Building and Constructing with Paper
What if we could build paper houses?
If paper was a building material?
Would this create new possibilities for architecture and design?
Would we be able to develop new solutions for the construction process, and could we better meet the demand for building materials by using renewable raw materials?
Would such a process mean new construction methods, and would it there-fore bring forth new forms of architecture?
Maybe our knowledge about building with paper is not yet sufficiently developed to translate this vision into reality and to fully foresee its added value for the building industry.
But the developments in wood construction technology over recent years show how building processes and building methods can change over time, driven by research and technological advances.
Today, first high-rise buildings based on primary structures made of wood exist, inconceivable not too long ago. Civil engineers, architects, and designers as well as manufacturers and producers have driven the ongoing development of timber construction and have thus changed the construction process.
New opportunities arose to develop resource-friendly building methods to meet future demands.
Let’s imagine we could learn from the success story of building with wood and could promote a similar development based on a wood fibre material. Imagine, we had this new building material paper. This perspective poses many challenges, however. Humidity, fire protection, structural characteristics, and the biological and chemical behaviour of paper materials are aspects that need to be addressed and solved within the scope of building planning requirements. In parallel to material research, we need to identify specific areas of application that fully exploit the potential of paper and cardboard.
The first developmental step lies in the optimisation of existing paper materials and the search for new, innovative solutions for the handling of paper and its manufacturing processes. That is precisely the goal of the BAMP project Building with Paper, a project that this exhibition presents to the public, to show the search for the added value that paper can bring to architecture and design.
The research consortium at Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany conducts holistic research in the fundamentals of building with paper – from fibre to building. The exhibition shows the experimental process at the interface between creative processing and scien-tific and engineering research.
The Material Paper
The material paper, consisting of cellulose, is a very old and longknown mat-erial, processed with specific technologies. And yet, its use in architecture and as a building material has been very minimally researched to date.
Currently available paper or cardboard materials are developed for other purposes. They stem from an industrial manufacturing process with the focus lying on packaging, support materials for other industrial manufacturing processes, and paper for print products and similar applications.
Paper rolls, for example, are primarily designed for storing yard ware, such as
textiles and paper, and therefore have specific dimensions and characteristics for storage - usually for use in simple storage facilities.
Thus, it is obvious, that, ex works, the material cannot respond to the requirements posed by the complex use in residential buildings. Requirements in terms of fire protection, weather protection, structural stress that occur in building construction. And requirements that result from architectural necessities do not yet enjoy priority in the current development of paper products.
Processing Paper and Cardboard
Traditional processing methods for paper and cardboard are well-known. Paper, the single most important information carrier until the invention of digital data processing and cloud-based systems and archives, is written and printed on, folded, cut, punched, tacked, and glued.
But what if the place of implementation, meaning a building or construction site, requires fundamentally new requirements to handle the material? New machines, new tools so that new processing methods can even become possible? If the structure of new building products changes and scissors alone do no longer suffice to process the material?
One possibility might be to employ processing methods from craftsman and industrial techniques used for other materials. For example, transferring techniques from metal processing, particularly sheet metal. Edging or clinching are obvious approaches if thickness increases, and paper materials can no longer be shaped by simple folding alone.
Thus, developing new paper materials also means developing new processing methods, which, in turn, is directly connected to the development of paper and cardboard for the building industry.
Conecting Paper or Cardboard
When dealing with paper and cardboard, the simplest processing methods are those that have long been established. The most obvious way to connect parts is to glue, press-fit, or staple them together, similar to what we do in small-scale projects or architectural model making. However, if paper is further developed to be used for building parts with increased material thickness, weight and volume, the connection methods cannot always be scaled up accordingly.
Gluing thicker layers of paper, for example, means that the increased weight could cause the layers to delaminate, introducing a new problem. We therefore need to search for new connection methods that advance the ones we know and incorporate new solutions.
How can the structure of paper be adjusted; how can we exploit it to maybe
connect individual layers with each other? For example, by combining multiple layers with different fibre orientations at nodal points to connect the material.
Can the nodal point of a support and a joist be fixated with a collar? What happens if we apply glue to the collar, then put the collar in place when it’s still wet so that the fibrous structure of the material makes it wrap around the contours of the nodal point and therefore the construction?
