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Has Cardboard Architecture's Moment Finally Arrived?

This home doesn't need a foundation. It's vastly lighter than a normal house. It costs just $28,000. Oh, and it's made out of paper.

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Houses built out of cardboard don't exactly scream luxury. The concept seems suited to playhouses at best, and homeless shelter at worst. But inspired by a crate of tomatoes, Dutch creator collective Fiction Factory decided there didn't have to be anything ugly or flimsy about a cardboard house. Their cardboard Wikkelhouses aren't just gorgeous—with proper care, the designers claim they can last 100 years.

Can a cardboard house really survive for over a century? After all, the dream of permanent cardboard architecture is nearly as old.

In the 1940s, Buckminster Fuller experimented with the idea of using corrugated cardboard instead of traditional materials. He was attracted to cardboard because it was low cost, environmentally sustainable, and recyclable. Fuller even ended up prototyping a house in 1944, using cardboard as a primary or secondary construction material, but ultimately shelved his vision—because it was so vulnerable to fire and water. Following his lead, some other architects also experimented with corrugated cardboard for the next decade, but ultimately, other alternative materials such as laminated plastic and Formica won out.

Stephen Goodenough via Shigeru Ban Architects

It wasn't until the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban started experimenting with the material in 1986 that cardboard architecture became a thing again. Like Fuller, Ban was attracted to the material for its cost, strength, and environmental sustainability. By 1994, Ban perfected a technique of using simple cardboard tubes and plastic tarps to create waterproof emergency shelters for Rwandan refugees, which he then continued to explore in dwellings in Turkey and India. Eventually, Ban became so good at his so-called paper architecture that he was able to erect more permanent structures, such as a paper schoolhouse in China, a cardboard concert hall in Italy, and even the Cardboard Cathedral in New Zealand, which is specced to survive for at least 50 years—and maybe longer.

The Wikkelhouse is more Ban than Fuller. It's a modular house that can be placed nearly anywhere. It's incredibly light compared to a traditional house; while even a light house might normally weigh 40 tons, the Wikkelhouse only weighs around 1,000 pounds per module, which can be pieced together to build larger and larger homes. It doesn't need a traditional foundation, and can be placed nearly anywhere—though it needs two concrete slabs and a few wooden beams to stay in place, guaranteeing that only hurricane-blast winds could actually pick it up.

The name Wikkelhouse comes from the Dutch verb wikkelen, meaning "to wrap." That's a reference to the process that makes the Wikkelhouse's cardboard walls sturdy. Each wall is made of 24 layers of standard corrugated cardboard, which is glued together and then wrapped up in a special foil to keep rain from turning the Wikkelhouse into a soggy mess while allowing trapped moisture to radiate outward.

What makes cardboard such a suitable house-building material isn't necessarily its strength, though. It's flexibility. Because cardboard is uniquely flexible, each Wikkelhouse can essentially be made from a single piece of cardboard, wrapped around a house-shaped mold. Not only does this increase the strength of the structure by minimizing the potential points of failure (there are no screws, nails, or joints in the Wikkelhouse to wear out) but it allows the structure to flex under stress while otherwise keeping its shape. The whole process was inspired by a company called Rene Snel, which invented a similar method of molding cardboard crates for fruits and vegetables, with each layer of cardboard increasing the box's overall strength.

But what about this claim that the Wikkelhouse can last 100 years? Anyone who has ever seen a cardboard box turn to mush in the rain would be rightly skeptical of such an assertion. Asked how a cardboard house can last 100 years, Monique Wijnands of the Fiction Factory tells me that it all has to do with proper care and conditioning. Cardboard, after all, is just another form of wood, and "wooden buildings last for decades when well conditioned," she says. "It's the same for ancient books. It's all about proper conservation."

So maybe the Wikkelhouse can last 100 years. As Shigeru Ban once said, "I believe that the material doesn’t need to be strong to be used to build a strong structure. The strength of the structure has nothing to do with strength of the material." It's all about the design and the process. The reasons to embrace cardboard as a construction material—cost, strength, and environmental sustainability—are just as valid now as they were in Buckminster Fuller's day. It's just that new laminates and processes are finally making long-lasting paper architecture plausible.

With a three-room Wikkelhouse costing a little more than $28,000, it seems that cardboard architecture is poised to become just as much of a trend as cardboard furniture.

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