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Heineken’s Lost Plan To Build Houses Out Of Beer Bottles

In the 1960s, Heineken proposed a novel idea: rectangular "World" beer bottles that could double as bricks for affordable housing. And it’s not nearly as crazy as it sounds.

  • <p>These are Heineken’s World Bottles--or WOBO for short.</p>
  • <p>Notice how blocky it is?</p>
  • <p>The idea was that, once the beer was finished, the bottle could be used as a brick to construct housing.</p>
  • <p>Sound crazy? It’s really not. Structurally, the interlocking design worked, and it required very little mortar to fit.</p>
  • <p>The catch seemed to be that, back in the 1960s when this was developed, people preferred round bottles.</p>
  • <p>We can’t help but wonder if the idea was just a bit ahead of its time.</p>
  • <p>Because imagine if every beer you drank helped someone build a home. It’s a strange thought, but by no means a bad one.</p>
  • 01 /07

    These are Heineken’s World Bottles--or WOBO for short.

  • 02 /07

    Notice how blocky it is?

  • 03 /07

    The idea was that, once the beer was finished, the bottle could be used as a brick to construct housing.

  • 04 /07

    Sound crazy? It’s really not. Structurally, the interlocking design worked, and it required very little mortar to fit.

  • 05 /07

    The catch seemed to be that, back in the 1960s when this was developed, people preferred round bottles.

  • 06 /07

    We can’t help but wonder if the idea was just a bit ahead of its time.

  • 07 /07

    Because imagine if every beer you drank helped someone build a home. It’s a strange thought, but by no means a bad one.

Here’s a design anecdote that is sure to light up your next cocktail party. While Miller, Bud, Coors, and even Heineken are all redesigning their bottles for more shelf appeal, in the 1960s, Heineken briefly introduced a different bottle for an entirely different reason.

It was called the Heineken World Bottle (or WOBO), designed by architect John Habraken after then-CEO "Freddy" Heineken had an epiphany. While visiting the island of Curaçao, Heineken was bothered by the mass amounts of trash—including his own bottles—and the lack of housing. His solution? Make a beer bottle that could serve as a brick when it’s finished. From Cabinet:

A beer bottle standing upright is, surprisingly, up to code, bearing 50 kg per square centimeter. But bottles are not easily vertically stacked. Laid on their side, though, they crush too easily. Habraken’s solution was to develop vertically stackable Chianti-like bottles with long necks and recessed sides that nested into and supported each other. It was a brilliant compromise, but Heineken’s marketing department rejected it as "effeminate"—a curious description considering that the bottle consisted of two bulbous compartments surmounted by a long shaft. We can only assume that Habraken did not anticipate why the men of Curaçao might not want to hold this up to their lips.

So Habraken went horizontal. His next design was for a thick rectangular bottle—much closer to Heineken’s original notion of a brick that held beer. The bottom was dimpled in a pattern identical to the bottle’s stubby neck, so that the top of one bottle would interlock with the bottom of the next. The sides had a nubbled surface, to make them both easier to hold and to apply mortar onto. Still, there were some trade-offs: the glass had to be thickened for the disadvantaged horizontal orientation, and its blockier corners made it more susceptible to chipping in shipment.

Heineken actually produced 100,000 WOBOs in a test run (or enough to build roughly 100 small houses), and even constructed a whole home out of them near Freddy Heineken’s villa in Noordwijk, but the bottle never actually made it to market, most likely because customers of the 1960s preferred the feel and look of the rounded bottle. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the WOBO was simply a product ahead of its time. 50 years later, and we’ve grown into a socially conscious country. Millennials flock to buy Tom’s (can we just say, kinda ugly?) shoes knowing that another (kinda ugly) pair will reach someone in need. We’ve grown to expect corporate social responsibility, and as consumers, we’ll go out of our way to subsidize it.

Put differently, I may be a microbrew snob, but offer me a cheap pilsner that makes the world a better place, and I’m sold.

Read more here (Cabinet) and here (Food & Think).

[Image: The Heineken Wobo wall by Paula D. Glover]