The architects who are challenging paper as construction material
Sweden 15 Jun, 2018. Photos by Lisa Brunzell.
Paper has always been used to create amazing artwork, but is it possible to build more advanced constructions with the material? That was something the two architects Bodil Perneborn and My Kröjer Lindkvist wanted to find out. They have been working on a project at Chalmers School of Technology in Gothenburg to study paper and its qualities – and to see if they can build prototypes of a sauna made entirely out of paper.
When Bodil and My started the Architecture Program at Chalmers, they didn’t really know what the study would lead to. They are both interested in creativity and planning and felt that it was a broad program with many possibilities. Architecture is much more than drawing houses – it’s about working in different scales, making city plans, construction details and planning meticulously. It was during the last year of the program that Bodil and My found each other and soon discovered they had a common interest.
– We decided to write the thesis together and immediately knew that we wanted to work with materiality and building materials, but in what form or extent was not clear. After a lot of discussion and ifs and buts we finally decided we wanted to study paper as a building material, says Bodil.
An experiment with paper as a heat source. Bodil and My took bundled paper with a thick ‘belt’, and placed it on open fire, and it never burned since it was so compact.
Architects uses paper every day in their work, especially when they sketch or make plans. Bodil and My wanted to try to use it on a larger scale – not just as a representation.
– It turned out to be a very exploratory process, beginning with reading and learning all we could about the different characteristics of paper. We visited paper mills, factories and various people who work with paper in some way, in order to get as much basic knowledge as possible and work out the conditions required to continue with the project, says My.
"Using conventional construction methods on an unconventional material ultimately created very cool effects"
The paper sauna plan
Bodil and My’s project differs in many ways from the work of their classmates. Most of the other students knew instinctively that they wanted to make a bridge or a park, for example. But, to begin with, Bodil and My only knew they wanted to build something out of paper. They had no idea what that something might be. They visited a paper mill to learn more about the characteristics of paper: how it works with different fibers; how those fibers swell in different directions when they become moist and how the characteristics can change depending on the environment.
– After this realization, we knew we wanted to build something quite extreme, to really test all of these features. People asked us if the paper project would be ruined if the paper became wet, but for us that wasn’t a problem, rather an opportunity and a bonus, says Bodil.
The choice of making a sauna was made after Bodil and My decided they wanted to see what would happen to the paper in different environments. But they also wanted the people who tried the sauna to get a deep, physical sensation of the material.
When two laminated sheets of paper become wet, they swell more in thickness than in length, and when they dry the fibers curl up.
Bodil and My screwed, drilled and dipped large pieces of paper into glue, until they got the effects they were looking for.
– You can really experience the material, how it smells when it gets warm, how it feels when it gets wet. What happens when the paper dries again? We wanted to capture all the senses of the material, says My.
Before submitting the project, they built a floor, a seating structure with integrated heating system and a vault that would serve as a frame for a roof. In addition, they built a prototype of a wall, that varies depending on how humid the air is since the paper consists of small scales that open and close depending on the air humidity. When two laminated sheets of paper become wet, they swell more in thickness than in length, and when they dry the fibers curl up. Bodil and My used these features to create variation in the wall when it came to thickness, curl and light emission.
– We never had time to really try out the sauna, but we could apply the intuitive qualities that paper has. Show that you can quickly fold it and try out different things. We cannot promise that the paper sauna can be heated up to 110 degrees Celsius, but we can show that it’s possible to build a warm room of paper, that you can enter, says Bodil.
Building material of the future
When they built the prototypes for the sauna they started by using conventional methods, such as gluing, taping and folding the paper. They soon realized it wasn’t working and moved on to testing more traditional construction methods. They screwed, drilled and dipped large pieces of paper into glue, until they got the effects they were looking for.
– Using conventional construction methods on an unconventional material ultimately created very cool effects. The screws pulled into the sheets of paper and created patterns in the surface which led to us achieving a much better result. Paper is very rewarding to work with, as it’s incredibly adaptable, has plenty of resilience and does not require any advanced tools. We constantly strived to achieve ‘paperness’. It was important that people really feel like the construction was made of paper, says My.
The project has led to one burning question: Could paper really be used as a future building material? Both Bodil and My are cautiously enthusiastic about this. They believe more and more people will experiment with paper as they explore different building methods, but there is clearly a long way to go. Paper is a living material that needs to be refined in order to be used for a more practical purpose.
– We need the right kind of project to be able to experiment further, but we think that paper will be used more for interior design, for example. Building houses may be a bit further away, although there are architects who have tried different cardboard materials. We look forward seeing more people using paper as it contributes to so many opportunities, says Bodil.