Wikkelhouse, by Amsterdam-based Fiction Factory
Flickr/Creative Commons License/Nicolás Boullosa Wikkelhouse, by Amsterdam-based Fiction Factory

This time of year, paper and cardboard are omnipresent materials. One-time-use boxes, bags, and sacks have proliferated during the pandemic because of the increase in mail-order and food delivery services, and enjoyed another spike during the holiday gift-giving season. According to the Fibre Box Association, corrugated box shipments grew 9% in 2020 over 2019.

This increase in the consumption of shipping materials hasn’t created any significant environmental concern, however (beyond the carbon footprint of transportation in general), presumably due to the high recycling rates of paper and cardboard. (Corrugated packaging is, according to its representative industry, the most recycled substance on the planet—with 96% recovered in 2018.) Furthermore, paper and cardboard are considered greener alternatives to plastics, and many companies are shifting to these biomaterials to meet their plastic reduction goals.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that paper products are not recycled so much as downcycled—meaning that they lose quality and value each time they are broken down and remade anew. According to industrial products distributor R. S. Hughes, corrugated cardboard may be recycled up to eight times. Afterward, the material is likely to be burned or composted, thus releasing its stored carbon. If used exclusively for single-use shipping applications, these eight lives may represent a brief timeline compared with other uses. Given the relatively long duration of buildings, for instance, a sensible alternative might be to upcycle paper in architectural applications, which would significantly extend its lifespan.

Shigeru Ban with his Paper Emergency Shelter in Haiti (2010)
Shigeru Ban Architects Shigeru Ban with his Paper Emergency Shelter in Haiti (2010)
Ban's Paper Log House in India
Ban's Paper Log House in India

Paper does have a long history as a building material. Japanese shoji screens, which consist of lightweight wood frames filled with paper, evolved from Chinese folding screens that date back as far as 400 BCE. In contemporary architecture, Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA, has earned widespread acclaim for his paper tube-based construction techniques. Ban started his experiments in the 1980s and has used cardboard construction tubes, which can be manufactured from 100% recycled content (they were developed in the mid-20th century as concrete forms for circular pilotis). Ban has not merely employed off-the-shelf tubes, however; he has collaborated extensively with engineers and testing facilities to develop optimal water-resistant coatings and connection details to ensure paper’s longevity when used in challenging structural—sometimes even exterior—applications. Ban’s most recent paper tube work is the Paper Green House, completed last year in Kanazawa City, Japan. The luminous building features an expansive barrel vault composed of paper tubes and metal connectors, which support a light-transmitting greenhouse roof above and a grapevine trellis below.

Cardboard can also be used as exterior insulation. Amsterdam-based Fiction Factory incorporates the material in its Wikkelhouse, a modular prefabricated dwelling system made primarily of bio-based products. The design gets its name from the Dutch word wikkelen, or “wrapping,” and features composite exterior panels made of 24 layers of cardboard adhered with eco-friendly glue. Each module is 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) deep and is clad in plywood (interior) and water-resistant wood paneling (exterior). The Wikkelhouse construction system is lightweight (only 500 kg per module), has performed well in structural and thermal tests, and is fully recyclable.

Flickr/Creative Commons License/Nicolás Boullosa Wikkelhouse

Interior paper finishes require less rigorous testing. Consider the Cardboard Office, designed by Pune, India-based Studio VDGA. The architects crafted undulating surfaces composed of stratified 73 mm (2.9 inch) thick honeycomb cardboard sandwiched between 6 mm (1/4 inch) MDF strips. In addition to providing the necessary structural strength for interior partitions, the structured panels also function acoustically—absorbing sound via the exposed honeycomb interlayers. The stacked wall system additionally facilitates the incorporation of windows, doors, and display shelves.

Nudes, a Mumbai-based architecture office, devised a similar interior application for Cardboard, an award-winning restaurant located in the firm's home city. In the design, the architects oriented the cardboard vertically without using MDF strips.

Cardboard restaurant in Mumbai

Cardboard Office by Studio VDGA

When one considers how many other building products are made from cardboard—including furniture, light fixtures, and countless accessories—it is possible to imagine an architectural gesamtkunstwerk in paper. Such an approach can significantly extend the serviceable life of this resource, and once it has reached its eighth and final use, designers have developed even more eco-conscious applications. For example, Amsterdam-based Thom Bindels has designed the Ecosystem Kickstarter, a foldable cardboard construction used to revive and help bring back farming to eroded landscapes. Torino, Italy-based Studio Nucleo offers Terra!, a similarly structured cardboard soil-reinforcing system designed in the shape of a chair or sofa. These and other creative approaches demonstrate the ways architects and designers can give a potentially temporary, throw-away substance an enduring, multifunctional life.