Category Archives: Materials

Self-Build using Recycled Materials

Following our great success with our experiment in which we built a fantastic work space for €44.95 out of recycled and reused materials , I received this comment in my inbox from the Architect Andy Burdon whose brains I pick occasionally specially when  I am looking for advice on building regulations or cutting edge green technology. I thought this comment  worthy of a blog post…

The problem with self-builders using recycled materials

“A major problem with the proposal to construct an extension constructed from recycled or  re-used materials is the legal requirement to comply with statutory requirements, primarily Planning Control and the Building Regulations. Understanding or interpreting these regulations and applying them to a self build construction may be beyond the expertise of aspiring self builders. There are several sources of self-help books or even “Wiki How” web pages that can guide prospective 5Kers through this maze of requirements and regulations.

However, the fundamental problem is how can one be certain the proposed building is compliance with the regulations and is structurally safe and sound? Traditional building techniques such as concrete foundations and block or brickwork walls are sufficiently proven to allow for safe construction , but in your project these components and techniques are likely to be too expensive. Given the budget allowance, alternative construction techniques may be required.

These questions lead inevitably towards the necessity to seek relevant expert advice and guidance, before and during and sometimes even after construction. For the most part , this service can be supplied by a competent Architect or Engineer, however, it is unlikely that this service will be free of charge. With a stated budget limit of €5K, this may be a problem.

The use of second-hand, or re-used components present difficulties in terms of quality control for structural components of any extension. Without independent testing and certainty it is unlikely that a structural engineer would be satisfied with the use of reused components. It must be remembered that any professional involved with the project is taking on a “duty of care” and would be liable if anything were to go awry.

A solution to these impediments may be to employ an Architect/ Engineer/ Supplier/ Fabricator with the skill , training and relevant insurances to design and supervise the installation of a low-budget structural “frame” set onto designed foundations and made of specified components , which can then be safely infilled with floors, walls, windows and a roof formed from reused or recycled materials as required by the aspiring €5Ker. This is a similar, but more site-specific solution than the use of a cargo container cut away to allow for various uses, and it avoids the expensive cost of cranes ! Although a cost will arise for this service, the ability then to proceed re using / recycling materials becomes a viable option providing appropriate materials are used. I believe this option offers great potential and should be further investigated.

Best wishes with the project

Andy Burdon

Thank you Andy, While I recognise the importance of a strictly regulated, compliant construction sector, it does as you say put a huge financial burden on our miniscule budget in terms of affording competent professionals. Your suggestion does however allow us to be creative and experimental insofar as infill material is concerned and attempt to save costs that way.

In this excellent article from Dublin architect Tim Lavin weighs up the advantages and disadvantages of tried and tested components such as Timber Frame, SIPs(Structurally Insulated Panels), Insulated concrete Forms (ICF), Glass, Steel and Strawbale to construct the frame. The article outlines construction methods and planning permission for attaching an extension to your house as a self builder. Well worth a read!

We welcome any advice or thoughts that any of you out there might have of how we might work experimentally and creatively within the constraints of our budget and bureaucracy!

They did it in Brighton!

Cast your eyes on these images of The Brighton Waste House, the first permanent building in the UK to be constructed from waste, surplus material and discarded plastics, all under full building regulations and with planning permission! brighton waste house facade Two thousand recycled and weatherproof carpet tiles clad the exterior facade while old vinyl banners are used as internal vapor control layers. framework Foundations made from ground-granulated blast-furnace slag support a framework comprising salvaged plywood beams, columns and timber joists rescued from a nearby demolished house. denim_Jeans in‌sulation Old plastic razors, denim jeans, videocassettes, and 20,000 toothbrushes were inserted into the walls as insulation chalk wall To improve energy efficiency and thermal conductivity, the builders constructed rammed earth walls out of chalk waste and clay. Whats more exciting is that the project engages local community and serves as an open research project Find out more about this exciting project by BBM architects here


Our Recycled Shed takes Shape

I am a scavenger! I have been one since I was broke at college, when I put my salvation in the hands of the Hare Krishnas for a couple of hours in return for one of their delicious meals, while my ancestors buried in the ghettos of eastern Europe reeled in their graves.

