Building A Better Block With New (And Old) Materials

As we found out from the Three Little Pigs, a house made of bricks is usually a much better way to keep the Big Bad Wolf at bay than those made of straw or wood. But that doesn’t mean the bricks themselves can’t be improved with a little help from the thermal properties of humbler, weaker materials.

A number of researchers have been experimenting lately on adding straw, paper and wood to create bricks and modular blocks that can provide high strength, greater insulation ratings and a potential end market for post-consumer recycled materials. Here are a few applications and demonstrations that caught our eye in recent weeks.

1) Wood & Paper Bales – Essen, Germany

Image via Dratz&Dratz Architekten

Image via Dratz&Dratz Architekten

Tasked with creating a temporary workspace at an old mining site in Essen, Germany, the Berlin-based Dratz & Dratz Architekten firm decided to experiment with bales of compressed paper found at a local supermarket. By stacking 550 of the bales on top of each other and encasing them in a wooden frame, the architects Ben and Daniel Dratz were able to build a warm and comfortable 2,045-square-foot office space.

Image via Dratz&Dratz Architekten

Image via Dratz&Dratz Architekten

The untreated paper-and-wood combination performed surprisingly well after several drenching winter rains and dried quickly in the sun, the Dratz brothers told Inhabitat. The structure is clearly meant to be impermanent, with its partially exposed bales and ragged edges, but it proved to the firm that paper bales are a viable building material with decent insulating properties. The bales, the Dratz brothers said, can be stacked as high as 100 feet without losing stability, so stay tuned for more paper house ideas in the future.

2) Paper-Enhanced Bricks – Jaén, Spain

Image via University of Jaén

Brick material mixed with paper waste during the extrusion process. Image via University of Jaén.

Paper also played an important role in creating a new low-conductivity brick, according to a new study from the University of Jaén in Spain. Researchers added mixed-waste cellulose from the paper-making process to ceramic construction materials to create extruded bricks that have better insulating properties than standard bricks. In addition, the organic content in these small prototypes (3 x 1 x 6 cm) provide energy, which could help to reduce fuel consumption and kiln time required for brick production.

Image via University of Jaén

The prototype bricks measure 3 x 1 x 6 cm. Image via University of Jaén.

Don’t expect to see the Jaén-made bricks on buildings just yet—there are still problems to be worked out with mechanical resistance, which is not yet up to the standard of conventional bricks, the study found. However, the initial results are promising. “The use of paper industry waste could bring about economic and environmental benefits as it means that material considered as waste can be reused as raw material,” said researchers at the university’s Upper Polytechnic School of Linares.

The team is also experimenting with other waste additives, such as sludge from water treatment plants and residues from the beer, olive and biodiesel industries.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.