Bottling hope – offsite shelter gives new purpose to single-use plastic

Discarded plastic bottles are transformed from global menace to a cutting-edge, low-tech emergency housing solution, the BottleHouse,™ with the help of offsite construction techniques. Architect Ricky Sandhu from small. | Six Miles Across London Ltd. and Ross Harvey from the WSP Design Studio explain how …

A million single-use plastic bottles are bought worldwide every minute. Most are destined to festoon our shores or be stuffed into landfill. When architect Ricky Sandhu devised a way to turn a plastic bottle into a building brick, WSP’s Design Studio – a group of early career engineers led by technical director Ross Harvey – was on hand to help realise his vision of 100% recyclable emergency housing.

picture of a house made out of bottles

Ricky Sandhu from small. | Six Miles Across London Ltd tells how the BottleHouse™: began …

The idea came about when I was living Qatar with my wife and son, Max.

Tap water was not an option, and we were horrified as the bottles we were generating piled up. One weekend, Max and I decided to build something with it all. We bought some bamboo, and the first BottleHouse™ – an 11ft, three-sided pyramid shape – was born.

When we returned to London, the idea stayed with me. Then, one day a contact at WSP asked if we had any projects that might inspire young engineers. Knowing the company’s approach to problem solving, I didn’t hesitate.

To bring the vision to life we used every part of the bottle in the design, so nothing would end up in landfill or the ocean. The bottle tops are used to bolt the rungs – bamboo canes – together. The top and bottom of the bottle are threaded onto these to create horizontal rows of bricks. These rows are then built into panels of a manageable size.  More halved bottles are then used to insulate the structure.

The materials are low tech, but the design is packed with our combined technical experience.

Because the elements were constructed offsite in by multiple teams under controlled conditions in the WSP loading bay, the quality of each panel got better as we learned. This resulted in greater sustainability, less waste and a more robust structure needing less maintenance.

The panels of the BottleHouse™ can be quickly assembled where they’re needed – ideal in an emergency context. The 4m by 4m by 4m pyramid breaks down into 2m by 2m equilateral triangles, to make it easier to store and assemble. For example, we’ll drive the panels to Clerkenwell Design Week exhibition this month, and have the structure assembled within an hour. And, because it’s a temporary structure, we can take it down in the same way we built it.

As the BottleHouse™ concept evolves we’d like the structures to be accessible to people who need them the most – and we’re beginning to talk to UK charities about this.

The project shows we can improve our quality of life, protect the environment and our wildlife by reusing plastic waste. And looking ahead, maybe a circular economy could rise from that, in those places where tonnes of plastic wash up on the beach. Locals could be employed to help collect the materials, for shelters constructed by and for communities, providing jobs and security.

We can’t make plastic bottles go away – we’re accepting that. But we can use our expertise to find ways to keep them in circulation.

With the lights and solar heating, we plan to add to the BottleHouse™ we hope it will become a beacon of awareness, of the real cost of bottled water – and the potential to do something about it.

My hope is, people will look at the BottleHouse™ and think, one of those bottles could be mine …

bottlehouse wsp

WSP technical director Ross Harvey takes up the tale:

I first spoke to Ricky when I was asked to get involved with our Design Studio – a forum for our young engineers to work with architects and designers on innovative concepts.

Ricky explained how he felt it was a travesty to walk along the beach and see hundreds of these plastic bottles washing up. He had this wonderful concept of the BottleHouse™ – to take those bottles and engineer them into something useful – and needed our support to realise it.

We advised on the structure and the façade behaviour of the bottles, from a temperature and UV perspective. It needed to be a simple construction, so we avoided using materials like steel or manufactured timber – which a country would be unable to source in an emergency – and stuck with the bottles, bamboo, leaves which would be easy to source in a remote location.

Constructing the BottleHouse™ offsite offered lots of benefits. WSP’s loading bay to build the panels – and if we can do it there, people can do it anywhere – cutting the bottles, punching the bottlecap and so on – like a cottage industry. In the context of a providing emergency accommodation, the panelised system makes it feasible for the elements to be manufactured by local people and then shipped to where they’re needed. You could also potentially create a number of structures and bring them to site pre-made.

For me, the ability to create something so smart, simple and easy from unwanted waste to support people in need is really important. I can’t stress enough how exciting this building is. The fact it’s built from single use plastics highlights the shame of that industry – and how far we need to move forward as a society.

WSP design studio is always excited to support exciting and innovative ideas – and I can only say this project with Ricky has been truly inspirational.

Watch this video to learn more:

Bottle House 2.0 – Small / WSP from LightField London on Vimeo.