The Washington Times - January 14, 2009, 02:09PM

By Nancy Sathre-Vogel, Family on Bikes

Way back in the early stages of my traveling career, I was fascinated by the exoticness – the differentness – of the places I visited. 

I was enthralled by the clothes, the various cultures, and the foreign houses I saw.  It seemed, at the time, that people around the world were all so different.

I held a particular fascination for houses in the places I visited.  I slept in pure stone lodges above the tree line in the Himalayas, adobe brick homes in Mexico, reed huts in Thailand, mud tukuls in Ethiopia, yurts made of animal hides in China, and cow-dung abodes in Kenya. 

They were all so different and I was utterly fascinated by them all.

A papercrete house (Photo by Nancy Sathre-Vogel)

Fast forward a decade or two and I’m still fascinated by the structures we live in – but for a very different reason.  Whereas I used to focus on the differentness of them all, now I’ve come full circle and am now seeing the sameness of them all.

You see, I’ve now come to realize that mankind depends on the resources around us to meet our basic needs.  Our diets revolve around foods that grow in our region.  And our homes are built with materials readily available to us. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that there really is no difference between stone lodging high in the mountains and adobe huts in the deserts.  They all provide the shelter we need using resources on hand.

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see houses made of paper… but I’ll admit I was. 

Somehow I never considered the possibility of using readily available discarded paper to build a shelter – but maybe I should have.  After all – it only makes sense.

Stan Nelson of Marathon, Texas, opened my eyes to this new approach to building homes.  According to Stan, innovative people around the US are experimenting with using recycled paper to build houses. 

These people have developed a material called papercrete – a mixture of paper and cement – and they are creating low-cost and energy efficient homes with paper which would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Construction with papercrete begins with preparing paper pulp from old newspapers, discarded phonebooks, and whatever other paper they can round up.  All the paper and a bunch of water is dumped into a “towmixer” where saw blades grind it all up to made a thick paste, or “slurry”.

Stan Nelson, Marathon, TX with a large chunk of papercrete (Photo by Nancy Sathre-Vogel)
At this point, the builder adds cement to the paper.  Traditional concrete is made from sand or gravel mixed with cement – papercrete simply replaces the sand with paper. 

The benefit of the paper, however, is that paper is fibrous so it requires much less cement than traditional concrete.  Depending on what that particular batch of papercrete will be used for, the builder can vary the amount of cement added – a bit more for floors; less for walls.

Papercrete can be made into bricks as well, just like traditional concrete. Once the mixture is blended, it is poured into molds and allowed to dry in the sun.  The resulting bricks are durable, but about 1/6 the weight of traditional concrete blocks – which makes building with papercrete much less fatiguing.

With all the advantages of building with paper – including the ultra low-cost, the extreme insulation it provides, and the environmentally friendly nature of it, paper seems to be the ideal building material.

“But there are downsides to it,” Stan warns.  “Because the paper is so absorbent, the exterior walls must be protected with some type of waterproof coating.”

Stan also pointed out that, although papercrete is very low-cost now, as soon as more people are building with it and the demand for recycled paper increases, the cost will go up.

The other major disadvantage of working with papercrete at this time is the difficulty in finding equipment. 

Equipment designed for mixing traditional concrete is built for extremely heavy loads – and is very expensive as a result.  Papercrete, being so light-weight, does not necessitate such heavy-duty machinery, but lighter-weight equipment is not commercially available. 

That means you’ll have to build your own equipment if want to build with papercrete.

Is papercrete the way of the future here in the US?  Will I find myself traveling in the country twenty years from now and staying in paper houses? 

Only time will tell.

The Vogel Family, a group consisting of Mom and Dad, Nancy and John, and twin-ten year old boys, Davy and Darryl, are riding hard to cross Mexico in order to reach South America before the New Year.  To date, they haver reached many milestones and have set world records for Daryl and Davy as the youngest cyclists to complete the Dalton and Alaskan Highwa.  Watch their journey here or at Family on Bikes.