Andy Fleming writing on urban homesteading…
The homesteader’s lifestyle encourages us to be resourceful. By learning the tricks of the trade, we can easily find ways to save money and improve our lives at the same time. Finding alternative ways to build and maintain our homes becomes elegant and rewarding, especially when they outshine conventional means and allow us to reduce our waste.
In some parts of Africa and Latin America, builders have turned to a form of construction which primarily uses recycled materials. By repurposing old bottles into “bricks” they have been able to construct sturdy, well-insulated, long lasting structures.
While you may not wish to build a house from bottles, this makes a great DIY project for a backyard gazebo, shed, or greenhouse…so long as you have access to a plentiful supply of sand.
The process is surprisingly simple. Bottles are gathered and filled with sand, then bound together using mud and cement to form walls. These walls hold heat well, are fire resistant, and about 20 times stronger than conventional brick. If you build your bottle-wall properly, you can expect it to last well over a decade without any sign of degradation.
You can be endlessly creative with the color and shape of your bottles, leading to some ingenious and attractive designs. They’re also a great resource for light renovations and can be used to make beautiful partitions. Thinking about adding a bar to your basement? Why not build it from your favorite recycled beer bottles to give it a home-grown touch?
What you’ll need:
- Lots of bottles. Any size and shape will work, but keep in mind what you’d like the finished product to look like. You may want to keep an eye out for several smaller bottles to help fill gaps.
- Type S mortar mix
- Ivory dish detergent
- Hydrated Lime. This can be found at Home Depot, it is also sometimes called Calcium Hydroxide.
- Wood for framing. If it’s a large, outdoor structure you’ll need treated posts and beams to frame the walls. Smaller projects will just require a few 2×4’s.
- Bolts and brackets to connect the posts. (optional)
- A mixing bucket
- A medium sized trowel
- Any type of level
First, you’ll want to completely clean the bottles. The labels from the bottles must be removed. Otherwise mortar will stick to the labelling and you’ll end up with holes in your building when the temperature changes. Don’t skimp on this step. Failing to do so can destroy your structure.
Fortunately, all you need to do is soak the bottles in water until clean. This could take a few days, so you might want to add chlorine to the water to keep bugs and scum from building up. After the bottles are clean and dry, consider separating them by color and size to help plan the aesthetic design of the structure. Mosaics are very easy to make, as each bottle functions the same way a tile would in a traditional mosaic.
If you’re building a large structure start building by sinking your posts. This is as easy as digging a hole and filling it with some gravel and/or rock dust. Check out this guide if you’ve never done it before. You should also attach the beams and bracket them to the posts at this point. Use your level at each step to make sure the posts and beams are aligned.
Mix your mortar using the package instructions, then add a quarter-cup of Ivory detergent and one cup of hydrated lime to the mix. You want a consistency similar to thick peanut butter.
Set a bottle on its side next to your frame and measure a half-inch above the bottle. Mark this on your framing, then tack string between the marks. Check the string to make sure it is level. Space the bottles out along the framing (as if you were actually building the wall) and leave a half-inch between the bottles.
Depending on the size of the bottles you may end up with extra space on either end. If this is the case, widen the gaps between the bottles a bit. You can leave as much as a two-inch gap on either end, but the smaller the better.
Once your bottles are properly spaced, start laying out the mortar. The first layer should be about three-quarters of an inch thick. Apply some mortar to one side of a bottle and press it firmly into the foundation/framing so that it sticks in place. Then use your trowel to apply mortar to the other side of the bottle.
Try to form a bottle shaped curve that you can easily press the next bottle into. Try to conserve mortar when placing the bottles as this will be your biggest expense. Mortar only needs to be applied to the base of the bottles to create the wall. Four or five inches of mortar is all you need, the top or “neck” of the bottles should be free of mortar to let in light.
Set a row or two of bottles, then stop to clean up your work. Wear gloves during the cleaning process, mortar can be rough on your skin. Use sponges and water to wipe down the base of the bottles and smooth out the mortar, then repeat with the tops of the bottles. The more you repeat this step the less mortar streaks will be left on the finished product. If you desire a spotless bottle-wall you should repeat this step several times. If you think the bottles are completely clean, wipe them down once or twice more. Don’t lay more than four rows at once, the mortar needs time to set or it will sag.
Believe it or not, this part of the process is very easy. Often, even children help in the construction of bottle-homes.
Continue to place bottles, taking breaks for cleaning and to let the mortar harden, until you’ve reached the top of your framing. If you end up with a large gap at the top, add a final row of smaller bottles to finish it off.
Note that you can easily add windows to a bottle wall, as long as you factor it into the design. Simply build up to the height you want the window, place the frame on levelled, hardened mortar, and then continue building around it.
Bottle walls are surprisingly strong, and can survive storms and flooding without problem. If a bottle does happen to break, or you want to replace one with a different color, simply use a hammer and chisel to remove the bottle completely. Then, cover a new bottle in silicone adhesive and slide it into the gap.
Start saving your bottles now. A large structure is completely feasible, but you will need an excess of 10,000 bottles to build it. The thicker the bottle, the better. Wine bottles tend to be the thickest, followed by beer and soda bottles, with liquor bottles usually being the thinnest.
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