How to Build a Livable Paper House

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The finished paper house. Durable, comfortable and energy-efficient, the house cost little to build.
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Details of the paper house's construction.
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Small doorways help insulate the house.
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Twenty-four ribs help support the structure.
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Construction of the pasteboard house.

I’ll admit, when you first hear about it, that the idea of
building a full-sized house of paper –and
then living in it–sounds absurd. But it really can be
done. And such a structure can be cozy, strong,
weatherproof, and permanent.

The Japanese have been making vertical wall panels and room
divider screens from paper for centuries … but I wanted
to go that one better. What I wanted to try to do was
construct a complete house of paper. A house that
anyone could build … at extremely low cost …
using very few tools (and no special tools at all)
… without any forms or scaffolding. A house that would
last at least 10 years.

Choosing Pasteboard to Build the House

Corrugated paper board stock–or “pasteboard”, as it’s
commonly known–was my first choice for the structure
I wanted to build. It’s easy to handle, very light in
weight, available in a variety of colors and textures, and
cuts, bends, and folds nicely. It can also be glued, taped,
stapled, and fastened together in many other ways. And
besides that, its price is quite reasonable … even when
you have to buy it.

Of course, a dedicated scrounger probably would never allow
himself or herself to lay out cold, hard cash for
pasteboard. The material usually overflows industrial and
manufacturing sites, and city dumps always seem well
stocked with it.

Indeed, I originally intended to scrounge the corrugated
board stock for the house you see here. But it was already
September and winter was coming on fast when I finally
freed myself enough to start on the structure. So, in the
interest of expediency, I purchased everything that went
into the building. Still, the total materials
package–including foundation and insulated floor but
not including plumbing and interior cabinetry–came to
only $1.25 a square foot. Imagine how little you might
spend on a house like this if you have a talent for
recycling other people’s castoffs!

There is a bewildering variety of pasteboard stocks
available. The ultimate strength (bursting strength) of
each depends on the number of layers of corrugations or
“flutes” in the board, the type of glue used to hold it
together, and the thickness of the layers of paper from
which it is made. Try to get pasteboard made with
waterproof or water resistant glue and stay away from
cardboard that has been coated with wax (since the wax will
repel any glue or waterproofing you might try to add
later).

The pasteboard I chose is called “Tri-wall” and it’s made
with three layers of flutes and fairly heavy outer paper
surfaces. It’s slightly over one-half inch thick and has a
bursting strength of 1,100 pounds. I’m sure the board is a
bit over-engineered for the structure I built and the house
could easily have been constructed of double-wall material.

If you use the more ordinary cardboard which has only a
single layer of flutes, try to scrounge up pieces that are
flat and which have no bends or folds in them.
Then–making sure several inches separate any joints
in one layer from joints in the others–use white
(Elmer’s or comparable) glue to cement the boards together
into your own triple-thickness pasteboard. All exposed
joints should then be sealed with nylon-reinforced paper
tape and the laminated boards placed under something
flat–such as a sheet of plywood–wiih weights on
top until the bonding glue dries. (It really doesn’t matter
which direction the flutes of your laminated panels run,
but the boards will be a little easier to work with if all
the corrugations are lined up in the same direction.)

Designing a Paper House

If you expect to use pasteboard to its maximum advantage as
a building material, you must both use your boards properly
and incorporate them into a structure that is inherently
strong.

It quickly becomes obvious to anyone who experiments with
them that the shape of a conventional “box” house is very
weak … so ranch styles and bungalows made of paper are
definitely out. A spheroid shape, however, is both
inherently strong (loads applied to any point on a spheroid
tend to be distributed and shared by the whole surface) and
efficient (a sphere beats all other geometric shapes for
enclosing the most space with the least surface area). In
other words, if we consider only the materials being used,
a sphere–or part of one–is the ideal shape for
a house constructed of paper.

In human terms, however, a sphere isn’t nearly so ideal.
Even if you slice one right through the middle horizontally
(and place a floor there so it will have the maximum
possible area), there’s still a lot of wasted space towards
the top of the dome you have left. And, since the walls of
that dome curve in at the top all the way around, it can be
difficult for the people inside to walk on or otherwise use
the outside two or three feet of the dome floor’s “rim”
without bumping their heads.

