Invented in Silver City more than a quarter century ago, these bricks made of paper withstand the test of time.
Written by Jennifer C. OLson
More than 25 years ago, Silver City resident Eric Patterson invented paper adobe. Today, he says, there are “a zillion reasons why” building with the substance is superior to building with conventional materials.
Eric created the product, also known as papercrete, in an attempt to recycle the tons of paper scraps his printing business, Unicorn Press, produced annually. On Earth Day in 1990, he and his daughter blended shredded paper with Portland Cement then poured it into a mold, expecting it to set quickly. “It stayed squishy,” he remembers. “After a few days, I thought, ‘The heck with it.’”
Three weeks later, Eric walked by their failed invention, discarded and forgotten in the dirt. He did a double take. The brick was finally solid. “It had to sun dry like an adobe block,” he says.
He tested its strength using the heaviest item available: the family minivan. Eric jacked up the van up on the lightweight paper block and left it awhile. “It didn’t even dent [the brick]. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey maybe you could build houses out of this.’”
He named the invention Padobe—short for paper adobe—and got to work. For his first bricks, Eric used a form made out of a 30-caliber ammunition can. “I was making all these blocks and didn’t know what I would do with them,” he notes.
That is, until his dad visited and discovered that the blocks—because they were wider on one side after being shaken out of the form—dried with a natural curve and, when lined-up, made a circle 18-feet across. “It amazed me because I just hadn’t noticed that,” he says.
Born in Alaska, Eric had always wanted to build a dome. “I used to build them out of snow,” he explains. Within two years, he had a completed paper igloo—a “man cave” measuring 18-feet wide and half as tall. He soon began a Padobe addition on his home, spending three years making the bricks and completing the project in 1995.
Meanwhile, Eric honed his method and constructed equipment big enough to mix four bricks at a time. He also patented Padobe, but later dropped the patent so others could build with the material, now known widely as papercrete.
The Recipe for Success // While there’s no hard and fast papercrete formula, Eric recommends adding just enough cement that the blocks solidify well and don’t grow mold, but not so much that the bricks become expensive and heavy. “You don’t have to use that much cement. You can, but it’s a waste,” he says, noting one bag of cement can make 40 bricks.
In addition to the right recipe, building with papercrete requires equipment. “It’s just not something you can go and buy at the local store,” Eric says.
Half the work is simply constructing your own brick-making factory. Eric’s setup includes a 55-gallon drum fitted with a custom curved blade and a motor. Another drum, cut in half, is positioned like a ramp below the blending drum and covered with a screen.
To make bricks, fill the drum with 40 gallons of water then turn on the motor and add paper. Any kind of paper will do—except paper grocery sacks, corrugated cardboard, and paper containing plastic. Don’t put in so much paper that the mixture stops moving.
Add the cement and continue mixing.
Dump the mixture onto the screen and let the water drain. “You can collect the water and use it over again,” Eric says.
Then, shovel the padobe into forms and let it dry in the sun for several days or weeks. Big blocks don’t dry well. “The best size is just kind of an adobe size,” Eric says.
An ideal papercrete brick (4 x 12 x 16 inches) weighs eight pounds. For comparison, an adobe brick (4 x 10 x 16 inches) weighs 35, and a cinder block (8 x 8 x 16 inches) weighs 28 pounds.
Mortar cured papercrete bricks together with—you guessed it—more papercrete, which offers an insulating factor of R-3.
THE RECIPE for Success
Eric recommends adding just enough cement that the blocks solidify well and don’t grow mold, but not so much that the bricks become expensive and heavy.
Papercrete in Action // Eric doesn’t recommend making roofs or ceilings from papercrete, domes excepted, and says it’s best to protect papercrete structures with paint or stucco. (While some claim papercrete is so strong it’s bulletproof. Eric is more cautious: “Bullets would go through this stuff like it’s swiss cheese. But then houses aren’t bulletproof either.”)
In Silver City, contractors immediately began building walls and houses with papercrete, and Eric has had a thousand curious people tour his paper home. Renowned Silver City artist Harry Benjamin sculpted an oversized papercrete Buddha foot, while another artist fabricated dinosaur bones from it and sold them to be buried as if half-excavated in people’s yards.
Do-it-yourself builders all over the Southwest, where the arid climate ensures solid and mold-free bricks, have since popularized papercrete construction. Papercrete bricks are also sold commercially.
Truth or Consequences resident Mikey Skylar and his girlfriend erected a fence out of four- by eight-foot papercrete panels and built several domes with the substance. “It’s really good looking,” Mikey says, but the couple, ultrarunners who’ve literally written the book on hands-on freeganism, say building with papercrete is too much work. “I just found the material hard to work with because getting it to dry out was very time consuming,” Mikey says.
They experimented with more tech-y, less backbreaking ways of using it and began not only casting papercrete but also spraying and pumping it—a messy business. “It goes everywhere,” he says. To strengthen their projects, the couple welded rebar frames and packed papercrete around the metal skeletons. Now, Mikey says, recycle-able paper is harder to come by, as it has become a valuable international commodity in action.
Still, enthusiasm for papercrete seems to be as lasting as the product itself. For New Mexicans looking to expand their knowledge of green and natural building products, or work on a true DIY building project, this innovative product is worth a look-see.
Papercrete in Action
Eric doesn’t recommend making roofs or ceilings from papercrete, domes excepted, and says it’s best to protect papercrete structures with paint or stucco.