Concerned citizens who contemplate the future may see that we need a new way of thinking, a new way of conserving resources, moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy if we are to save the planet. A new way of building shelter could be a big part of that too. New sustainable materials for building are cropping up all the time. If you’re reading this printed page, you’re looking at one right now.
Nowadays many here in the Big Bend are familiar with papercrete, a building material that has become pretty popular around these parts; but this was not always the case. There was a time when you said you were building a house out of paper, itleft folks scratching their heads and thinking maybe you weren’t the sharpest crayon in the box. My own introduction to the buildingmaterial began in the spring of 1998, standing in front of the Starlight Theater in Terlingua, when the late Hal Flanders (environmental legend and father of recycling in Alpine) walked up and handed me a newsletter called Earth Quarterly by Gordon Solberg of Radium Springs, New Mexico.
Inside were some photos of building experiments done with paper, cement or earth clay. I’d heard of straw bale building, earth ships and so on but nothing about this fascinating new alternative discovery. Having a little experience while working on an adobe house, this seemed like something to learn more about.
Back in Alpine and talking with a friend who had just moved here from Dallas, Bob Brewer, who was also intrigued by the idea, we decided to check out a workshop on papercrete (PC) and earth bag construction we’d heard about in Columbus, NM. It was there we met some of the pioneers who were making some interesting experiments using recycled paper and addingcement. During the workshop, everyone was trying different things and some crazy looking structures were forming up on the outskirts of Columbus, in an area they called “City of the Sun.” There were underground rooms with papercrete domes, round looking houses, earth ships, and other weird looking and unusual structures that looked like a scene out a Mad Maxmovie. One guy built a tiny PC house that somehow caught on fire, but it didn’t go up in flames. His house burned like a giant cigarette, leaving nothing but a stack of ashes. It obviously had too much paper and not enough cement. But on the whole, there were some innovative ideas by some creative people all looking to build cheaply and in a very environmentally friendlyway.
No one knows for sure who actually came up with the concept of using wastepaper as a building material. Rumor has it there was an attempt to patent it back in the1920s that fell through and never really caught on. Most likely, it was because lumber was plentiful and cheap and energy costs were low, so it didn’t make much sense back then. More recently, Eric Patterson from Silver City, NM noticed something his daughter made for a school science fair where she made a papier- mâché block and happened to add a little cement to it. After it dried Eric was curious to see that it was very strong. Beinga part-time builder, he shared the idea with other like- minded friends in the area. Interest grew and papercrete construction had a modern day beginning. Another builder and inventor, Mike McCain of Columbus, came up with a contraption known asthe tow mixer, which to this day seems to be the preferred way to make papercrete. He took the rear end of a vehicle and made a trailer out of it with the differential inverted vertically into a tank. A blade is attached to the yoke and when towed by a vehicle, the blade spins, which makes it look like a giant Cuisinart on wheels.
After the workshop in New Mexico, feeling inspired, I shared some things I learned back home in Alpine. Working with friends Randy Guillotte and Alan King, we put together a tow mixer. After much trial and error we finally got the thing to work, but in our first attempt, the blade in the mixer was incorrect with the baffles pointing upward, and the mix shot up in the air. Then the welds on the rear differential platform came apart and the whole thing collapsed. After a few expletives and almost giving up, we made some necessary modificationsand test runs and the thing began working like a champ. After adding water and cement and pulling it with a truck, it churned up a lot of papercrete slurry. The mixer was improved on later with a sturdy steel tank and supports were added at the bottom so it could be tilted. This made shoveling out the mix easier. We made wooden forms, poured in the mix, and waited for the blocks to dry. Working with Hal Flanders, we did tests on the blocks to make sure they were strong, lightweight and fireproof.