If, in addition, the surface of the paper is such that two parts connect as a result of applying wet and dry processes to the fibrous material, this connection is a material-immanent bond without the need for additive materials. And it would mean that paper offers a potential that is a direct result of the specific material properties.
The necessity to advance paper product development with a focus on the specific application in building construction is evident. Since paper making machines are high-tech industrial products based on very elaborate engineering tech-nology, advancement in the processes should look into optimising existing manufacturing processes rather than searching for completely new solutions.
This means that we should build on traditional paper making and rethink the processes. One approach could be to re-orient and re-structure the fibres during paper manufacturing. If we could control the paper structure by aligning the fibres in certain ways and thus adapt the properties of the material, paper, compared to wood and its given fibre structure, could become optimised or customised wood. One example is the advanced development of derived timber products, from simple solid construction timber to multilayer board
with thinner layers, highlighting the quest to create ever more homogenous material cross-sections. Also, traditional paper materials should be examined in terms of creating dismantlable composites with simple material combinations. As long as they can be separated later, paper or cardboard-based materials in combination with other materials might create additional opportunities for new building parts and semi-finished products.
If we succeed in driving forward the research in the field of paper materials in this direction, the idea of a new building material can become reality. Hereby, material research is tasked with optimising the material in terms of adding functionalisation that provides paper and cardboard more properties than are needed for printing and writing on alone. Using an experimental approach, the results can ultimately be transferred to real, built architecture.
Building Parts and Elements
In architecture, we need simple building parts or elements to connect new structures and building elements after they are processed or modified: roof, wall, ceiling, floor, amongst others.
Next to this, the development of new building parts and elements also requires solutions for semi-finished products made of paper and cardboard to be used as simple profiles or panels. These simple building materials for supports or joists are still missing.
Thus, a first step would be to find out how cross-sections could be increased, and a very thin, planar material could be turned into a massive, voluminous part that could take on the function of a beam joist, for example.
One approach is to layer paper to attain greater cross-sections.
Also, honeycomb panels or corrugated carton, i.e., existing, planar semi-finished paper products, could be rolled or folded to produce parts with larger cross-sections and to save material at the same time.
The path to an approved paper building product, especially those that have loadbearing properties, can only be accom-plished with physical models that are used to test their performance. In par-allel, the behaviour has to be simulated, the results of which can serve as a know-ledge base for users such as structural engineers and architects.
When dealing with this topic, the experimental process in architecture, model building and developing initial 1:1 approaches, provides an opportunity to quickly identify potential and risks.
Currently, the biggest problem of developing paper houses is the question of the longevity of the material. The durability of masonry buildings as well timber con-structions is virtually unattainable with paper without increasing the usable lifetime with chemical pre-treatment of the material. In order to use existing mat-erials, the only valid option is to apply a subsequent additive coating to the paper or cardboard material.
Such coating processes are already used for regular paper to provide it with additional properties, for example to influence its printability. Building on this know-how, we need to develop coatings for paper and cardboard that apply to their use as building material. It might prove beneficial to draw on existing coatings for wood products, which, however, often limit or even prevent later removal or dismantlability, since the natural product is no longer fully biodegradable due to the chemical additives. Therefore, a particular focus lies on natural, biodegradable coatings that can be transferred to paper and card-board.
When used for façade materials, for example, weather protection is an important property, next to fire protection.
However, one the most critical aspects is
that the coating must serve as protection against humidity entering the material. To achieve the highest possible degree of water resistance, one approach is to develop a paper coating with so-called super-hydrophobic properties. This type of coating is inspired by nature, the surface of plant leaves, for example the lotus leaf and its structure. It also draws on using naturally occurring waxes to form a hydrophobic layer.
Besides these approaches it is also possible to work on the construction itself and use ventilation systems to control moisture. The goal is clear: to have an outer layer that may get wet / moist but prevents moisture from entering the building and its construction.
Timber construction and multilayer, rear-ventilated systems as a primary construction serves as the only sensible solution to this problem. Transferring timber constructions for roof and wall structures to the material paper can be easily tested in experimental and weathering tests and further developed based on the problems occurring during these tests.
When trying to use the material paper in building construction, its behaviour in case of fire poses the greatest challenge next to moisture protection.
