steel and lots of labor, Russell reconfigured the steel and concrete in a different way.
He used forms to pour cast concrete columns and panels, similar to how sidewalk sections are paved. Once cured, the pieces were popped out of the forms. The columns were then interlocked into a monolithic poured slab foundation. The columns contain grooves allowing the concrete wall panels to be slid into the gaps between posts. The space in between the panels making up the inside and outside walls allowed for easy installation of conduits and insulation. A steel cap, sealed with more cement, unifies the structure. Once a house is finished, Russell said the walls can withstand more than 10,000 pounds of side-force — more than enough to make it tornado-proof.
“We built that house in five weeks,” Russell said. “We called it the ‘cheetah house,’ because there’s probably no house built in Africa, before or since, that’s been completed that fast.”
He’s since improved on his methods and tweaked the designs. He plans on setting up a local production plant to build the precast components, as well as taking the system, franchising it, exporting and selling it world-wide.
“I got a guy with a trailer park in Oklahoma that wants to combine the properties and turn the entire trailer park down there into a tornado-resistant development of small, affordable homes.”
He’s got a meeting with the City of Bayard to discuss 17 lots that the city is considering making available for affordable homes to be built on. He’s hoping to appear before the Gering City Council to discuss an application for LB840 assistance to help get the facility up and off the ground. He hopes to provide jobs, and an option for his neighbors who are left to rebuild after storms wrecked structures and homes.
“The problem is builders can’t build affordable anymore,” Russell said. “It’s hard to build a house for under $150 a square foot, especially with lot costs.”
Russell is trying to work with communities to lower the cost so that the threshold of affordability comes down.
“If we can get everybody to work together, we’re going to do a lot better.” he said.
On Thursday morning, near a stand of mangled trees at his property near Bayard, Russell sat in a chair sipping coffee and petting the head of his dog, Rio.
He pulled out his phone and found a photo he took a few weeks ago of a barn near county road 36. On first glance, Russell was surprised he said, wondering if the damage was caused by the June 12 tornado.
However, after talking with the owner, Russell found out it had been leveled by a tornado three years ago. While the owner had insurance, it didn’t cover the costs.
“He used the insurance money to live on and he’s never been able to rebuild his shed,” Russell said. “Whole families and generations are affected by disasters like this. Insurance doesn’t factor in all the combined losses and what this does financially to people and families for years.
“I want to stop that. I want to make sure that I make buildings that can’t be torn apart like this.”