My first attempt at building something was a small wall in front of our house. The blocks on the wall tended to shrink byadding cement alone, but by adding about 30% sand, it not only reduced the shrinkage but gave them thermal mass and helped with the fireproofing. The next project to try was a small pump house for a hot tub on our property in Sunny Glen canyon near Alpine. With this small 7’x 7’ storage shed it seemed I was getting the hang of it, and with some helpers Istarted building a barrel vault guest house in front of the pump house. All this was done on a mountainside, making it a bit of a challenge. It was a learning experience, but the barrel vault took shape, simulating a method similar to mud brick building in the Middle East 4,000 years ago. The principles of making domes and vaults had been revived by the master Egyptianbuilder Nader Khalili who wrote a book called Earth Architecture, and that was our guide for laying up the blocks to create a vault-shaped roof. In the meantime, Simone Swan, who was building a beautiful adobe home near Presidio and who was a strong advocate of Khalili’s designs, was using those same formulas in her barrel vaults and domes. After consulting with her and observing the skill of the adoberos at work, it became clear that the same method of laying up the adobe bricks could also work with papercrete blocks. Given that PC blocks are about three times lighter than adobes, therefore reducing the heavy labor involved, it was a no-brainer to conclude this could work on our barrel vault, too.
The word got out about what we were up to. The Alpine Avalanche ran a story on it. Not long after, Channel 8 in Dallas caught wind of it and put it on their evening news. Then Texas Country Reporter came out and filmed an episode called “Recyclers’ Paradise.” Interest in papercrete all around the Big Bend was growing, and others were trying their hand at it. Clyde Curry and Kate Thayer of Marathon came to see the barrel vault under construction and soon began the amazing Eve’s Garden, which today is evolving expeditiously thanks to Alaine Berg and Noble Baker. Clyde, who had just finished a straw bale house, could see the potential of PC right away. Guil Jones, Wes Spears, Danielle Gallo, Paty Hernandez, to name a few, were building creativethings and putting Marathon on the map as a papercrete mecca. Rich Gill over in Marfa was also building a PC house, and down in Terlingua folks trying their hand at it. Meanwhile, over in Alpine, we were busy building as well: a wall across the street from The Holland Hotel, a PC garage, a small cottage we called the satellite house because it had a large satellite dish for a roof, an apartment in Marfa next to the Paisano Hotel which had a dome perched on top, an adobe restoration project in Marathon, and working with Guil Jones at his compound. Ourpaper supply mostly came from the local Alpine recycling yard, but also from banks and other businesses. Often, we would find piles of shredded paper bags in front of our house, thrown there from who knows where.
Building walls and smaller projects generated much interest and we were approached mostly by newcomers to the area who wanted complete homes. Because of the low carbon footprint, the sculptural beauty and other benefits, the demand for it snowballed. Gearing up and getting a work crew together, we started building homes under the name eBuilders. We built two complete homes and made blocks for two more. They were pretty conventional designs, with a traditional metal roof but with a parapet wall to give them the look of an adobe house. This was all very businesslike and rather lucrative, but the fun of building something unusual with domesand vaults was missing.
Eventually, working with Mercedes Lujan and Hiram Sibley, we started building a personal home made with PC vaults and a dome, incorporating materials salvaged from a movie set. The main vault was a Nubian design,which is a classic shape that is more pleasing aesthetically than a barrel vault. The ancient Nubians of northern Africa came up with a formula for laying up mud bricks that gives it the classic shape and also adds additional strength by putting the weight directly over the outside walls where it should be, eliminating the need for buttressing. The vault and dome were plastered with finish stucco and has no waterproofing. This allows it to “breathe,” and it has never leaked in a rainstorm.
The square foot price of a PC home is not easily calculated, but a small house we finished in Alpine came out roughly the same as building with conventional lumber framing. But, notably, it is far less costly than adobe construction but with the same high end quality and characteristics. Using long slip forms and pouring the wall instead of making blocks saves time and keeps the cost down. PC construction is not rocket science, so a layman homeowner could conceivably put their back into it and really save on labor costs. Since it can be easily formed and molded into interesting shapes, vaults, nichos, carvings, parapet walls and all kinds of creative features are open to the imagination. It also has great possibilities for sculptors. Even large scale public art is possible. Having done a few PC sculptures, I can see how this could be an ideal artistic medium.
PC makes a lot of sense in an age of dwindling resources and the necessity of energy conservation. It has very high insulating R values, saves trees and landfill space, is great for soundproofing, and 60% of the materialrequired to make it, paper, is free. Civil Engineering Magazine in 2006 published the data from tests done on PC at the University of Arizona and it passed with flying colors. But like any kind of building, it must be done right. The right mixture proportions for blocks, mortar, and plaster needs to be adhered to. City codes must be met. But it is no longer an oddity. It is a very practical alternative method of sustainable building.
– By Tom Curry