First burning tests show that accomplishing a F30 rating, meaning a component can last 30 minutes in case of fire, is difficult to achieve with a component predominantly made of cellulose fibre.
Optimisation is necessary, be it by adding additives during manufacturing, ‘functionalisation’, or by compressing the material to attain higher mass. The latter are methods to provide timber components with an improved burning behaviour – the cross-section of a component is increased, and the outer layer burned to create a carbon layer around the outside, which protects the component and slows down the burning process of the remaining component.
Protection against bacteria and fungi is much more relevant when using paper and cardboard as building material, i.e., cellulose-based materials of organic origin, than when working with other materials. Its easy, natural recyclability can actually become a disadvantage for the material, and a premature decaying process leads to damages of material and construction. Initial research results were achieved with regards to con-trolled, delayed biologic degradability of coatings on paper.
Developing Concept and Structure
How can you begin developing architecture if building materials and especially the techniques for building with paper and cardboard are not yet sufficiently available or known? What does architecture made of a certain material look like? What does paper architecture look like?
Meaning, how does a design, an architectural artefact made of paper develop? The obvious first steps to take when working with paper and cardboard are to transform methods and jointing tech-niques with the knowledge of designing and building with different methods and in a different manner: i.e., transferring principles and orienting on other sha-pes, to translate their form.
This requires the development of a new ‘method of building’ in the sense of a new technology; based on that of timber
construction but needing to be rethought and redeveloped. One possibility to take this initial step is to conduct creative experiments to facilitate the testing of new ideas and architectural applicability. This means to pioneer the development based on scien-tific research and on thinking new concepts.
Initially, the resulting const-ructions will be non-scale models. They represent a connection, a joint or a func-tion in a formative sense. Thus, it is not the objective to develop the ultimate beam but rather a long element that lies horizontally, does not bend too far, and breaks in a controlled manner. Whether this element will ultimately be a beam joist or rather a column will depend on the results of the tests and come forth during the process.
How it all started
In 2011, a small group of researchers started the project ‘INSTANT HOMES’ within the framework of an academic collaboration advancement program, a joint research project of the departments Chemistry, Architecture and Mechanical Engineering at Technical University Darmstadt. The project is the first interdisciplinary project in the field of building with paper, and is considered the foundation of further research projects, one of which being BAMP! Building with Paper.
The objective of this early intervention was to get different disciplines to work, think and research together, with the common goal of joint research in the topic area: ‘Functional, fully biocompatible paper materials for aesthetic solutions in architecture’.
The project took on the task of developing simple, quick to realise shelters in the context of current global natural disasters.
An interdisciplinary student competition brought forth many of the elaborated designs, amongst which the ‘Cardboard Container House’.
The initial ideas focused on the foldability of the shelters with the aim of realising a simple and quick construction and exploiting the material’s benefits, especially its light weight. The initial design phase was followed by an elaboration, focussing on the method of construction and assembly, modularity and weather protection as the prime parameters to consider. The work of the students was accompanied by constant consultation with the scientists of the participating institutes.
Due to the potential feasibility, the concept of the Cardboard Container House (Instand Home 01) was recommended as the project to be built as a prototype; to examine the feasibility of serial production and therefore the possibility of large-scale application in areas of natural disasters. In a further elaboration of the student work, the construction was further developed considering architectural criteria, and its feasibility was examined with a 1:1 model. A final demonstrator of the Container House was built in 2014 in the form of a partial model.
The interdisciplinary team of scientists of the Building with Paper project started its research work with the planning of architectural constructions and de-tails for demonstrators made of paper materials. The experimental setups ser-ved to issue statements about the usability of currently available paper and cardboard materials for use in the construction industry. Simple considerations of constructions on a 1:1 scale with paper-based production, design and jointing methods stood at the foreground of a systematic approach.
Initial applications were tried on a 1:1 scale, and a theoretical-conceptual series of house demonstrator designs under consideration of different construction and building methods were defined. In addition, basic requirements of the construction itself were established. The outcome were two houses made of common paper materials: House 01: frame construction, made of paper roles, and House 02: made of honeycomb panels joined to a solid construction. The simple house archetypes with a rectangular floorplan and a steep saddle
roof are pre-studies for the model in this room.
