Using Papercrete to Build Recycled Houses

How to use Papercrete to build recycled houses. Papercrete is an industrial-strength recycled paper made of paper pulp, cement and sand you can build with to create eco-friendly structures.

| April/May 2000

Learn about using papercrete to build recycled houses.

Sure, we'd heard the rumors about paper houses, but our initial reaction was largely incredulous: What homebuilder with a lick of sense would invest his time, energy and money in literally a house of cards? Well, then we ran across Gordon and Laura Solberg, publishers of the Earth Quarterly newsletter and self-appointed chroniclers of the paper building movement. In touting paper's pluses, both ecologic and economic, the Solbergs covinced us to take another look at this innovative, dirt-cheap construction method. We came away enthusiastic converts eager to share the news. Read on for a "papercrete" primer that could have you building your house — or addition or outbuilding — for as little as $1 a square foot! — MOTHER

In recent years a small band of innovative homebuilders has been building houses out of papercrete, essentially an industrial-strength made of recycled paper or cardboard, sand and Portland cement. The concept for using papercrete to build recycled houses is simple: You build a mixer (akin to a huge kitchen blender), mix the dry ingredients with water to form a slurry, cast the slurry into blocks or panels and let, it dry. When it hardens, papercrete is lightweight, a good insulator (up to R-2 per inch), holds its shape even when wet and is quite strong, with a compressive strength of 300 pounds per square inch (psi). Moreover, papercrete is remarkably inexpensive, since all of the ingredients except for the cement are available for free or nearly free. Given that our landfills are clogged with more than 50 million tons of paper and cardboard annually, and that a bought-and-paid-for home remains beyond the financial means of millions of American families, building with recycled paper simply makes sense.

Papercrete has been independently rediscovered a number of times since the 1980s — by James Moon of Tucson, Arizona, Eric Patterson of Silver City, New Mexico (who was the subject of a PBS documentary several years ago), and Mike McCain of Crestone, Colorado. We say "rediscovered" because papercrete is not a new concept: It was patented back in 1928, but the patent expired unused since there was no profit to be made in so easy and inexpensive an idea.

There are several dozen papercrete structures completed or under construction at this time. Here, we'll focus on two of them: Andy Hopkins' 512-square-foot house in Crestone and Virginia Nabity's 800-square-foot addition to her straw bale house in Cortez, Colorado. Both were built in 1999 and reflect the state of the art of papercrete.

We'll also touch on a close relative of papercrete, made by adding adobe dirt to the paper pulp. This "fidobe" (short for fibrous adobe) has the advantage of not requiring cement, which makes it cheaper than papercrete (suitable dirt is often available for free on-site), as well as more Earth-friendly, since the manufacture of Portland cement is a leading cause of greenhouse gases.

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