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The Paper Bale House

Mountain Life

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The history of American architecture has certainly seen its share of residential trash. But the “Paper Bale House” in Fraser, Colo., looks like anything but garbage-though it is made out of paper, 35 tons of it. The 1,200-square-foot paper and stucco home is unlikely to blow away by high-country winds, and even less likely to catch on fire. In fact, it has a far better shot of surviving a forest fire than a traditional house of post-and-beam construction. It’s also significantly cheaper to build and maintain and far more eco-friendly than your typical American home.

Owner Rich Messer decided to build an alternative house after he retired from corporate America in 1994 to become a full-time ski instructor at Winter Park, Colo. Messer settled in nearby Fraser because of its low-key appeal. With the nickname “Ice Box of the Nation,” Fraser seems like the worst place to build a house of paper, but Messer’s average $60-per-month electric bill (even during the recent energy crunch) proves him the wiser.

As he set out to build his retirement home, Messer researched a variety of building systems. The more he learned, the more he realized he had to find a construction method that conserved as much as possible, with minimal impact on the environment. “We live in an extremely wasteful society,” Messer says. “I figured I’ve owned a dozen new homes in my life, so I’ve already used up my share of wood.” With that, he focused on alternative building systems, including straw-bale, earthship and rammed earth (clay) homes. In 1996, he came across architect Doug Eichelberger’s paper-bale prototype in Larkspur, Colo. “I knew that was it,” Messer says. “It was attractive, practical and economical.” (Completed, it cost about $100 per square foot to build, compared to about $130 for a traditional home with similar specs.) It helps that Messer’s paper bales, made from shredded detergent boxes (as well as the 17 tons of plastic bales, made from PVC bottles), were free from Tri-R Recycling in Denver. Messer only needed to shell out $850 for delivery.

Messer learned from the experience of Eichelberger, who used bales of magazines instead of detergent boxes. During construction, scraps from the bales blew onto the neighbor’s lawn, which was worsened by the fact that there were some adult titles in the mix. Shredded detergent boxes maintain their strength and form as well as magazines do. “The house has barely settled at all, which was a surprise…no…a pleasant relief,” Messer reflects. He feared that cracks might appear in the walls, but has found only one to date, which was easily fixable with some stucco and a hand trowel.

One of the most critical attributes of the detergent boxes is also what makes them unfit for recycling-the plastic coating. “It makes them nearly incombustable,” Messer says. “You can hold a torch to the bales, and as soon as you remove the flame, it extinguishes itself.”

The house is relatively indestructible. The exterior walls-made of bales three feet thick-are so sound that when Messer needed a loan, Norwest Bank (now Wells Fargo) refused to lend him the value of just the land ($40,000), arguing that if he defaulted, the excavators would exceed that amount trying to demolish the structure. “You could drive a car into the house and it would hurt your car more than the house,” Messer says.

The construction process is fairly simple. The 3-foot by 3-foot by 6-foot, 1,100-pound bales are packed so tightly that when the wire that binds them is cut, a single bale expands enough to bury a pickup truck. The weight and compressibility of the bales make them self-stabilizing, but since they’re stacked in threes, they were further reinforced with re-bar. The electrical wires run through channels between the bales, and the outlets are cemented into holes drilled in the bales. The window- and door-jambs are fastened to the bales with 12-inch bolts. And where there were gaps, Messer’s partner, Annie Dowden, filled them wiith “burritos” made of rolled-up paper scraps. Dowden modestly says that her job was to pick up the trash and keep the site clean. Messer assures her that she was far more hands-on, but her biggest job was to keep him sane.

Though not traditional, the finished product hardly brings down the property value in Messer’s development, Ice Box Estates. It doesn’t look like a landfill, but rather a stucco house, with some added character, such as bumpy exterior walls and eclectic décor. Messer made it his mission to use every scrap efficiently and to recycle materials wherever possible.

Messer and Dowden found many of the interior accents from salvage yards, including the door frames, the window frames and much of the hardware. The kitchen counter is two-tone and triangular-shaped, but its shape matches the triangular window across from it. All of the pictures in the home hang from the ceilings, because it would otherwise mean drilling bolts into the stucco walls, leaving holes, which Messer advises, “don’t go away, at least not easily.”

Between the radiant floor heating system and the blanket effect of the 3-foot-thick exterior walls, the home is extremely efficient to heat. “In fact,” Messer says, “it only loses about one degree per day when the heat is turned off.” And in the summer, the thick walls keep the house cool.

While Messer’s finished product was a success, the process was a challenge-from trying to get a loan to securing insurance (only Lloyds of London would offer him a policy) to the build-out. And there are construction limitations inherent to this system. Due to the fact that the bales are weight-bearing, it limits the design to a single-story. Bales will safely support an evenly pitched and evenly weighted roof, but such a roof should sit only on a simple rectangle or square to disperse weight accordingly.

The headaches weren’t big enough to scare Messer out of wanting to try a second paper home. “I’ve got a viable building system; now I’d like to build another with additional sustainable energy, like solar power and geothermal heat,” he says. Although he doesn’t plan on making this a commercial business, he would like to build another paper house in the next two years, and is hoping to consult on similar projects. “I’m not looking to turn this into a big money-maker,” Messer says, “But I really would like to make a difference.” For more information, email Messer at [email protected]