Classy Trash: Recycled Paper Bale Colorado Home

That old analogy about little pigs and houses of straw is timeworn and weary. So a Colorado couple broke it wide open by building their house of ... well, trash. Recycled paper bales, to be exact.


| July/August 2002



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The triangle window was a gift from one of the salvage yard owners Rich worked with. It inspired the triangle countertop and light fixtures as well as the steel table.


Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison

Residents of tiny Fraser, Colorado, a former stage stop in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, watched with mild curiosity as a truck full of baled plastic—the stuff they send off to the recycling center every week—made its way through town and turned north on County Road 50, the route to the town’s former dump. “Some guy’s going to build a house out of that stuff,” the residents recounted. Heads were shaken; eyebrows raised. Neighbors in the subdivision where the truck finally came to a halt turned out in force.

Some were intrigued and excited when Rich Messer confirmed that, yes, he and his partner, Ann Douden, were going to build their home out of plastic and paperboard bales. Skeptics stepped back disapprovingly, worrying about property values. Yet they couldn’t help themselves from watching this groundbreaking house take shape. “We became a spectacle at that point,” Rich remembers.

Rich had remodeled a good dozen homes in the past (though none from the ground up), and he carried enough guilt about their environmental impact to weigh his options carefully this time. Despite having only limited experience on a building crew, Rich planned to build this home himself. He wanted it to be both easy to build and light on the land—and also to make a contribution to the field of green building.

After rejecting straw bales and Earthships made of old tires, he stumbled onto an idea that was cutting-edge... but possibly crazy. For some time architect Doug Eichelburger, a friend of a friend who lived in nearby Larkspur, had been testing load-bearing bales made from paperboard scraps for fire resistance, insulative qualities, and ability to withstand compression. Eichelburger had built a barn out of the bales, but when he discovered that he couldn’t patent the building system, he lost interest in pursuing it further.

Rich went to Eichelburger’s snug barn to help stucco the interiors, and as he stepped into the tack room, he knew he’d found his building method. “It was March, and the tack room was noticeably warmer than the rest of the building,” he explains. “I asked Doug what he was using to heat it, and he said the discharged heat from the refrigerator.”

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