July 25, 2002

Designers find new life for old cardboard tubes

  • ‘Project Tomato’ turns discarded paper rolls into useful structures
    KPFF Consulting Engineers

    kiosk frame
    Photos courtesy of KPFF
    Discarded cardboard tubes being reused as a kiosk frame. Other structures are planned.

    Buildings have a tremendous impact on environmental quality, resource use, and human health and productivity. In response, many local design professionals have been incorporating environmentally sensitive sustainable design into their practices.

    The region has been at the forefront of the environmental movement. Environmental practices now commonplace, such as recycling bins in homes and offices, have their roots in the Puget Sound. Design firms, including KPFF, have pioneered sustainable design among Seattle’s progressive A/E/C industry.

    Early examples of the region’s sustainable projects include the KPFF-designed Sakai Intermediate School storm drainage system, King Street Center designed by NBBJ, and the new Seattle City Hall designed by Bassetti Architects and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.

    Beyond sustainable design

    Despite the strides the design industry has made in sustainability, a thorn in its side has been in the form of a daily by-product — the cardboard tubes from the rolls of paper used to print design drawings by engineering and architectural firms. A large engineering or architectural office typically discards 15 to 20 tubes a week and commercial printing houses may throw away more than 150 tubes per week.

    In the greater Seattle area only, it has been determined that design professionals discard approximately 2,500 tubes in a one week.

    The sturdy tubes, 3 inches in diameter and 18 to 36 inches long, have no post-consumer use. For many design professionals, this type of waste is unacceptable. KPFF’s commitment to sustainable/green design led to developing a use for the tubes as a construction material that is both environmentally responsible and economically beneficial.

    In spring 2001, a group of engineers at KPFF began investigating the possibility of building structures using cardboard tubes. The engineers organized a brainstorming session to determine the best use for the discarded material.

    A series of simple “basement laboratory” tests were conducted to evaluate the stiffness and strength of the cardboard tubes. Once physical properties were determined, the team was able to develop ideas for joining and splicing the tubes into beams, columns, trusses, space frames and geodesic domes. KPFF discovered that the possibilities for the overlooked and discarded tubes were virtually limitless.

    Shifting from the realm of theory to prototype, the team last fall decided to design a cardboard structure comprised of 95 percent recycled materials. The objective was to create a structure with a useful function composed entirely, or almost entirely, out of recycled materials that could in turn be recycled. A team member offered his property for the structure and “Project Tomato” was born — code-named in recognition of the structure, a greenhouse.

    Project Tomato specifies a building of 8 feet by 12 feet by 10 feet. Construction of the greenhouse is tentatively planned for summer 2003. It is estimated that the greenhouse will reuse approximately 200 to 300 cardboard tubes in addition to typical construction materials such as cable and Plexiglas.

    The concept KPFF had developed for Project Tomato led to the firm’s involvement with a design project with two of the region’s notable sustainable design firms, Mithun Architects + Designers + Planners and Environmental Home Center/Built-e, as well as an emerging group of regional artists that are building a bridge between nature and culture.

    From greenhouses to kiosks

    In late 2001, the Cascadia Region Green Building Council began the design process for the “Sustainability: Art + Culture” exhibit as part of the EnvironDesign6 conference held earlier this year.

    The conference showcased impressive efforts in environmental stewardship by businesses throughout the country. The goal set forth by Cascadia was to create an exhibit which would be able to travel to numerous venues around Seattle, illustrating the importance of engaging artists to explore a new way of thinking about buildings, landscapes and urban environments.

    Mithun volunteered to design the exhibit with the five artists featured: Luke Blackstone, Dan Corson, Lorna Jordan, Buster Simpson and Linda Wysong. The team developed preliminary ideas for a structure that was permeable, adaptable, stable and made from waste materials. The idea of using cardboard tubes emerged, the team borrowing their idea from the famous “paper architect” Shigeru Ban. Ban has constructed everything from emergency shelters to museums from paper tubes.

    Having heard of KPFF’s concept for cardboard structures, KPFF was asked to join the design team for structural engineering issues. Environmental Home Center/Built-e, a national distributor of sustainable building materials, was also a collaborator.

    KPFF presented the principles used in designing Project Tomato. Brainstorming and design efforts led to the construction of five kiosk structures that each reuse about 160 cardboard tubes, and are held together with toggle bolts, drywall screws and common hose clamps. Each of the kiosks took about eight hours to build and can be quickly disassembled. Most critically, each kiosk can be recycled following use.

    The kiosks were assembled by volunteers from Mithun, Environmental Home Center, NBBJ and KPFF.

    The future of building design

    The kiosks and work on Project Tomato explore the possibilities of using inexpensive, recyclable materials to create sturdy, functional structures. The implications of these structures opens the door for other projects that are larger in scale and scope, including temporary shelters and interior spaces. From these relatively “simple” projects comes the knowledge needed to truly succeed in sustainable design.

    John Hochwalt, an associate with KPFF Consulting Engineers, leads the firm’s sustainable design group. Wilson Hu is a structural project manager with the firm.

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