Paper is soft enough to make tissues, but also strong enough to hold up a roof. Doctoral candidate Jerzy Łątka has conducted research into the possibilities of paper and predicts a great future for it as a construction material for temporary buildings, furniture and interior walls.
Russia spent an estimated 50 billion dollars on the 2014 Olympic Games, much of it on accommodation. Three years on, many of the buildings are empty. “If they'd used paper for them, the buildings no longer needed would have been recycled long ago”, says Łątka. “It's incredible that more temporary architecture is not made using paper.”
Paper is a material with unique properties. On the one hand, it can easily be processed into pulp by mixing it with water – paper fibres can be reused up to 7 times. On the other hand, it is sufficiently robust to achieve a high compressive strength and bending stiffness. In particular, tubes made of cardboard – thick paper – are suitable for building very strong structures.
In the compressive strength tests conducted by Łątka, it took a force of 16,000 newtons for a folded cardboard tube to give way. This mass product is also extremely suited as a construction material in the form of corrugated cardboard, honeycomb panels, cardboard tubes and L- and U-shaped edges. It has been successfully used to build chairs, houses and emergency dwellings. The ‘House of Cards’ that he himself built in Poland offers thermal insulation, privacy and safety to people without a roof over their heads. They could be refugees or victims of natural disasters, or even homeless people in western cities. The number of homeless people in the world has now reached a record figure of 65.6 million. Cardboard accommodation can offer them stronger and more sustainable shelter than the tents where many people end up.
In his doctoral research ‘Paper in Architecture’, Łątka investigates exactly what paper is and what its possibilities are. He also asks the question of whether paper could become a fully-fledged architectural material, alongside concrete, wood and steel. His conclusion is: not for the time being, but that could change in the longer term. If, after 2020, it becomes a strict requirement for every construction project to include 70% recyclable materials, paper could have an increasing role to play. Its vulnerability to water need not be a problem. Paper can be made water-resistant using polyurethane paint or PVC film, while still remaining recyclable.
As a product, it also continues to be developed. The development of nanocellulose and microcellulose in the paper and cardboard industry has resulted in an increase in strength and a significant reduction in weight. Since this mostly involves innovations for the packaging industry, a low price is a key priority. Latka argues that this means that paper has real potential in construction. “After all, isn't architecture just a big type of packaging?”
But this provides no guarantee that paper will start replacing concrete or steel in the architecture of the future. One of the obstacles to that is building regulations. However, he predicts an inevitable growth in paper constructions for emergency accommodation worldwide and as a temporary solution for empty spaces in cities. “Paper will never become a traditional construction material like concrete, steel, glass or plastic. But it will serve as an excellent addition.”
After his doctorate, Latka plans to conduct research into paper as a construction material for furniture, industrial elements, partition walls and architecture.
Published: December 2017
- PhD thesis 'Paper in architecture'