So I took an ordinary hemisphere and modified it by”pushing
down” the top and “bulging out” the sides to make the
living space inside reasonably efficient for people. The
shape which resulted is basically known as a catenary and
is very pleasing. It also distributes any stress on the
building’s skin quite nicely without allowing the force to
become concentrated at any one point.

I chose “pie shaped” panels for the construction of my
hemisphere, instead of the triangles normally used in most
of today’s domes, because that was simply the easiest way
out. It would have been extremely difficult and time
consuming to calculate and then keep track of the exact
shapes and lengths of all the differently sized triangles
that I would have needed for the “squashed” building. I
would also have wasted a lot of time and materials
fabricating and joining the more than 100 odd-shaped
triangles that the structure would have required. By using
just one template to make 24 identical panels, however, I
neatly sidestepped all those problems. True, the dome
sections I wound up with are just big enough to put them
beyond comfortable one-man size (especially outdoors in any
kind of wind). But they are not at all heavy and handling
them–once you learn to do it without bending the
panels–is no real problem.

Who says a guy can’t build and live in a house made
out of paper? Larry Self constructed this attractive, strong,
weatherproof “flattened dome ” out of triple-thick corrugated
cardboard, using a minimum of tools, at a cost of only $1.2.5
per square foot.

As constructed, my house is 25 feet across (at
approximately waist height) and nine and half feet tall in
the center. The building works well and gives you no sense
of confinement when you’re inside. It’s also quite an
efficient structure, since its floor is just 24 feet in
diameter … a size that can be constructed from 4 X 8
sheets of plywood with very little waste. (The scrap from
this whole project, in fact, filled only three 20-gallon
trash cans … and was all “recycled” in my fireplace.)

You may wish to construct a house smaller or larger than
this to suit your particular needs. If so, you can adjust
the thickness of the pasteboard in the building’s walls
accordingly. I’m confident that Tri-wall can be made to
span greater distances and that pasteboard can be used to
good advantage on other shapes. Just avoid large, flat
areas in your design.

Here’s How We Built It

All floor, shell, and door sections for the dome were
prefabricated in a shop and moved to the construction site
by truck. The prefabbing took about a month of part-time
work and actual construction approximately 10 days. Half of
all this time went into work with the pasteboard panels.,

The only tools we used were scissors, knives (of the
Stanley or Red Devil type with extra blades), saw, hammer,
two-and four-inch paint brushes, large “C” clamps, shovel,
posthole digger, and level.

Each of the 24 main pasteboard wall panels was 38 inches
wide (plus flanges) at the widest point, and 17 feet long.
We used a total of 37 sheets of 4 X 12 Tri-wall in their
construction and every panel was made in two sections and
spliced together (the overlapping splices added to their
strength). All flanges are six inches wide, except at one
place along the lower part of each panel where they were
held to a width of five inches. By alternating where the
V-shaped notches occurred in the flanges, it was possible
to overlap them to form a solid stiffener rib along the
line where any two of the pasteboard panels are joined
together.

The “pie shaped” or “orange peel” panels were outlined from
a pasteboard template and then cut out by hand. We found we
got much cleaner cuts and that the work went a great deal
faster when we kept razor-sharp blades in our knives at all
times. We also developed a preference for lightly scoring
each marked line first and then going over it several
times–making a little deeper cut with each
pass–until our blades were all the way through the
Tri-wall. If you try it, cut against a sheet of plywood or
similar material for best results.

We used a small metal eyebolt screwed into the end of a
piece of wood (try an old broom handle) as a scoring tool
when we bent up the flanges on the pasteboard panels. Try
it. After a little practice, you’ll find that you’re able
to draw the rounded end of the bolt precisely along the
line you want to fold in one smooth, continuous motion …
and get the depth of the score just right while you’re at
it. (Use too little pressure and the fold later will be
hard to make and may wander from where you want it. Bear
down too hard and you run the risk of punching through the
cardboard. Five minutes of practice on some scraps, though,
should put you right in the groove you’re after.) Once the
pasteboard is scored, it’s a simple matter to bend it
against the straight edge of a piece of wood.

