We at D:FR believe that more widespread consideration ought to be given to alternative building methods, especially given the overall cost of current construction methods to the environment, society at large, and the pocketbooks of individual people. Typical buildings are created with more of an eye to the profits of developers, lending institutions, and various corporate industries than to livability, the earth, and long-term environmental consequences. Buildings are sited on their lots without any regard to the sun and its potential to reduce heating and cooling costs. Toxic materials are in widespread, practically inescapable use, and serious lengths must be gone to in an effort to avoid them. Seldom is much consideration given to such livability factors as insulation value, embodied energy costs, carbon footprint, long-term energy operation costs, view sheds, and positioning for privacy. The need to access every home by at least two cars has made the garage and driveway the dominant curbside features, rather than a socially inviting porch or attractive gardens designed to produce food, beauty, and habitat for small animals.
Our interest at D:FR in alternative building methods dates back to General Manager Jan Emming's high school days, when he saw a particular home featured on the cover of Architectural Digest magazine. Now known as the Boulder House, this home is located in Scottsdale, Arizona. What made it so unique was the fact that it had been built in a large outcropping of granite boulders. Not near it, not next to it, not even with just one wall against it, but completely in the outcrop. The rooms of the Boulder House are scattered throughout spaces between rocks in the large outcrop, which covers about one acre in area and towers up to twenty feet tall in many places. Hallways and passages connect the rooms in an extremely organic fashion, and the rock walls of every room were left completely natural. Many of the rooms are at differing levels, connected by a few steps, so as not to cut into the rock below them. The only modifications made to the stones were a few holes drilled for the vigas, which are the large peeled logs that support the roof.
The cover photo that attracted Jan's attention was an exceptionally spectacular and visionary treatment of a window. There was a particular cleft in between two large boulders, irregular in shape and diagonally slanted, that had been glazed in by inserting specially cut glass panes into two opposite but perfectly aligned grooves carved into the granite. What would have been viewed as a problem to be solved with cement or dynamite by most people, architect Charles F. Johnson turned into an utter work of art. The effect is that of being in a cave with a shaft of light penetrating deeply into the interior. The feel of the outcrop is not only maintained by this creatively unparalleled solution, but is actually enhanced by it. How easy it would have been to destroy this delicate effect! Needless to say, the rest of the Boulder House is treated with similar vision and respect. This home provided one of the guiding visions for the next 15 years of Jan's life, and the property ultimately selected for the creation of Destination: Forever Ranch was in part chosen because of the presence of large granitic outcrops. Buildings from the Boulder House mode will be executed in a similarly sensitive and unique fashion.
To view the Boulder House online, visit www.boulderhousepublishers.com
Since we at D:FR are interested in everything different, it only seems natural that we would choose to use one of several unusual construction techniques. We have researched everything from straw bales to rammed earth, adobe to earthbags, polyurethane foam domes to recycled tires, and cob to cordwood logs. All these alternative building systems have their benefits and their drawbacks. What they all have in common, however, is that they make primary use of locally available materials, whether those materials are natural or man-made waste products. (The only exception listed above is polyurethane foam.) The main advantages to locally available materials is that they are either cheap or free, in most cases they are non-toxic and energy efficient, and they tend to give a regionally appropriate look to the structure. These uncommon construction modes do not come without some problems, however. Some issues alternative builders may face include resistance in approval from county or city building inspectors, a lack of financing from traditional lending institutions, and local subcontractors' unfamiliarity with weird buildings and their subsequent reticence in doing work on them.
Here at D:FR we have settled on a method of construction known as papercrete. Papercrete, also known by the various monikers of fibrous cement, fibrous adobe, and cellulose-reinforced cement, is basically an industrial-strength papier-mache made of pulped waste paper (newsprint, junk mail, magazines, phone books, anything papery), Portland cement, and sometimes sand. A special mixer is designed to chop the paper in water, blender-style, into a slurry using a spinning blade in a round tank of some sort, like a 200-gallon stock tank.
Once the paper is thoroughly masticated, Portland cement is added to bind the paper fibers together, and sand adds strength and thermal mass. We've decided to eliminate the sand portion of this recipe, with no apprent ill effects. The final mixture looks much like concrete, but it is much lighter. It pours the same way, however, which is what you do into block forms on the ground. Papercrete can also be poured into slip forms directly onto the walls, or it can be hurled or sprayed onto a wall of another material (such as straw bales). It can even be used as exterior and interior stucco if the cement content is doubled. It is amazingly versatile stuff, this papercrete.
Excess water drains out of papercrete in a matter in minutes, while the rest eventually evaporates into the air. Once fully dry, the resulting material is honeycombed with millions of tiny air spaces, a property that results in marvelous insulation value (at least R2.5 per inch, often more like R3) as well as a relatively light weight. The fibers encased in a cement coat also give the papercrete good strength. Although its compressive strength is only about 10% of the value of ordinary concrete, that still means about 300 psi, which is, in other words, far beyond that necessary for a typical one-story building. No one is suggesting building skyscrapers out of papercrete, in any event.
There are several reasons why papercrete was chosen as our building method at D:FR. One is the fact that waste paper is plentiful and absolutely free given the wasteful nature of our consumer economy. In fact, landfills everywhere are gagging on millions of tons of the stuff daily, enough to build entire villages every week. The insulation value is extremely good, which means much less energy is needed to modify temperatures in either direction from a comfortable range. It is flexible. You can pour it, slap it, throw it, and trowel it. You can make bricks, panels, blocks large and small, make walls, and make roofs.
You can screw screws and hammer nails into it. Forgot to add a window to that room? No problem, just chainsaw one out where you like. Make the walls first and cut grooves later to lay the wire conduit and outlet boxes, using the same chainsaw. Ditto to enlarge the door frame if you haven't decided on single or double. Lay your papercrete blocks in your walls, then mortar them together with papercrete mortar, and then cover your irregularities with papercrete stucco. Make domes, arches, vaults, benches, niches, buttresses, garden walls, and turrets. Seal the roof with silicone-based water sealant or an elastomeric paint, and you ought to be done. Clean, green, and creative, what more could one ask?
For more information and to see some other great homes made out of papercrete, visit www.livinginpaper.com.