These days I never walk by a skip without investigating it for potential treasures. My house is almost entirely furnished with cast-offs.

My ancestors must have forgiven me by now because in the last couple of weeks we have been blessed with extraordinary bounty  delivered by wonderful coincidences…

Krzysztof's sketch of the shed

Krzysztof’s sketch of the shed

A few weeks ago Krzysztof, carpenter, scavenger-of-note and genius upcycler, had to vacate the workshop facility where he stored tools and the odds and ends of materials that he had been collecting for his various projects. I suggested he use the end of my garden to make a shed for himself. The deal was that I would provide the site, he would build the shed, and it would be used both for his storage needs and for any materials needed for the 5k extension.

We decided to make the shed a project in itself: it was to be constructed as far as possible out of reclaimed materials or stuff diverted from landfill.

So in telling the story of our shed so far, I am like a six-year-old child, excitedly prefacing each turn of events with “And then…”

And then … we got a delivery of pallet wood which would otherwise have been discarded, from a pal of Krzysztof’s at the factory where he used to work.

pallets delivered Rusty Nails Pile of Nails CompostS

And then … my neighbour Liam, an urban farmer who uses my garden for his overflow (he needs more space, I don’t have the urge to garden), emptied the compost bin to fill his vegetable beds.

wheelbarrow spud

The concrete blocks from the now-empty compost bin were used to build foundations for the shed, and the space was mapped with pallet wood.

Space for Shed text

And then… Francis drops by to chat about his wife’s 50th birthday and leaves behind some heavy-duty plastic sheeting, that he is no longer using. Essential for protecting the structure from the relentless Irish weather!

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And then it all starts pouring in… and not just the rain.  Bloom Fringe showed an interest in our project and introduced me to Dara from ReCreate who run a recycling initiative that takes end of line and surplus stock from businesses to reuse as art materials. Dara mentioned that a gallery that they collaborate with was in the process of dismantling an art installation and did we want any MDF and wooden supports to which I said YES!

Dara ReCreate232 6mm MDF boards 246

And then … my neighbour Dave who happens to work at the aforementioned art gallery heard that I was taking the MDF and offered me the Rockwool insulation that was used to soundproof the installation as well. I said YES! The hero Dara from Recreate collected it for us even though they wouldn’t normally stock that type of insulation. And this, along with the pallet wood, gave us the bones of a shed.

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And then.. it rained and rained but between the showers we had lots of visitors and helpers and cake!

visitors and cake 030 252243  Planting 2 pride cake

I really like the look of the shed at the moment – it makes me nostalgic for my South African childhood.

037 038

And this is how we stand…waiting for the ancestors to do their heroic work of intercepting good stuff on its way to landfill and sending materials our way to finish the walls, and floor. We are thinking about using the election posters to make the roof tiles (best use for them!). Any suggestions welcome.

Lots more to come: My pal Karin is putting a bee lure in the garden to try to coax in some local bees. Krzysztof is making it from found materials.. Work continues on the shed…

Bloom Fringe comes to the 5kextension

On the 31st May we are opening up the garden between 3pm and 5pm see  for details

  • The Project Architects will discuss their response to the project brief
  • Krzysztof will show how he will reuse discarded materials to build a structure
  • Information on bee keeping
  • Beautiful sculptural flowers and insects produced by Karin Stierle from scraps courtesy of ReCreate

Read Liam Patersons’ post about his garden efforts in the  Neighbourly Garden. Liam is an avid gardener who helps out and shares a space in my garden- You can peek at his own edible front garden Bloom Fringe day too


Please have a look at Community Reuse Network  is the all Island representative body for community based reuse, recycling and waste prevention organisations. 

