Papercrete is a medium most commonly utilized in the creation of Earthships. Papercrete, in its holistic form, is an alternative construction material constituted of paper pulp, aggregate (sand), and earthen clay.
Some folks add cement to this mixture for additional tinsel strength. As an artist concerned with the environmental repercussions of my studio-practice, I will promote this report to exclude the use of cement due to its contributions in greenhouse-gas buildup.
That being said, papercrete has incredible potential to create great work without causing planetary destruction! This oatmeal-like mixture can be cast in molds to make bricks or structures, applied to surfaces, and pulled as sheets. The mix gains its strength as it dries out in the sun.
Papercrete first appeared in US patents during the 1920’s. There is archival debate about the specific date, but its been nearly a century since the beginning of its uses in the US. At that point in history, paper was expensive to build with. Today it is seen as an opportunity for effective recycling and is reinforced with rebar in some instances for load-bearing.
Little research has been quantified to represent papercrete’s structural integrity in relation to building code. That, however, did not stop it’s resurgence in the Southwest during the 1980’s. As Ian Dille wrote for the Texas Observer in 2014, “ […] various individuals in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona independently rediscovered the process and began experimenting with papercrete.” Dille continues to summarize that, “[…] in a sense the papercreters were unified by location. they tended to live on the fringes of the grid or off it entirely. Most resided in jurisdictions with lax building codes, or no building codes at all, where they could build without restriction.”
The second generation of “papercreters” may have been geographically unified in their aversion to building codes, but were conceptually unified on a global scale with a vast historical lineage. Alex Wright, a team member of Watershed Materials, discusses parallel evidence of Ancient Egypt’s earthen construction tactics in his article Geopolymer Concrete, Egyptian Pryamids, and a New Way Forward for Sustainable Masonry. Data sediments to reveal that the massive pyramid blocks were cast in place. The durable substance was made of locally-sourced earthen materials and poured into wooden molds, where they would sit as they baked in the sun.
Wright states, “[…] the Egyptians appear to have pioneered a geoploymer concrete that lasted throughout the history of modern humanity made from abundant common earthen materials found nearly everywhere on the planet. Compare that to the concrete we make that lasts half a century and comes with a disastrous carbon footprint.” Wright extends this notion of refection as he continues to re-imagine the potential for the future of building.
By revisiting humankind’s universal heritage of composite-construction methods with naturally occurring materials, we begin to unfold the limitless potential for cleaner making. I believe that papercrete may be an ideal vehicle for environmentally-concerned investigations.
Papercrete is lightweight and strong. Which makes it easy to move, store, and ship from studio to gallery. Artists have utilized this material in conceptual conversation about the human relationships to the building upon earth. Oscar Tuazon describes this “outlaw architecture” as a “physical […] experience of balance,” in his artist bio for the Luhring Augustine gallery.
Tuazon utilizes papercrete with his “I Can’t See” series, in which the medium exists as it is contained within its wooden flask. The works feature inclusions of larger recycled paper scraps. Tuazon may be discussing the blinding clutter of consumption yet simultaneously re-invisions its potential condensing via its repurposing.
Highlighting the possible potential for the future of our artistic and environmental interrelation is critical for sustainable studio practice. In light of the earth’s suffered damages, it feels unkind to turn a blind eye in the anthropocene. So let us take notice, make changes, and adapt our modes of creation.
Let’s look to the world of paper-art and re-iamgine how it can stand to aid in that. Paper-making and book arts overflow into the realm of sculpture, but papercrete could break the levee. Dissolving boundaries between artistic disciplines and building bridges from practice to concept, papercrete holds weight in the potential for our future from our past.