Building a better life: Local men hope invention has positive effect in Haiti

A long history of mission work around the world combined with an Oktoberfest visit last year led two local men to a new invention.

Deputy resident Bob Malcomb has helped design and build churches and hospitals in Central America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Last fall, he saw an Oktoberfest booth about using aquaculture for plant production.

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“The booth belonged to some local residents who were helping people in the Philippines,” Malcomb said. “The soil was polluted, so they were helping them use aquaculture to grow plants.”

With Crane Hill Machine & Fabrication colleague Dave Burgess, a Seymour resident, Malcomb saw an opportunity to tackle a problem he had seen during his mission work in Haiti — dangerous concrete blocks used in construction.

After some brainstorming and lots of research, the pair thought up the new device, which they call a suitcase block machine. It uses dirt, water and concrete mix to make blocks that can be used to build sustainable homes.

“I talked to Dave about it, and we started throwing around some ideas,” Malcomb said. “We have both invented a number of other items before.”

Malcomb had previously helped victims after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and noticed how easily Haitian concrete blocks fell apart, posing a danger to the people living there.

In their brainstorming efforts, Burgess, a 1985 Brownstown Central High School graduate, and Malcomb began doing some research and found information about earth blocks on the internet.

“Ecologically minded millionaires in Colorado build earth homes, but the block machine they used cost $40,000 and was the size of a van,” Malcomb said. “We designed and built one for $400 that can fit into a suitcase, so we named it the suitcase block machine.”

Malcomb took a class in Texas about compressed earth blocks. The dirt, water and concrete mix was compressed tightly into blocks and then left to set up for about a week.

After attending the class, Malcomb came back home, and he and Burgess sent drawings back and forth and finally came up with a blueprint they both agreed on, and then Burgess built one at the Crane Hill shop.

“Dave built our first block machine this past January,” Malcomb said. “He finished it the day before I left for Haiti. We made one last change before I left. We were right up to the wire.”

Burgess built 10 machines at Crane Hill, and there are currently nine left after Malcomb took one to Haiti in January. He trained the villagers how to use it and then left it with them.

“The suitcase block machine would be a great thing for churches wanting to do mission work,” Malcomb said. “This would be something lasting that they could take and leave with the locals and give somebody a job for life, making blocks and building houses.”

The machine is powered by a hydraulic jack that uses oil. As the handle is being pumped, oil is pushed up to the top and compresses it, basically making rocks.

The nine suitcase block machines left are simple to take apart so each one can fit into a suitcase. They can be easily transported to Haiti or other overseas destinations to give to people who could use it.

The two inventors already are working on plans for another kind of machine that also could help the people of Haiti or other countries and hopefully improve their lives.

“Haitians fill their riverbed with millions of plastic bottles,” Malcomb said. “Dave has designed a machine that will convert bottles into plastic lumber, and that could be a resource to create jobs instead of pollution.”

Burgess went to Belize two winters ago and saw hundreds of plastic water bottles and soda bottles there, too, especially along the shoreline, just like they were in Haiti.

“A Haitian child would be happy if he could make a dollar or two a day,” Burgess said. “We’re hoping to get a plastic machine made that will help clean up the trash and help them earn some money, too.”

When Burgess was a child, he used to take things apart to see how they worked, but most of the time, they didn’t go back together so well, he said.

Burgess has come a long way since then. Both he and Malcomb hope church groups and missionaries will want to purchase their block machines and deliver them into the hands of those who might need them.

At a glance

For information about the suitcase block machine, email Bob Malcomb at structuralengineering@live.com.