Although white glue is just the ticket for laminating
together “homemade” panels of Tri-wall, the only adhesive
we used in the final construction of our dome was contact
cement. This is the “stick-um” that cabinet shops use for
holding counter tops in place and it grabs “like crazy”
when two surfaces that have been properly coated with the
stuff are allowed to touch each other. Follow the
directions on the cans, make sure you’ve got plenty of
ventilation, and don’t smoke when you use the cement.

We thinned our first coats of the adhesive so they’d
penetrate the pasteboard better, and then we applied a
full strength second coat of the cement to every surface we
planned to glue. (Allow plenty of drying time between
coats. In fact, if you like, you can apply the first
coating to the panels as you make them and the second only
a couple of hours before your dome’s final assembly.)

I used just over six gallons of contact cement in the
construction of my house . . . but I did spread it on
rather liberally. You should be able to get by with less.
However much you do use, though, make absolutely
certain you have everything lined up just the way you want
it before you press two cement-coated surfaces
together.
Once they’re stuck, they’re stuck!

Preparing the Foundation

My paper house was constructed on fairly flat ground (with
a slope of about seven inches in 24 feet). The only
foundation we used was concrete blocks turned on end and
placed at each major intersection of the building’s floor
beams and treated posts set around the dome’s
circumference. This was done not so much to “hold the
structure up” (the whole pasteboard shell weighs less than
600 pounds and the floor tips the scales at about 1,500) as
to give the extremely lightweight house some “roots” to
hang onto in high winds.

Strangely enough, the load problems we had to solve for
this domed dwelling dealt with lifting, rather
than settling. Due to the building’s aerodynamic
shape, its downwind side tries to pick the structure
up in a high wind! So fasten those pasteboard panels
down and fasten them well if you build one of these houses.
I nailed the bottoms of my dome’s sections to the
building’s floor temporarily until we had the shell
completed. Then we made minor corrections by pushing the
panels’ bases in and out (to make the building’s floor
perfectly round and centered on its platform), and
then–with reinforcing batten strips installed over
the panels’ bottom flanges–really spiked the sections
down permanently.

The floor under my paper dome consists of a 2 X 4 beamwork
grid, filled with fiberglass insulation, and covered on the
bottom with 3/16″ and on the top with one-half inch
plywood. All the pieces of lumber used in the grid are less
than eight feet long and it should be easy to scrounge
some if not all–of the 2 X 4’s. The placement of the
beams is a little complicated (and you may wish to use a
simpler, more conventional layout for your joists) but it
is extremely efficient with materials and does make a very
strong floor.

Fortunately, on the prototype, all our precut floor joists
fit beautifully and none had to be recut or spliced. Soon
after construction of the floor had begun, however, the
winds became so strong that we had to install some of the
light fiberglass insulation in the platform by moonlight
(after the winds had died for the night). I’ve heard of
moonlighting on a job … but this was ridiculous.

The winds blew even stronger on the day we started putting
our 17-foot panels up and I thought we’d lose some of them
for sure. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when the first
three pasteboard sections of the dome withstood winds of 35
miles per hour with gusts up to I don’t know how much. I
was impressed by the panels’ strength.

I was also impressed when we tried to join the flanges of
the first two panels. I had assumed we could just force
them against each other with our hands … but we had to
use short pieces of wood on each side (to protect the
pasteboard from being crushed) and “C” clamps. This whole
clamping assembly had to be moved from the floor all the
way to the top of the dome as each set of matching flanges
were successively brought into contact with each other. It
was hard work, but it made a very strong rib down along the
edges of each panel.

Ribs Support the Structure

The building’s 24 ribs (which, of course, are all turned to
the inside of the dome) terminate at the center of the
“roof” in a 32-inches-in-diameter pasteboard ring. A
temporary pylon was set up in the middle of the house and
the ends of the panels were secured to it until we had
enough of them up to make the dome’s skin self-supporting
and rigid enough to resist the wind.

