I Love Papercrete

Papercrete Wall

Papercrete??  What’s that??

That’s the response I always get when I’m describing my favorite building material.  Not surprising since it occupies a spot in that backwater known as ‘alternative building materials’.  Papercrete is just what it sounds like actually.  It’s concrete made with paper.  I tell people to think of it as industrial paper mache.  It’s inexpensive to make, amazingly sturdy, lightweight and insulating.  Papercrete is made by grinding up paper in water and adding cement.  The resulting slurry can be cast into a variety of forms from blocks to panels to poured in place walls.   I found out about it in the late nineties.  I used to own a magazine distribution company that specialized in small press and unusual magazines.  One of the titles we carried had an article about people who were recycling newspapers and building with papercrete down in southern New Mexico.  It was a total off the grid hippie dome sort of scene.  The domes weren’t my thing but I was captivated by the material and the process of making it.  I saved a copy of that magazine and told everyone I knew about it.  It was especially appealing to me because I would have to pay to have extra unsold magazines hauled away for recycling.  At the time I didn’t have a place to experiment with building projects so eventually the papercrete article went into storage and the idea went on the back burner.   My biggest obstacle was the mixer.  To make papercrete you have to be able to grind up paper… lots of paper.  In order to do so you need a mixer capable of shredding paper.  A regular cement mixer won’t shred the paper it will just stir it around.  Luckily for me, a guy by the name of Mike McCain had already invented a papercrete mixer that you tow behind a truck.  You just throw everything in and drive slowly for about a mile.  When you’re done you have papercrete slurry ready to be cast into something.

papercrete blocks

Four years ago I decided that it was time to build something out of papercrete so I went about collecting the materials to build the mixer.  Over the course of a few months I had collected everything I needed from neighbors, the junkyard, and a few other sources.  My collection of potential mixer parts languished in the yard for a few more months and finally on Father’s Day I decided “it’s my day, and I’m building this freaking mixer already!!”  Well, I built  it ( More on that later) and more than a decade after I found out about it I was finally ready to make my first batch of papercrete.  We had been collecting all of our junkmail and recyclable trash the past six months just for this occasion.  All in all the first run went well, I didn’t spill too much stuff on the road, the mixer didn’t fall apart and papercrete was made.  I made about 10 more batches that Summer figuring that a project would emerge to use these blocks I was making.  I ended up using them to build the walls for a guesthouse and for making raised gardening beds.

papercrete planter

Why I love papercrete:

It’s a really easy material to make- As long as you stick to the rough proportions of water, paper and cement you’ll end up with a usable product.  I can make 45 blocks by myself in two hours.

It’s cheap- It costs about a quarter to make a 8″ x 12″ x 5″ high block.

It’s green- Totally overused term these days, I know, but I use all of our paper trash for the year and then quite a bit more.  It’s fun to go to the recycling center and see their faces when I ask for paper rather than dropping it off.  Now we even grind up all of our plastic trash and mix it right in!  Making papercrete turns nearly all of our household trash into building materials.

It’s sturdy but lightweight- A block only weighs a few pounds but can hold up a car!

It’s insulating- It has an r-value of 2 or 3 per inch so a 12″ wall has an r value of 24-36. The requirement for a regular wall in a house is r-19…  not too shabby.

It’s easy to work with- Once you have blocks you can use the same papercrete mix as a mortar and plaster to stick them together.

It’s weatherproof-  I’ve had blocks out in the elements for 4 years and they haven’t changed at all.  It does absorb water like a sponge so if they are going to be used for walls they need to be protected from moisture.

What’s not to love?

 

Next up I’ll go over how to make a papercrete mixer.

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18 Comments

  1. Posted September 5, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Oh how I’ve missed you, Miss Molly! And I LOVE this new site!!!!

    • Posted September 7, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      Thank you Lori!  It’s been fun!

  2. Posted September 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to go over how to make the mixer and how I make blocks over the next couple weeks so stay tuned…

  3. Craig
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful use of virtually all types of paper!!  But I wonder what will happen when we convert over to a totally digital world — digicrete??

    Craig

    • Posted September 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      We’ll have to recycle our feeding tubes and white jumpsuits.  Tubesuitcrete!!!

    • Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      As long as there are tax accountants out there, there will continue to be plenty of scrap papers produced…

  4. Posted September 12, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    The forms are just 2 x 6s.  I’m going to go into more detail about my papercrete making process in an upcoming post.  Stay tuned…

  5. Posted September 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    What kind of finish would you put on to make it waterproof? especially if you’re going for cheap and environmentally friendly there too…

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      The cheapest /easiest route is to just have a generous overhang on your roof and good grading around the building. You can leave the blocks exposed or plaster them with papercrete. You could also do a mud plaster (depending on your climate) for a natural look. I’ll probably use stucco for longevity. Even though cement is energy intensive it also has the potential to last forever.

  6. Rimar2000
    Posted May 10, 2012 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    Surely it is refractory, too!  Did you the test?

    • Posted May 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      Actually, with enough instigation it will burn.  Mostly it smolders.
      I tried them in the woodstove. :)

  7. Jaemz
    Posted May 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    The problem with cement production that it is responsible for  huge carbon emissions. Papercrete includes cement. Papercrete isn’t that green.

    • Posted June 1, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      Green is a matter of perspective.  Since we’re not going to live in a preexisting cave (Molly won’t let me) we have to use building materials of one variety or another.  All of which have some sort of carbon footprint in their manufacture and transportation.  I get 45 blocks of papercrete per bag of cement and re use 75 lbs of 100% post consumer paper that did not have to travel any further.  That seems pretty good to me.  

    • Allen Eltor
      Posted July 1, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Since carbon isn’t a pollutant it’s not a problem. The Magic Gas setting the sky on fire stories you heard are just fabrications. It’s not even a real effect. Immersing a warm rock spinning in a frigid, refrigerated gas bath like the atmosphere doesn’t warm the rock no matter how many funding grant scammers tell you it does.

  8. byrdhouse1
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    I am interested in trying these first for my garden beds. Will they hold up in a wet climate? Having them soak up water in the garden isn’t a bad thing I guess… I just want to make sure they hold up when wet like that. …. I am also wanting to use them to make a simple milking barn for my cow and goats.

  9. susan
    Posted May 17, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Hello! Can you stucco over this to make it more waterproof or attractive?

  10. SageK
    Posted September 15, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mike (and Molly!) Thank you so much for your info share and inspiration. So here’s my idea; A papercrete house on wheels. I’ve been toying with the idea in my head for years. Perhaps a steel or wood framework with Papercrete filler (similar to strawbale construction). I love this guys use of space as per design aesthetic and use of square footage; http://richsportablecabins.com/ . I am NOT interested in a tiny house, but I am interested in a sort of “Pod” style of living. One papercrete pod on wheels to house bed/bath, one for kitchen, one for music studio etc etc. All connected with a deck. Something like that. Anyway *sigh* a dreamer dreams. What if at all, might you have in the way of suggestions or ideas in regards to my concept. Also, are you having another papercrete party/workshop…emphasis on the party :) My hubbs and I are permaculture, aquaponics, gardening fiends ourselves. I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to see your papercrete maker in action someday.

  11. Posted February 2, 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Having read this I thought it was rather enlightening.

    I appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this short article together.

    I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading
    and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!

7 Trackbacks

  1. [...]  You throw away very little. One man’s trash is another’s material for papercrete blocks, food for the worms or snacks for the [...]

  2. [...] is a lot to love about papercrete as a building material. It’s made out of readily accessible and inexpensive materials: [...]

  3. By How to Make Papercrete Blocks - mikeandmollyshouse.com on September 29, 2011 at 6:49 am

    [...] Never heard of it? Go here. [...]

  4. [...] that contains concrete and can be formed to make blocks. Think industrial paper maiche. To make paper-crete you mix up paper (we use junk mail), water and a bit of concrete. It’s incredibly light [...]

  5. [...] with an idea.  Her winter issue was all about paper.  She’d love an article on Mike’s papercrete! [...]

  6. By No More Trash « Stuff I Made This Year on February 20, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    [...] have been using papercrete as a building material around our place with good results.  All of our junk mail and other scrap paper has been going [...]

  7. [...]  If you’re thinking paper whodiewaha?  Check out these posts on papercrete where I go over what it is,how to make papercrete blocks and how to make your own papercrete [...]

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