How Papercrete Works

The Space Tower is a monstrous concrete skyscraper that will stand out in the Madrid skyline. Learn about the skyscraper's construction in this video from Discovery Channel's "Extreme Engineering."

Most of the concrete that we're used to seeing everywhere is a variety called "Portland" concrete by builders. It's named after a natural stone that it resembles when it sets, and it's made with a mixture of what's actually called Portland cement -- a blend of silica, lime and other ingredients -- and an aggregate such as sand or gravel. Because Portland concrete is a common building material, there are regulated standards and codes regarding its mixing and use, and its production supports a whole system of mixers, movers, formulators and scientists. It's fundamental to almost every part of our lives, and new kinds of concrete, concrete alternatives and similar materials are constantly being invented.

One of the big ideas in alternative concretes has involved the addition of re-pulped paper fiber material. The idea for papercrete -- first patented in 1928 -- uses trash paper that would otherwise serve no purpose but to fill landfills and/or create more environmental problems in its destruction. While papercrete vanished from the construction scene not long after its advent, it's become a popular topic again in recent years due to its potential in green building.

Papercrete is still a form of concrete, which bears a heavy carbon footprint of its own, so some wonder if it's truly a green material. But it contributes to sustainability in at least two obvious ways: stretching the amount of concrete we produce to build things, and using trash for a constructive purpose.

The Basics of Papercrete

Papercrete is hundreds of times more compressible than regular concrete, which means that it tends to sink into itself rather than cracking like concrete does. Additionally, the tensile strength and stronger bonds between papercrete blocks means it can give a wall extra resiliency against sideways pressures such as wind. While it's not great at load-bearing, of course, it's a flexible way of creating roofs and other non-load bearing architecture -- and it insulates better than wood or even regular concrete.

Because of papercrete's comparative lower durability and strength, its uses are limited. There's no code or standardization for its manufacture or use, which means there are lots of projects in which it can't be used. Its popularity among DIY builders means new applications, experiments and tests -- both for its use and in its makeup -- are constantly being shared online and among its fans ... and it has many, especially in the art community.

The Art of Papercrete

Papercrete proponents say that the material's flexibility prevents it from cracking the same way regular concrete often does.
Papercrete proponents say that the material's flexibility prevents it from cracking the same way regular concrete often does.

While it's a stretch to compare papercrete to papier-mache, its flexibility as a building tool makes it a good medium for sculpting. Since it's significantly lighter in weight than conventional concrete -- making it easier to work with -- many devotees use papercrete to create large-scale statuary and functional art that would be much more difficult with regular concrete. Stucco, as well as most commercial concretes, can be layered on top of papercrete, so the appearance of the final product can be customized in almost any way imaginable.

Any building or landscape architect will tell you that they practice one of the oldest human arts, so it's no surprise that these professionals are drawn to the artistic possibilities of papercrete. From garden structures to outdoor staircases, from dome houses to simple outdoor walls, papercrete is the landscape artist's dream.

For now, papercrete is still considered a cutting-edge material because of its more limited environmental impact and because its use and composition hasn't been codified for construction use. Because it's easy to make, in addition to being a recycled-paper product, it's extremely appealing to green homesteaders and others who want to build their homes from scratch in an environmentally mindful way.

Author's Note

As a fairly amateur lover of the art of architecture, I'm always interested in learning about sustainable materials that look as good as they make us feel about our building projects. Papercrete and its fellow adobe-type materials remind me of my childhood in the American Southwest, but it's the artistic flexibility -- and low-cost, eco-friendly materials -- that got me really excited about learning more.

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  • Mirkin, Philip and Hazlitt Krog. "The Hybrid Adobe Handbook." Soaring Hill, 2004.
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