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The research team during construction of a demonstrator to test what works and where something can still be improved

Research project

Paper architects

“Building with paper” – this year research is being carried out in this area at the Darmstadt Technical University in Germany as part of a new project called BAMP! We talked about the project with Robert Götzinger, a research associate specializing in paper fabrication and mecha­n­ical process engineering.

Why are you doing research on the topic of building with paper?

Robert Götzinger: People have been building with wood for a very long time, even constructing multi-story structures. However, with this material many things are dictated by nature, such as fiber orientation or the presence of knots. Paper has the advantage that we can modify a wide range of physical properties in a targeted way. This means it is theoretically possible to use paper to manufacture everything that you can manufacture with wood. And paper offers even more advantages: The fibers can be chosen selectively and functionalized, can be manufactured cost-effectively, and are a lightweight, recyclable material. Especially given the fact that there is a growing need for temporary structures, it is necessary to ask how natural ­products can be handled sustainably. Paper offers great ­potential here.

Several buildings made of paper already exist. What is it about your structures that’s new?

Götzinger: It’s not just about building a single building, it’s also about exploring the fundamentals of building with paper. For example, the findings would then be useful to architects, construction engineers, or paper engineers as a tool of the trade and would help them understand and correctly use paper as a building material. We are of course just taking the first step here. It will take a long time to reach the level of knowledge that already exists for established construction materials.

This seems to be a field involving many disciplines. How is research done in such an area?

Götzinger: Our team includes one or more chemists, construction engineers, architects, mechanical engineers, and paper engineers. Each discipline then deals with a specific problem, and coordination takes place on a regular basis while pursuing the same final objective. In several iterative loops we develop what is known as our demonstrators. These clearly show each participant where the challenges and potentials lie. On the one hand, we can learn what works and what does not, and on the other we have an object that you can actually touch.

What are you working on in your doctoral thesis?

Götzinger: The focus of my doctorate is targeted adjustment of the fiber orientation in paper. The more the fibers are oriented in one direction, the greater the strength in this direction. Generally speaking, we want to place certain fibers in a certain position. The papers which are produced in the process serve as reinforcement for components subject to especially high loads. However, the technology can also be used in other ways. For example, the fiber orientation could be used to control the transport of fluid in paper.

Götzinger received his BA in Mechanical Engineering from Darmstadt Technical University, specializing in the area of paper technology

Aren’t you afraid that the buildings will burn down or that the paper will dissolve in the rain?

Götzinger: That is what most people first think of when I talk about the project. However, there are ways of making paper function in such a way that it does not burn or immediately soften. The challenge for my colleagues in the chemicals industry is therefore to make fire and moisture protection a reality with chem­icals from renewable raw materials. This could be achieved by modifying fibers at the molecular level or by applying functional layers.

What other difficulties and challenges are there?

Götzinger: We are trying to combine, reformulate, and connect suitable papers and paper products with each other. Based on this, we are developing specific methods for simulation, design, and construction of individual components. At the same time, we want to adapt the properties of papers to closely meet our requirements. Last but not least, people should later feel comfortable in a building of this kind, so that design also plays an important role.

You have already said that you are still far from the knowledge we have about established construction materials. Where are you putting your initial ­focus? What approach do you follow in development?

Götzinger: Our initial focus is temporary structures that are built to stand only for a limited period. In the first iterative loop of the demonstrator’s evolution, we have defined suitable framework conditions. Our house will be constructed in Darmstadt, Germany and survive for at least one year, in other words make it through four different seasons with their various ­climatic challenges. We are planning a dwelling with one occupant that has 40 m² of floor space. At the moment we are assuming there is already a concrete foundation. There are then three steps: First we ­consider the structural analysis of the house, in the second step moisture protection, and in the third ­protection against fire. Once we have found, tested, and evaluated the solutions, we will devote ourselves to building another more complex demonstrator. Then the framework conditions will become more ­complicated. A further difficulty is designing as many components as possible from renewable raw materials. In an ideal scenario, this would allow the building to be completely recycled.

Finally, a question about costs. How is the project being funded?

Götzinger: The project runs for four years and has received € 4.6 million from LOEWE, the State of Hesse’s Offensive for the Development of Scientific and Economic Excellence. We are also hoping for support from industry – through the donation of building materials, for example.

Picture credits: TU Darmstadt