A multimedia message sent from Krzysztof to me, We will forgive him the spelling, it's not many of you who can pronounce the Polish for "extension", let alone spell  "przedtuzenie domu"

A multimedia message sent from Krzysztof to me, We will forgive him the spelling, it’s not many of you who can pronounce the Polish for “extension”, let alone spell “przedtuzenie domu”


A Plastic Extension?

The philosopher Alain de Botton describes plastic as the most “uncompromising and contemporary of materials.”

It might seem strange that such a contemporary material carries a nostalgic significance for me, stirring memories of my pre-adolescent childhood, when I showed some potential to be a competitive swimmer. A time, before I was steered away through self-consciousness and the lure of boys, I would train twice daily in a swimming pool under a vaulted shelter of poly-carbonate plastic. The smells of chlorine and chemicals and the condensation from steam rising and meeting the cool early morning air at the membrane of this plastic temple, provided a micro climate where we could swim, meditative and quiet, held womblike in the water. A space somewhat toxic but where potential was infinite.

It is not surprising therefore that Polycarbonate plastic is a contender for material of choice for the 5k extension.

The possibilities with plastic are infinite , as it is a material remarkable in its ability to be extruded, moulded, cast, or poured into anything – for example clothing fibers, packaging etc. Product designers bravely use it to make high-design objects. In construction and architecture however, it is most often associated with garage lean-tos, roof lights or walk ways.

The Irish architecture firm Architecture Republic elevated the industrial use of the material in The Plastic House

Plastic house

All photos of Plastic House, Architecture Republic by Paul Tierney

Plastic house

Plastic house Plastic house

In this renovation project a small Dublin house is excavated and a space is created. Inserted into the space is the polycarbonate and steel cruciform living space. This innovative project fits seamlessly into the Dublin streetscape.

I am neither an architect nor an engineer but my investigations into using polycarbonate sheeting as a vertical wall option show that it can be a viable option for our project:

polycarbonate sheets, 5kextension, plastic houseThe 25mm multiwall sheet is lightweight, with a high stiffness to weight ratio, translucent, durable and damage resistant. It is up to 200 times stronger than glass fire resistant and self extinguishing.

Cost effective: 1/3 to 1/2 less than the cost of insulated glass. A 7m by 2.1m 25mm sheet is available in the Republic of Ireland for €335.00. Because the sheets are so long (up to 13 m) they  can run ridge to eave in one continuous piece, thereby saving on structural materials and installation time. In terms of energy saving , the R-Values of the 25mm multi-wall polycarbonate are as high as 3.78, with better insulating properties than triple-glazed or argon filled high performance double-glazed insulated glass.

While being seduced by my emotional and memory response as well as the exciting thought of a glowing light filled box in my garden, I do need to think about the tremendous negative impact plastic might have on the environment and on our health.

In the interest of ‘sustainability’, recycling of plastic has become much more efficient. As well as this, levels of toxicity in plastics are being addressed by manufacturers. However the production of plastic still requires huge resources and is polluting; the potential health risks are still not fully understood, and; the indefinite and (mostly) non-biodegradable qualities of plastic ensure that, as a material, it is effectively immune to meaningful decay. All of this opens a much larger debate on ‘sustainability‘ and whether the use of a petrochemical generated material can be considered “sustainable” by virtue of the fact it is recycled?

These questions need robust answers going forward, Plastic is like the adolescent in the world of  material- malleable, brash, still in the process of developing and being refined. It does not command our trust, like wood and stone or even concrete which has been allowed to develop since Ancient Roman times. Like an adolescent plastic lurks about on building sites in damp-proof membranes, rawl plugs and PVA’s. Giving the material exposure and pushing architectural boundaries as seen in the examples on this page, will go a long way towards opening up the debate, assisting us make informed choices, and spurring manufacturers and regulatory bodies to further their investigations.

If we do decide to use this material on the 5k extension, I am sure our architects on the project will face regulatory and structural obstacles. This project is experimental, why not acknowledge the adolescent that is within us all and test some boundaries?

