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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Book Review: Building With Paper – Architecture and Construction

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Edited by Ulrich Knaack, Rebecca Bach, and Samuel Schabel – Berkhauser Verlag, 2023

To identify industrial solutions in the building industry, missing basics such as material parameters must be worked out and verified depending on the area of application. What requirements do buildings and components impose on the material and its manufacture? What standards result from the material and its use, and where can it be used for what purpose? In parallel, it will be necessary to investigate how existing materials from the paper industry can be used in architecture, how technologies from paper production can be transferred and to what extent they can be adapted for building objectives.

  • From Chapter One, ‘Paper in Architecture’

Just like mass timber, which has faced challenges in establishing itself as a viable option in the construction industry, paper also encounters similar obstacles. Building With Paper, a thorough research and development account authored by three doctoral scholars who are presently practicing and teaching in the paper industry, sheds light on this issue. Released at a time when embodied carbon has become the new buzzword, the trio reminds us in the opening pages that paper has always been at the forefront of recycling. For this reason, paper stands to provide one of the most sustainable cradle-to-cradle materials with a long proven track record—as they point out, “technologically, it is mature.”

Told over eight chapters looking at the history, science, and biases against the use of paper as a building material, the authors cite the work done by “BAMP! – Building with Paper” as the fountainhead of the book. Funded by the State of Hesse, Germany, they note that “the interdisciplinary composition of the participating scientists made it possible to map and investigate the entire value chain of a building made of paper.”

With the first three chapters looking at the history and science of building with paper, chapters four and five delve into its structural and life safety aspects. Touting paper as “Wood 2.0” given its exceptional ability to be 3D printed anywhere, the book’s authors also point out its greatest liabilities—fire and moisture. While wood too is susceptible to the same, it can use its rigidity and mass to still withstand limited exposure to the elements. As demonstrated here, paper too can be treated to withstand some degree of moisture and heat, or can be used as a hybrid used in combination with some other materials.

The book also reminds us that the paper industry has for some time been contributing to business and commerce, serving the packaging and publishing industries since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The invention of the continuous paper machine in 1799 by French inventor Louis-Nicolas Robert was akin to Ford’s revolutionary Model T assembly line. Several other innovations in the paper industry are here noted as well, including the invention of corrugated cardboard in 1874.

Chapter six is the book’s star attraction, showcasing twenty-five case studies of paper construction, including several pavilions by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. Most notable of these is his 1995 Paper Log House, which was mass-produced to provide shelter housing after the Great Hanshin Earthquake which devastated Kobe and left 320,000 people homeless. It was a pivotal moment for paper as a building material, as the attention brought by this Pritzker-winning architect prompted the research and building industry to up its paper game.

Included here are also several Tiny Houses using paper as a part of a composite wall assembly, with several prototypes looking at the best use of paper as it is currently produced in sheet and tube forms. This extends to full-on experiments where it is literally stretched to its limit when used in tandem with steel cables, as best demonstrated here in Shigeru Ban’s KUAD Studio in Kyoto. Ban also fabricated a summer pavilion for himself using paper in 1995 which he still spends time in. Simply called Paper House, it looks much as if Mies had used paper tubes instead of plate glass and I-beams in his Farnsworth House.

The case study chapters also demonstrate how paper is being explored all over the world as a building material, from the Wikkelhouse in Amsterdam—which was the first mass-produced paper-based residential building—to the fantastic Cardboard Bombay restaurant in Mumbai which provides a unique dining experience with its parametrically sculpted cardboard striations. Yet another case study provides us with a test of paper’s resiliency, featuring a showroom in LA constructed from cardboard tubes that have been estimated to last between 10 and 20 years.

The final two chapters of the book provide some outlook and reference for those looking to seriously consider using paper in their next building project. As noted in the book’s opening pages, paper has been used as a building material in Japan since the first century. While our present buildings require much more thermally, structurally, as well as acoustically, looking at a material that is seldom seriously considered provides an opportunity to reexamine the materials we are currently using, especially concrete and steel.

The book’s authors appreciate that their research is unlikely to be as disruptive as mass timber has been on the construction industry, yet they quickly point out in the opening pages that paper production is not unlike laminated veneer lumber (LVL) technology. Given that LVLs are only limited by the size of truck that can transport them to a job site, we may be headed to a future where paper can be fabricated on-site the same way as poured-in-place concrete, with the difference that paper could be made from post-consumer waste without the massive carbon footprint associated with the production of fly ash, lime, and Portland cement.

A superbly detailed book, right down to its no-frills hardboard paper cover, this is a must-read for new building developers and contractors and is an indispensable reference for architects and engineers interested in this new innovative building science. As it was before for the regulation and adoption of engineered wood products like LVLs, some of this will be already familiar territory, but overall it is here clearly explained for the benefit of government and building officials’ public safety concerns. Pushing the envelope, paper is most surely set to be part of the conversation in how we future-proof our buildings, and this new book is a roadmap for how we might get there.


For more information on Building With Paper, visit the Berkauser Verlag website.


Sean Ruthen is a Metro Vancouver-based architect.