A template–cut to the proper curvature for the
finished wall of the dome–was fabricated from scrap
plywood and moved from rib to rib as the panels’ flanges
were glued together. This helped us make sure that the
house’s skin had exactly the same shape all the way around
and, once the building was up, we got more use out of the
template by nailing it into position as an interior wall.

The outside of each pasteboard joint was covered with a
four-inch-wide strip of cloth which was pulled as tightly
as possible to remove all wrinkles and sags and then glued
on. -The material helps carry stress loads across the
joints and gives the dome a smoother appearance. I used a
combination polyester/cotton fabric which both–thanks
to the polyester has a great deal of strength
and–thanks to the cotton–accepts glue nicely.
(Nylon and other synthetics would have been stronger, but
they wouldn’t accept the cement we used.) The strips of
cloth were also used as reinforcement around the bottom of
the dome, around the framing for the door, and around the
hole in the center of the building’s roof.

The top of the dome was finished off with a sheet metal
cap. The low-profile cone–which is centered on that
32-inches-in-diameter pasteboard ring I mentioned
earlier–has a six-inch stovepipe running up through
its center. This keeps the hot pipe isolated from the
pasteboard of the building’s skin and protects the
structure from fire.

We installed the dome’s door last and that probably gave us
more trouble than anything else we did. (It’s a whole lot
handier putting that final panel in place and gluing it to
its neighbors if you already have a door somewhere
else in the wall so you can run in and out.)

It’s quite important that the door of any dome be very
strongly framed so that it will successfully carry stress
loads AROUND the hole in the skin. This has been the
ruination of some of the structures, since–compared
to the smooth, flowing, unbroken surface of the rest of
the building–the opening for the door is a definite
weak spot around which stresses tend to accumulate.

A rounded overhang over the door and protective panels down
its sides, while not entirely necessary, are nice extra
touches (they help keep the wind out and protect you from
water runoff as you enter and leave the house).

We kept our door opening small, for a couple of reasons:
[1] I wanted to limit heat loss and gain inside the
structure to an absolute minimum, and [2] I also wanted the
door assembly to fit within a single panel and not reach
over into a second. As a result, the opening of the
building’s door is 24 inches wide and 72 inches high.

“Porthole” windows (which were added after the accompanying
photographs were taken) are also small–twelve inches
in diameter–to reduce heat loss and gain. As little
as they are, however, we find them quite adequate and they
let in all the interior light we could want.

The whole house was protected from the weather with vinyl
caulking which was applied to each joint (before the
cotton/polyester strips went on) as the panels were glued
together. The entire shell was then given two coats of
varnish (the first was cut 50% with thinner), followed by
three coats of mobile home roofing compound.

The roofing compound has an asphaltic base to which
asbestos, glass fibers, and aluminum powder have been
added. It goes on easily (almost like thick paint) and I
reached the top of the dome by setting a ladder up in the
center of the building and leaning out the hole in the
middle with a brush on the end of a stick.

Just as the last of the compound was being put on … it
started to rain. Perfect timing! We sat inside the dome and
felt very cozy as we listened to the drops hit its skin.
The only real noise we could hear was the wind blowing
around the top of the chimney.

Once the house was up, neighbors came from miles around to
see that “thing” which looked like it had just landed.
“Sorry,” we had to tell them, “there’s no little green men
here … just Larry Wheat (the fellow with the whiskers in
some of the photos) and Lawrence Self.”

The walls of the building have now been insulated and an
interior pasteboard shell is being added to finish off the
inside and make the structure even stronger. I also plan a
special heating and cooling system for the building …
using the constant temperature of underground well water, a
solar water heater, and wind-powered electrical generator.

In Closing

There have been pasteboard storage cabinets, files, and
even furniture on the market for quite some time … and
believe that this project now demonstrates that the
material can be used for the construction of complete
houses. Houses that are environmentally sound … at least
to the extent that they’re fabricated of an absolute
minimum of the earth resources. Houses that can be
constructed of recycled castoff materials and which,
themselves, are recyclable in turn.

And perhaps even more important to many of us, I think I’ve
now proven that–with a knife, some glue, and a stack
4 scrounged-up pasteboard boxes–you too can have a
low-cost mortgage-free house of your own!