Five unusual building materials

Over the past decade or so, the construction industry has undergone radical change and this has come in many forms, but the one we are going to be considering here is what buildings are actually made out of.

Today, materials you may assume are not strong are now being used for construction. As you will see, some of them are truly remarkable.

1. Paper construction materials

Let’s start with the most improbable construction material – paper. Surprisingly, there are fully functional homes out there which have been built entirely from this everyday material.

One of the oldest examples of this is a house that was built in Rockport, Massachusetts. Elis F. Stenman, who was a mechanical engineer, came up with the idea and did all of the work himself.

Over the course of two years, between 1922 and 1924, he built the house by gluing newspapers together and varnishing the resulting composite material. The frame of the house was built out of wood, but the walls and roof are made entirely out of the varnished newspaper panels.

Nearly 100 years later, the house is still standing. It was not built to be weather tight, so his family only lived in it during the summer months. Surprisingly though, the paper house is still in good condition.

Today, paper is mostly used to construct room dividers. A construction technique that the Japanese perfected centuries ago.

Waste paper is also used for insulation. Recycled newspaper can easily be pumped into a cavity wall.

2. Modern paper houses made out of pasteboard

It is unlikely we will see houses made from newspaper go mainstream, but right now, there is a lot of interest in building homes using pasteboard. This unique building material is basically card that has been glued together to form a material that is strong enough – not dissimilar to the approach that Stenman took with his newspapers. Sometimes corrugated cardboard is used instead of plain card.

Currently, there are several designers experimenting with this building material. Perhaps the most well-known is the Fiction Factory, which is run by a team of Dutch architects. They have come up with the Wikkelhouse, which translates as “the wrapped house”.

The house is pre-fabricated in a factory. Each section of the house is made of 24 layers of pasteboard, which are glued together using construction adhesive. The outside layer is finished with lacquer and the interior lined with wood. Sold in 1.2 meter sections, the sections can easily be fastened together, so the owner of the home can make their home as big or small as they want.

3. Mud – wattle and daub

For more than 6,000 years, straw has been mixed with dung, soil, clay and sand to produce a wet building material with the consistency of thick plaster. This is applied to a panel made out of sticks or something similar. Once dry, this forms a strong and durable wall. The fibrous straw is an important component of this composite material, without which the resulting wall would be far weaker. This ancient building method is called ‘wattle and daub’.

Small thatched cottage in the forest, english medieval style,

In some parts of the world, wattle and daub building has been going on for thousands of years, but in most developed countries, new building methods and materials lead to these building skills dying out almost completely.

That is now changing; today, interest in the wattle and daub building method is on the up once more. In may not have gone mainstream again yet, but there are private individuals who are having their new homes built using that method.

4. Straw bale buildings

In the kids’ story of the Three Little Pigs, the wolf blows down the house made of straw, creating the illusion in every child’s mind that a house made from straw would be weak and flimsy. In reality, houses built from this material are extremely strong. They are warm in the winter, cool in the summer and very sustainable.

Digital StillCamera

For centuries, straw has been a precious material. It was needed to feed animals and create bedding for them. As a result, in many places, it was rarely used as a building material, although in places where other building materials were not easily available, they were built. For example, there is evidence that straw bale houses were built in Africa as far back as the Paleolithic Era.

However, demand for these houses is increasing. Across the world, independent builders are relearning the necessary skills to build these houses. In South Africa, a nation that produces enough straw to build a million homes every year, this building method is once again very popular.

5. Recycled plastic bricks

The one thing the world has plenty of is plastic. Every year, around 300 million tons of it is produced across the world. Half of what is produced is used to make items that are used once and put in the bin. Despite efforts to recycle it, 91% of the plastic produced still goes to landfill or is burnt, leading to alarming levels of pollution.

However, people are starting to find innovative uses for waste plastic. One of the most promising ideas is using it as a building material. Recycled plastic is increasingly being used to produce composite lumber, insulation materials and to coat a range of relatively flimsy materials, thus making them waterproof.

It is now possible to make a house that has been built almost entirely using plastic bricks. Famously, James May did it in 2009 using Lego and a team of 1,000 volunteers, but that house was never designed to be lived in. It was more of a stunt.

Nonetheless, you can actually live in a home that has been built using plastic bricks. In Columbia, Conceptos Plásticos has developed a way to take waste plastic and rubber and turn it into building blocks. The blocks that are produced slot together in a very similar way to Lego, which means that these homes can be built by virtually anyone.

It is estimated that the blocks, which are treated so that they are fireproof, will stay intact for 500 years. Using these materials is far cheaper, which helps to make bricks made from recycled plastic a viable alternative building material.

The future of alternative building materials

The above are just a few of the unusual materials that are being used to construct modern buildings. Shortages of raw material, concerns about the environment, and a need for fast building methods are all leading to the creation of ever more unusual building products.

Posted by Mark
October 16, 2018

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