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Tucson Weekly It Works On Paper

Jean Nielsen Says Her Radical New Building Idea Came From Romance Novels.

By Kay Sather

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  JEAN NIELSEN SAYS the idea for her project came from romance novels. Not from reading them, she explains, but from watching people bring their used copies into Bookman's in far greater numbers than she and her coworkers there could ever hope to sell.

Someone ought to try building a house with them, she thought.

It wasn't long before she learned that "someone" had already begun such a project here in Tucson. Robert Harrel, owner of a local paper-shredding company, had adapted an industrial-sized baling machine to produce a number of smaller bales from the non-recyclable paper he had processed. He hoped eventually to use them, like straw bales, to build a home.

About the time Nielsen contacted him, however, Harrel was preparing to move out of town. Rather than haul the 300-pound bales along with him, he asked Nielsen if she would like to have them.

It was "an opportunity not to be passed up," she says.

Southwest Gas volunteered to store the 150 bales while Nielsen began the task of finding the expertise, labor, additional materials and site for her paper-bale building. She envisioned it as an educational experiment involving the community rather than a private home.

And that's what it's turned out to be. Initial support came from the UA's Facilities Management Department, where the campus Recycling Office is located. Eventually the College of Architecture, other University departments, and more than two dozen local businesses contributed to the building's design and construction.

The 400-square-foot structure now stands near the chickens and cows at the University's West Agriculture Center, nearly complete. Its walls are thick, supporting the roof without the help of post-and-beam bracing, and unmistakably bowed. But it wasn't meant to be pretty.

"We could have made it non-loadbearing," says Nielsen, "but we really wanted to...make it the 'worst case scenario' so that you could really see where its weaknesses are."

The building hasn't been plumbed or wired, since it's destined to be used as a humble tool shed. But it has already begun to fulfill its real purpose--to answer some questions about the feasibility of paper bale construction, and to generate more questions for further research and experimentation.

A key question at this point seems to be, "What kind of paper bale is best for building walls?"

"We had some major problems related to the mechanics of the bales," says consultant Matts Myhrman from Out on Bale, a straw-bale education group. The paper bales had rounded edges, he says, probably because they were bound around their girth instead of their length, like straw bales. Nielsen thinks the rounding might have been exacerbated by many months of storage and the number of times they were moved.

Obadiah Swafford, an architecture graduate student and the project's site coordinator, says the rounded edges made the bales "hard to set up straight. They tended to shift and move until they settled."

They were also heavy and dense. Though Harrel intentionally made them the same size as straw bales (2-foot-by-4-foot-by-20-inch), they were four times heavier. Whereas any able-bodied friend or neighbor can help with a typical straw-bale wall raising, Swafford used a forklift for most of the placing. The highest course had to be placed by hand, he says, with considerable difficulty.

The density of the bales presented other challenges. In straw-bale building, rebar is usually driven through each course of bales to anchor it to the courses below, but the density of the paper bales made this extremely difficult. Rebar staples were used for strength instead.

Though lighter bales could be produced, Swafford says he wouldn't change the density. It's needed for strength, he says.

Though denser, the paper bales compressed more than straw bales when weighted or "loaded." "We got quite a bit of creep," Swafford says--about 8 inches (on the 8-foot walls), as compared to one or two inches for a straw-bale wall. Compression actually strengthens the bales.

"[The building] is structurally sound," Swafford says.

WILL IT remain so? Questions about its vulnerability to moisture, fire, termites and decay need to be answered.

"I think the decomposition of paper is a critical factor," Nielsen says. Some straw-bale houses have stood solidly for over 100 years, but we have only shelves of books in libraries to tell us how paper ages--no compressed, sealed walls.

It's only in recent years that vast amounts of waste paper clogging the world's landfills have inspired innovators to start thinking of it as a resource. It has already been tried as a building material, in everything from roofing and insulation to pressed lumber and mud-bound brick.

Baling machines, though not new, aren't just for hay and cotton any more--check the back room of any grocery store. Nowadays cardboard, rags, plastic bottles, and other used materials are routinely baled for storage and transport.

Building with paper bales seems to be an idea whose time has come. So it's not surprising that the Tucson project is sharing its "first paper-bale building" status with one near Taos, New Mexico, where a structure made from non-customized industrial bales--weighing about 1,200 pounds each--is also near completion. That building uses wooden posts and beams for support, so it won't test the load-bearing abilities of the bales.

UA engineers are also conducting in-plane and out-of-plane testing for lateral strength of the walls. But the kind of formal testing required for building codes is often expensive, and wasn't within the project's budget. Harrel says that flash testing, for example, could cost $10,000 or more. He thinks the bales are somewhat resistant to flame because of their density, but probably not as resistant as straw bales. He also believes that wood--which contains starch--is more attractive to termites than paper, which is mostly cellulose fiber. But termites do eat books, so it's clear that paper bales are not immune to them. The R-value (insulative capacity) of paper bales hasn't been determined yet, either, though it's expected to be high.

As a pioneering effort, the Tucson project has generated quite a few ideas for future experiments in paper-bale building. Swafford and Myhrman would both like to see smaller, more "user-friendly" bales created for use in construction. Nielsen suggests that adding a dehydrated lime binder to the shredded paper might add to its life and deter termites. (Lime has been used to preserve paper for centuries.) Harrel believes that "channels" for rebar could be formed in the bales as they're pressed, making it easy to pin one course to another.

"I think [the project] will give others a boost, an inspiration to carry it to the next step," says Jean Nielsen. "And that's really what this building is."

The University of Anchorage may be part of that next step. They're interested in the Tucson experiment because waste paper disposal is a problem there, with no place to ship it nearby. They also don't have straw. While building with straw uses a waste material and reduces air pollution from field burnoffs, the environmental benefits are reduced if the bales need to be hauled long distances. Tucson, like Anchorage and other cities, is relatively distant from straw-producing agriculture, and might be a logical place for paper-bale construction.

Now there's a small storage building overlooking the Santa Cruz that may tell future builders a few things they couldn't have gotten from a book.

An open house for the paper-bale building will be held in mid-January. Check future calendar listings for details.


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