Since House 01 offered experience with the use of paper roles, HOUSE 02 was focussed on the use of planar paper materials. Honeycomb panels and coated corrugated boards, in particular. The basic prototype construction was to be comparable to that of the first demonstrator. Therefore, the house is a simple, rectangular building with a saddle roof, as well.
Besides the choice of materials for the main construction, the building was designed and dimensioned to accommodate the requirements in terms of own weight, wind loads and snow loads. It was then possible to calculate the structural requirements considering the construction and jointing used.
The construction process, especially the element-based concept and jointing of the many individual parts was defined by the selected principle of layering honeycomb panels. The structural parameters pose the most important requirements of the construction development.
Interdisciplinary Knowledge Centres
The search for alternative possibilities of paper applications – not least on the part of conventional paper usage – is un-derstandable. The production rates of paper and cardboard are constantly changing due to the changes in use, and a renunciation of paper for printing pro-ducts has been recognisable for quite some time. Advancing digitalisation, highs and lows in logistics, and changing regulatory conditions of the paper in-dustry will change the history of paper and cardboard.
However, if we want to build on the opportunities that optimised paper mat-erials offer, then we must not wait to invest in basic research in this field.
The research project Building with Pa-per in Darmstadt, Germany, on whose work this exhibition builds on, can only be the beginning of continuous research and development. The first results and findings are small building stones nec-essary for the development of building with paper. Because the objective is ob-vious: to find alternatives for building with today’s conventional materials.
The project and this exhibition con-tribute to this goal; they try to stimulate and invite everyone to participate. Buil-ding on the running research project BAMP and others in the field of buil-
ding with paper, the partners plan to establish a permanent area of spec-ialisation for this topic at the Darmstadt location. The new centre shall be plan-ned as a dedicated paper construction centre for research and development, to expand and continue the hitherto at-tained re-sults of the basic research. In the centre, network and permanent partners from different disciplines will work and conduct research together on different topics in the field of furniture and light construction for applications in architecture and building construc-tion.
Contrary to existing research projects that primarily try to determine basic knowledge for the use of paper and cardboard for alternative areas of app-lication, the centre wants to establish a specialised research subject at the inter-face between basic research and appli-cation-oriented research, which is spe-cialised in building objects and house demonstrators.
It particularly aims at making possible the immediate spatial collaboration of design, industrial design, interior design, furniture construction and architec-ture construction at the interface to paper processing, manufacturing and general natural sciences.
The exhibition is ‘made’ of paper and cardboard! A team of young creatives, designers, and architects, has worked long and hard on presenting the results of the project in the field of experi-mental processes, and the items have finally – with a one-year delay – found their way to Venice, to an international audience. This exhibition is also part of the objective to drive forward a new way of thinking around the topic of building with paper and to eradicate the ma-terial’s current image as a makeshift ma-terial. The exhibition is almost entirely made of paper and cardboard, and therefore in itself shows a solution for building with paper in the current context.
Participants and responsible parties:
Structures: Löser Messebau
Translation: Usch Engelmann
Print: Druckzentrum Lichtwiese
The exhibition contribution "Building with Paper" is part of the "Time Space Existence" exhibition form the 22nd May to the 21st November 2021 at the European Cultural Centre in Palazzo Mora, Venice.
The exhibition room made entirely of paper is located in room #06 at the first floor of Palazzo Mora.
European Cultural Centre
Time Space Existence
Supporters and Partners
The exhibition Building with Paper stems from the interest and focus of the research project ‘BAMP! Building with Paper’ in Darmstadt, Germany. Here, researchers from various disciplines examine the topic from the material to the building level on different scales and try to establish an area of specialisation. The results of the research cooperation und the corresponding and accompany-ing work around the topic of building with paper are currently compiled in an atlas / compendium titled Building with Paper in German and English language. The findings and basic knowledge for planners, designers and architects will be available at the end of 2021, offering the opportunity to further deepen the topic in building construction and arch-itecture.
The encouragement and the interest we received from many proves the general interest in the topic. The BAMP project and the team was supported by many sponsors from research and industry, without whom the exhibition and the statement made with it would not have been possible.
The exhibition team, the ‘Fachgebiet Plastisches Gestalten’, and the BAMP project are all grateful for the support and hope for continuing collaboration in new, exciting projects, with the goal to build the real thing, a paper house, or at least come ever closer to this goal.