Don’t Waste that Waste!
Turn it into a Resource
Jeff Adams | November 2018
Permaculturist Jeff Adams explores sustainable building with repurposed recycled materials. Adams is a licensed landscape contractor and permaculture practitioner providing ecological design-build, consulting, and education services through his firm TerraSophia LCC.
It started out as such a seemingly simple idea: build a small mud hut using bundles of arundo, a cane grass similar to bamboo, for my fiancé to labor in during our pregnancy. Our daughter is now almost two and I’m still trying to finish the mud hut. A bit late for being a womb-like labor hut, this structure has taken on a life of its own with a range of uses and materials used. A major turning point in the evolution of this experiment came on the heels of a free 5 foot by 6 foot double paned window. I became captivated by the idea of this hut also being a passive solar green house so we can get a jump on growing food and other plants, and the scope of work escalated. A window of this size needs a proper footer to rest on and some sort of wall and roof system to secure to. Arundo bundles alone would not hold it up for long. What has emerged is a hybrid of conventional and natural building with a heavy dose of using waste as a resource.
Starting from the ground a rubble trench is stacked with layers of earthbags, filling the spaces between wooden posts to create a solid footer and roof frame. Dimensional lumber is used to create studs and horizontal supports for a shelf system that will provide much needed storage. A metal roof keeps everything dry and will become a great source for rainwater catchment once we get the gutters installed and cistern plumbed. And then the fun part began – sculpting the walls to balance thermal mass for absorbing the sun’s heat, insulation to keep the interior comfortable, and aesthetics to create a space of beauty and function. Being less than 200 square feet and without utilities means no permit is required, allowing the outputs of our waste stream to be organically incorporated into the hut walls as we go.
Seeking to maximize the use of waste and discarded materials, bundles of noxious grass stalks (Ravenna and arundo) provide a thatch like fill between the studs. Both grasses are regularly being removed and burned or landfilled. Being able to upcycle this material for use as a valuable building material not only saved money but also locked up the carbon rich plant material in the walls for a long time to come. Arundo is especially adapted to produce a lot of biomass with canes growing up to 15 feet or more in a single year, making it a highly renewable material. The bundles gave the hut a tropical woven basket feeling, which lasted a couple weeks before the mudding began.
Working with mud is fun. It’s relatively easy to make and use, and is highly adaptable in terms of material mixes and applications. There’s a sensuality when applying mud with bare hands and a child like playfulness resonates through groups of friends working together to create. Every mud hut holds a thousand stories in the hand prints left behind. The primary ingredients used are earth (clay-sand), clay slurry, pulped newspaper, and fine straw. In general two mixes were used, one containing straw to create a hybrid cob and the other substituting newspaper pulp for straw to create a hybrid adobe. The hybrid adobe is good for smooshing between the grasses and has good insulation qualities from all the paper pulp. The hybrid cob is bulkier and used to build up areas and fill around the bottle bricks. Some of the hybrid abode used on the exterior of the footer has 15-20% cement to provide extra durability against the elements.
Bottle bricks are vessels, often plastic bottles but nearly any container can be used, stuffed with clean trash and hard to recycle materials. Wrappers, chip bags, dead pens, clam shell containers. Just about anything that is going to be thrown away can be packed into a bottle brick. The key is to clean any food containers and other items to avoid decomposition and smells and to compress the material inside the bottle brick using a rod. It is amazing how much material goes into one bottle. My family and our friend Jay have been making bottle bricks for almost 2 years now and we estimate turning at least 75% of our trash into building materials.
Our bottle bricks are in a range of sizes and shapes, and are used to fill in spaces between the grass bundles and in other areas of the hut walls. Bottle bricks are stacked and layered with mud to lock them together. Once the bottle bricks are mudded over they become sequestered, locked off from the elements and critters, unseen to the people who enter the hut.
At this time of writing the hut is nearly closed in and ready for the infamous window to take its place, creating a multifunctional space for people and plants. It’s a labor of love and a direct action towards creating a resilient and regenerative place. By turning problems of waste plastic and undesired plants into a low cost, high impact solution, the hut has come to emblemize to me the powerful potential of our creativity, collaboration, and craft.