Written by Tim Hull

Image By Tim Hull ~

It’s early morning in the Dunbar Springs neighborhood and the anarchists next door are still asleep.  The power-hungry new sun is heating up the found-object metal artwork in the streets, and I’m standing by as Vincent Pawlowski mixes up a batch of Papercrete bricks.

The 50-something polymath, a retired biomedical engineer with a bushy beard and a full storehouse of creative energy, is up on a rickety platform in his backyard working a jury-rigged mixing drill through a barrel full of water, recycled paper products—junk mail, old Sierra Club calendars, even tossed-away books—and Portland cement.  The brew looks and smells like paper mache but when it’s formed into bricks and dried in the sun it makes strong building blocks that Pawlowski hopes to use to build a little dream home here on his corner lot.

He’s also hoping to perfect a mix of this alternative building material—which has been a around for years but is now drawing more interest—that doesn’t use commercial-grade cement (some likely alternatives include flyash and Roman cement), and to teach others how to mix and build with this cheap, energy efficient, and resource-saving material.

“Papercrete is especially suited to the desert and urban areas in the desert,” Pawlowksi says.  “We have hundreds of tons of scrap paper that can’t be recycled—about 20 percent of the paper products that go into the blue bins can’t be recycled.”

Construction costs, he says, work out to about 10 to 30 cents a square foot of interior space, minus labor.

“My personal goal is to start setting up workshops to teach people how to make it,” he adds.  “We need to know this.”

He tells me about how, when he was college in the mid 70s and the last oil crises was on, he started to get interested in solar power.  But his dad died around his sophomore year, and he left school to help his family for a while.  When he got back, in 1980, he says,  “Reagan was in the Whitehouse, solar panels were off the roof, and my advisor said you might want to do something else.”

So he went into another field, but he always had the environmental itch.  About three years ago he went back to school at Prescott College, and now he’s finishing up a degree in Sustainable Community Development—learning how to create sustainable communities, or recreate a community that is dying and try to make it more sustainable.

“Papercrete seems to be a fairly large component of the solution,” he says.

In the fall, he will put on the first ever international conference on Papercrete-building here in Tucson as part of his degree program, an event he hopes will go a long way toward creating a viable industry.
He’s also been working with an anthropologist at the University of Arizona who is looking into using Papercrete as a solution to health problems in Nogales, Mexico, where many children suffer from asthma, due in part to all the wood burning precipitated by poorly insulted homes.

“They are looking for a better building material,” he says, “some way to insulate houses and not use so much wood.  Papercrete may be the solution.”

I’ve been talking to a few adherents of alternative building materials recently, and there seems to be a similar short-list of priorities for each of them, no matter what the specific material they’re using.  These are, in no particular order, that the material be relatively inexpensive; that it be easy to use, even with unskilled labor; that it be energy efficient, whether through thermal mass or a kind of built-in insulation; that it come from the dirt, so to speak, or use something that is recycled; and that it last.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the components of the average sunbelt tract home will recognize the vast gulf between the way things are and the way they perhaps aught to be.  Before the railroad made it possible for us to build Victorian mansions and stick-built tract homes here in the desert, this land was dotted with homes built of a material that met at least a few of the above criteria:  adobe.  So it’s not surprising that that this most ancient of building blocks is the material most often likened to the various alternative methods.

Take, for instance, LAVA Concrete, invented and patented by the architect and all-around futurist philosopher Paul Schwam.  LAVA stands for Lightweight Aggregate Vertical Application; it’s a reverse-blend concrete-like substance built of volcanic cinder, water, and cement.  Schwam, who knew Buckminster Fuller, one of the 20th Century’s greatest adherents of alternative building techniques, explained that, unlike regular concrete which is blended dry and then mixed with water at the end of the process, his LAVA method blends cinder (which can be found pretty much everywhere) with water first and then adds the cement last, so the cement coats the volcanic rock that has been charged with water.  When it’s all done you’ve got air space that acts as insulation, and it’s easy to use, similar to rammed earth but without the ramming.

“Unlike regular concrete, LAVA is naturally insulative, absorbs sound, is safe and easy to build with like some kind of  ‘modern adobe’” Schwam says.  “ It has a natural color which can be simply sealed instead of plastered.”

Schwam calls it “building sand castles.”

I met Schwam, another 50-something, on the site of a big, beautiful sand castle he’s building for a client in Oro Valley.  A solar array on the property was hooked up before construction started so the crew could use the sun’s power to build with.

We got to talking about the impetus for trying something different.  I got the feeling he could have sat there talking all day.

“I think that there are better ways to do things,” he says, sitting against a reddish-brown wall of his own creation, a building, as he says, that has “soul”.

“I love innovation,” he says.  At core, what he’s trying to do is to make housing affordable, easy, and lasting.  People tend to get chained down in their lives just trying to afford a living space, working too much to afford a home that probably won’t last past their own lifetime and isn’t that efficient and healthy anyway.

“I’m trying to find an easier way to build.  I am trying to make it simple and intuitive, like building a sand castle,” he says.  “I don’t like the world we are handing off, and as an elder in this community I feel responsible. There’s paradigm shift going on; my son,  who is 26, and the younger generation, they are questioning the entire system.”

In the simplest terms, he says, he wants to build more and more with less and less.

On another day, custom home builder Warren Powell stopped by my house to show me his favorite material, Faswall, a concrete block made with 85 percent recycled wood pallets that has been around since just after World War II.

A contractor from Utah in his sixties, Powell has already built several homes out of this material, most recently for a client who is chemically sensitive and needed a breathable wall.

He told me that he’s trying to educate local architects about Faswall, which, by recycling wood pallets, finds a second use for a huge amount of lumber that is usually discarded, and is easy to build with and very energy efficient.

“The most important thing is that it addresses the health issue,” he says.  “It takes outside air and breathes through the wall at a slow rate, so you are getting air exchange.   A lot of people make their homes really tight and they living inside their own soup.”

He says he likes the fact that Faswall has been around a long time.  There are rediscoveries to be made, different ways of doing things that were known and then forgotten in the crush of runaway, easy growth.

“Our great-grandparents were the original green builders,” Powell says.  “Because they used whatever was on site.”

That seems to me to be the luminescent kernel of takeaway truth in all of this, whether you’re building Papercrete bungalows, lava-rock sandcastles, adobe huts, rammed earth mansions, or whatever other new-time alternative to the sticks, stucco, and blasting air-conditioning-paradigm we’re currently stuck in: That things haven’t always been like this; there are better ways of building, and we can always look backward for what we need to move forward.