Building With The Unusual

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We all know by now that recycling goes beyond the blue bin in your office or garage. In fact, the true champions of the recycling trio may just be reduction and reuse, making the quantity of materials headed to the energy-intensive recycling process drastically lower.

Reuse of a material often makes reduction possible, and reduction fuels the need for creative reuse, locking the two in a symbiotic relationship. Often, reuse is the most efficient way to recycle a material after it has served its original purpose.

From the creative to the artsy and the functional to the decorative, reuse projects can be spotted around every corner. In fact, some pioneers have taken a step beyond tire planters and glass bottle vases and actually adapted the concept to the principles of construction and architecture.

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The monks of the Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew temple even used the beer bottle caps from one million bottles to create mosaics of Buddha around the temple. Photo: Greenupgrader

We thought what some have done in the world of reuse was worthy of highlighting over the past few months. In the Building With series, tribute is paid to the ultimate reuse champions: those whose goal is to build entire structures with what many people would consider junk.

Building with Bottles

Reuse is often an act of necessity, rather than one of creative expression. Such was the case with William F. Peck’s beer Bottle House. More than 100 years ago in 1902, Peck built a home in the small, but booming mining town of Tonopah, Nev.

Short of necessities and far from freight lines, booming western mining towns often found saloons and their respective empty bottles to be more plentiful than construction materials.

Peck’s Bottle House, which utilized more than 10,000 empty glass bottles, is believed to be one of the earliest examples of a now more common act of using glass bottles in architecture. Recently, Buddhist Monks in Thailand celebrated the completion of a 25-year labor of love. The monks began collecting empty beer bottles and caps from the community in 1984 to build the Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew temple. One million beer bottles strong, the temple is definitely the most elaborate glass bottle effort to date.

Perhaps more of an environmental expression today than an act of necessity, glass bottles have been found to make excellent building materials if properly spaced, stacked and set for stability. They are a plentiful resource, hold their color well over time, provide great indoor lighting and are generally easy to clean. When combined with a binding material such as cement, stucco or adobe, they prove to be a stable building block as well.

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This home located in Quebec used seven shipping containers. The 3,000 square foot home was built for $58 per square foot, easily one-third the cost of building a traditional American home. Photo: Lowimpactliving.com

Building with Shipping Containers

Traditionally used to carry goods aboard trains or cargo ships, shipping containers have recently been proving themselves as structurally strong, modular building blocks when no longer needed for freight hauling.

When used to carry cargo, the steel containers average a lifespan of about 20 years before being sent to scrap yards. When stationary and properly maintained in architecture, their lifespan is likely to outlast other traditional building materials.

Constructed to withstand huge amounts of weight and pressure, as well as extreme weather conditions, these containers make ideal building blocks – not to mention the fact that they are plentiful, relatively cheap and easily transported. And because the U.S. generally imports more than it exports, containers end up stacked at shipping ports by the thousands, as it isn’t financially feasible to ship the empty containers back.

Building with Used Tires

Nearly 300 million tires are disposed of in the U.S., and the EPA estimates a market exists for approximately 80 percent of those tires. It’s an impressive percentage, but it still leaves approximately 60 million scrap tires to be stockpiled or landfilled. Enter: rammed-earth and tire-bale construction.

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The "Earthship" concept of building was popularized by Michael Reynolds, founder of Earthship Biotecture. Photo: earthship.net

Humankind has used sand, clay and other compacted soils for centuries in building, from Jericho, the oldest recorded city in history, to the forward-thinking architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. As the name suggests, “rammed-earth” construction continues the tradition of using earth as a building material.

Recycled automotive tires are filled with compacted soil to form rammed-earth bricks, the principle building blocks in this form of construction.

Used in place of traditional wood framing, a typical 2,000 square-foot home uses 1,000 scrap tires on average. Small gaps in the frames, due to the tires’ round shapes, are even filled with recycled materials, typically aluminum cans or bottles and adobe.

An alternative to rammed-earth bricks, tire bale construction is a more recently developed system of using recycled tires in construction. A tire-bale is a square brick comprised of approximately 100 compressed tires, weighing about 2,000 pounds. Homes built with tire bales use thousands of compressed tires, many more than standard rammed-earth bricks. They are stacked like oversized bricks to frame the outside walls of the home, smoothed with earth and finished with layers of plaster or stucco.

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