House of Card
Designing the School
The building was based on designs by London-based Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture, known for their imaginative school designs. Buro Happold invited the firm to get involved, and the architects proposed the after-school club at Westcliff-on-Sea Primary School as the testing ground for the project.
The Westborough After School Club is a single story building, roughly 20 by 50 feet (6 by 15 meters), comprising a schoolroom, kitchenette, storeroom, and toilets. Following prototype development, the project went on site in summer 2000, and was completed in little over a year.
There were three manufacturers involved in the process. Papermarc, Essex Tube Windings, and Quinton & Kaines all developed, tested, and manufactured the cardboard materials, tubes, and panels used to construct the building. Franklin Building was the general contractor.
The design allows exposed cardboard where practical and reflects the nature of cardboard, with "corrugations" on the south wall, for example. Although it might have been simpler to produce a basic "box," the team felt that this would not adequately show off the capabilities of the material and the manufacturing processes available for it.
Obvious hazards to be aware of when building with cardboard are fire and water. Perhaps surprisingly, cardboard is somewhat resistant to fire, behaving in a similar manner to solid timber, charring on the surface rather than burning quickly. An additional chemical treatment, however, further minimizes the risk of surface spread of flame.
Water is a challenge, because wet, soggy cardboard loses its strength. So each panel is waterproofed with a technique adopted from the packaging industry. The designers applied a recycled plastic coating to external layers, for both exterior and interior surfaces, to protect an inner load-bearing core.
Furthermore, the walls and roof were given an extra layer to keep rain off the exterior surface. This layer gives the cardboard additional impact protection, which further extends its useful life. Buro Happold expects the life of the building to be 20 years.
The 5- by 6-1/2-foot (1.5- by 2-meter) wall panels consist of several layers. The outside surface of each panel is a 1/4-inch- (6-millimeter-) thick piece of solid cardboard. Enclosed between these two stiff pieces, are 3 layers of 2-inch (50-millimeter) honeycomb-shaped cardboard, each layer separated by a 5/64-inch (2-millimeter) layer of solid card. Toward the panel's interior surface is an embedded poly-coated layer to keep moisture out. The panels are edged with 2-inch (50-millimeter) wood frames.
Cardboard tubes acting as structural columns support the roof panels around the perimeter. However a more conventional timber truss supports the roof in the center because the span is too long for the cardboard panels. The cardboard tubes are between 6-1/2 and 8-1/4 feet (2 and 2.5 meters) long, with a diameter of either 7 or 9 inches (180 or 230 millimeters). The edges of the tubes are 9/16-inch- (15-millimeter-) thick solid card.
This cardboard was made almost entirely from recycled material. Because the tubes have sufficient compressive strength to carry structural loads, they can displace other less sustainable and energy-intensive materials such as concrete or steel. The project demonstrates the possibilities of the innovative use of cardboard in building construction, bringing long-term benefits through reduced energy consumption and material waste.
Teaching a Lesson after School
The school has taken full advantage of the project as a learning source, running a series of events in parallel with design and construction processes. A school official says, "The children have been learning about engineering, architecture, and construction from the process going on around them, and hopefully some will be encouraged to develop an interest in science because of it."
One aim of this prototype project was to show the potential for other cardboard applications. Once mass production processes for the products have been established, cardboard will become even less expensive. This could benefit both regular construction projects, where costs savings are always being sought, and emergency situations where temporary shelter is often needed fast and economically.
This cardboard building project was jointly funded by various research partners and the UK Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) through a Partners in Innovation scheme. Additional funding support came from the Cory Environmental Trust in Southend-on-Sea. The project meets with the DETR sustainable construction business plan priority aims, reducing the use of primary resources and increasing reuse and recycling in construction.
Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, UK, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.