Building an off-the-grid home or retreat is typically done on a budget with self-sufficiency as a primary objectives.
Paper concrete, or “papercrete” dwellings, are not necessarily a new technique, but one that are rapidly attracting a significant fan base due to both their durability and extremely quick construction. They fill many of the requirements of off-the-gridders, including repurposing items such as paper, even newspaper.
Of course, canvas concrete type temporary structures have been used by the military for decades. Papercrete building blocks are most often made by upcycling used or discarded paper products with a sturdy frame of possibly rebar and metal lath added for support.
As with all types of off-the-grid living housing alternatives, folks who live in areas flush with building inspectors, zoning departments and permit offices must get every step of the project approved and apply for all required permits in advance. Homesteaders and others who live in rural regions like mine can simply get rolling once they know enough about the paper concrete procedure to gather supplies and head onto their land. Papercrete may not have the approval of the International Code Council, meaning its use within municipal limits in incorporated areas in the United States may be impossible.
Dome shaped structures are very popular with paper concrete builders. Getting a building permit for papercrete structures that have load bearing walls is reportedly very difficult. Many builders feel that not enough testing has been done to determine if a papercrete building alone can support the weight of a roof. If the paper concrete structure will not house people, the approval process is a bit more feasible. A post and beam approach when setting the foundation and starting the walls is the preferred building method for both safety and inspection reasons.
Papercrete is a building material which is comprised of “re-pulped” paper fiber with clay or Portland cement, or other soil added. The material was first patented during the 1920s and experienced a revival during the late 1980s. The environmentally friendly nature of paper concrete is often debated. While the construction material often consists of a high percentage of recycled material, the presence of concrete also turns off some eco-building advocates.
Papercrete is also highly regarded for its insulation properties. Walls of paper concrete storage buildings, barns and homes are typically 10 to 12 inches thick. The upcycling building material is known to be mold resistant and has been heralded for its “sound-proofing” qualities. Unlike adobe or concrete blocks, papercrete blocks are very lightweight, about a third of the weight of a similar sized adobe brick. In structural tests, paper concrete has reportedly tested in the 140-160 psi range.
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Some claim that the strength reaches into the 260 psi range. The stiffness of papercrete is a whole lot less than a solely concrete building of course, but it is reportedly strong enough to hold up the load of a roof on “low-height” buildings. Two-story structures have been built with concrete, and are very attractive and appear to be sturdy homes.
What types of paper can be used? According to Living In Paper:
The basic constituents are water and nearly any kind of paper. Cardboard, glossy magazine stock, advertising brochures, junk mail or just about any other type of ‘mixed (lower) grade’ paper is acceptable. Some types of paper work better than others, but all types work. Newsprint is best. Waterproofed paper and cardboard, such as butcher paper, beer cartons, etc. are harder to break down in water. Catalogs, magazines and other publications are fine in and of themselves, but some have a stringy, rubbery, sticky spine, which is also water resistant. Breaking down this kind of material in the mixing process can’t be done very well.
Small fragments and strings of these materials are almost always present in the final mix. When using papercrete containing the unwanted material in a finish, such as in stucco or plaster, the unwanted fragments sometimes show up on the surface, but this is not a serious problem. Papercrete can be sculpted into any shape and painted.”
Common additives to the paper concrete mixes in addition to Portland cement and clay often include sand, glass and “fly ash.” The folks at Living In Paper have also been experimenting with using rice hull ash, Styrofoam and powdered glass in the papercrete mixture. The first three or so papercrete applications must be either impaled or drilled into place above the rebar set in the concrete foundation. The rebar is necessary to prevent wall movement in a horizontal direction. Once only a couple of inches of the rebar are showing, lay another piece or rebar and wire it to the vertical pieces protruding from the foundation.
Papercrete builders then recommend pounding the vertical piece of rebar until it is almost level with the papercrete block. Once this is done, cover the emerging wall with your papercrete mortar of choice and start the next row of blocks. Wait at least several weeks after the walls have had time to settle before installing doors and windows. You can frame the wall and window area by leaving rebar out as you build the wall in the desired spots or use a chainsaw and cut the openings out later.