Cordwood Building With Paper-Enhanced Mortar

Learn how to turn recycled newspaper into environmentally-sound building material.

| March 8, 2013

Cordwood masonry is an ancient building technique whereby walls are constructed from "log ends" laid transversely in the wall. It is easy, economical, esthetically striking, energy-efficient and environmentally-sound. Cordwood Building: The State of the Art (New Society Publishers, 2003),edited by Rob Roy, is a key resource on cordwood building, bringing together the wisdom of 25 of the world’s best practitioners. The following excerpt is a chapter on paper-enhanced mortar, or PEM, also called “papercrete.”  

You can buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Cordwood Building: The State of the Art.

Yes, the writing is in the wall. It is winter 2002. I have just finished my first year’s work building a cordwood home in southeast Minnesota, using newspaper along with sand and Type N masonry cement. I call this mixture “paper-enhanced mortar” or “PEM” — a more accurate term, I think, than the term “papercrete,” used rather casually with any cement and paper mixture.

Although the concept of using paper by-products in a cordwood mortar mix is still in its infancy, it is my opinion (rather than fact) that my current mix is “buildworthy.” My experiment is being conducted in a cordwood wall that has a post and beam frame. My house is a two-story, 16-sided type made in combination with the Double Wall Technique. With load-bearing cordwood walls, I would be reluctant to use this mortar due to its lower strength.

I started my first wall, following in the footsteps of Jim Juczak — well, sort of. I’ve never seen Jim’s shoes, and unfortunately, I am not close to a paper mill to get any free paper sludge. (Can you tell I’m jealous?) So instead, I was able to work out a deal with the county’s recycling center for 75-pound (34-kilogram) bales of shredded newspaper. The first bales also contained office paper waste, which was hard to slurry. But after some “case of beer negotiations,” the guys at the recycling center were happy to supply me with “pure” newspaper.

My first mix was a combination of two parts slurried newspaper to one part masonry cement. No sand. I’d tried this mix on a test wall with success, so it seemed okay to use on the house. The mix was very wet and hard to point; it had a slight cottage cheese texture to it. After I completed the first 8-foot square (2.4-meter square) panel of our home, I left it to dry for a couple of weeks … then a couple more weeks … and then a couple more weeks.

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