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

  • 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
  • The bales give the walls an intriguing, lumpy texture.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • The metal roof is hipped so that its weight is distributed evenly over all four walls of the house.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • Rich laid all of the tile, which was chosen because it’s an ideal surface for radiant heat. Interior drywall meets the curved window wall for a seamless finish.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • The “truth window” clearly shows what the scraps used in bale construction look like.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • The house has a 1,500-square-foot footprint, but because of the thickness of the walls, only 1,200 square feet of living space. The bales were tested in a laboratory for fire resistance, compression, and insulation. Building with paper bales is similar to building with straw bales, although the paper is structural whereas straw is generally not. Wire netting was stapled directly onto the bales before the stucco was applied.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • Rich and Ann created a backsplash for the bathroom vanity from a piece of scrap left at the gate at Vermont Verde Antique in Rochester, Vermont.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • “The softness of the walls does wonderful things to candlelight.­” says Ann. “Our biggest expense is not electricity, it’s candles.” The eight-foot French doors to the patio are from a salvage yard.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • Rich and Ann spend many delightful moments enjoying their house and gardens.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • Ann has worked diligently to create a garden in the tough, high-country climate. Rich spends many tranquil moments raking the sand in his Zen garden. The grass over the septic system and leach field in the background grows to only six inches high and never requires mowing.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • Oakley, the cat, contemplates the outside world from the deep window sill created by the thick bales.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • Rich made a fountain out of a piece of well casing and granite left over from the bathroom backsplash.
    Photography by Povy Kendal Atchison
  • East elevation
  • The metal roof is hipped so that its weight is distributed evenly over all four walls of the house.
  • The metal roof is hipped so that its weight is distributed evenly over all four walls of the house.

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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