In the meantime relish in the brave and uncompromising use of plastic in the following images:

Kengo Kuma Oribe Tea room. Plastc extension Kengo Kuma Oribe Tea room. Interior Plastic extension

The structure pictured above is the Oribe Tea House Pavilion by Kengo Kuma.  It is constructed of corrugated plastic sheets hollowed out to create a serene cocoon-like space within.

Hojo-an after 800 Years

The Hojo-an after 800 Years Pavillion by Kengo Kuma

Serpentine PavillionSerpentine Pavilion by Alvaro Siza Panes of polycarbonate fill in the squares of the grid Solar panels in the center of each roof panel soak up power and are used to illuminate the pavilion at dusk

moomoo plaastic house The Plastic House of Lodz, Poland designed by Moomoo Architects. It is  clad in Thermoplan  a plastic roofing material.

AL1 Architektinnen - Low energy housing, Wienerwald 2012. Via, photos (C) Clemens Franke.

AL1 Architektinnen – Low energy housing, Wienerwald 2012. Via, photos (C) Clemens Franke.

plasticamentePlasticamente Pavilion by Riccardo Giovanetti.  The 130 square meter structure is made from shiny, white, plastic disks and houses an exhibition for children about plastics and recycling.

I have recently found out that even Bees Do It… Read this article on Motherboard about bees building nests with our recycled plastic. 

Have you built with plastic? Are you thinking about it? Let us know your opinions and experiences..?

Building with Sandbags

Sandbags have been in the news recently, we have seen them piled high as a desperate measure to help contain the devastating floods that have been plaguing Ireland in the past few weeks

Coincidentally, in the midst of all of this, my brother Graeme Labe who designs and develops Eco Tourist safari camps around the world, sent me some images of a project in the Serengeti Wildlife Park that he designed using sandbags as a construction material.

Specially formulated geo-fabric bags, filled with sand and stacked between eco steel beam framework

Specially formulated geo-fabric bags, filled with sand and stacked between a steel beam framework

Cladding of the beams with wire mesh and either plaster, timber or plasterboard.

Cladding of the beams with wire mesh and either plaster, timber or plasterboard.

sandbags on floor level

sandbags on floor level

The finished building, clad  with corrugated iron

The finished building, clad with corrugated iron

SandBag Building

The idea of using sandbags as a construction material for ordinary housing is fairly new. It was developed as a complete building system over the past fifteen years in South Africa as a cost-effective way to assist South Africa in its endeavour to house millions of homeless people. (Construction costs can be reduced by up to 40%). It has since gained currency amongst people looking for an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional building practice.

I have recently been in touch with Rodney Wall, a South African Eco Home specialist, He is passionate about the benefits of this building system, he has used it on many builds and community projects and is working on creating a totally carbon neutral system. Both he and Graeme believe the this method of building is suitable for all climates including Ireland.

Could it work for The 5k Extension?

Well, I could haul in all of you who have offered to help  to do most of the tough work by filling sandbags!

Graeme has a concern about the lack of sand freely available on the site and the ensuing costs of having to buy sand, but I reassured him, by pointing to the fact that so many builders and landscapers discard so much sand to landfill in Ireland. We would just need to put the word out that we would happily take their leftover sand rather than them having to pay to dump it.

The biggest negative in using this method for my project is the width of the walls which are thicker than brick. Because the space in my back yard is so tight, I am looking for the thinnest possible building material.

Rodney Wall of Eco-Steps outlined the benefits of sandbag building to me.

Benefits of the Eco-Beam Sandbag Building System

Build Quality

  • Excellent thermal stability. Due to its high thermal mass, the structures are cool in summer and warm in winter. Millions of small air spaces between the grains of sand are responsible for good thermal insulation.
  • Superior sound-absorbing properties which help to provide a measure of privacy in close-quarter living or within the house between rooms.
  • Breathable, vapour permeable, “natural” walls for comfort and healthy living
  • Wind and water proof. The security and fire protection properties of the walls are also excellent.

Reduced Construction Costs

  • The weight of the construction materials makes transporting easier and cheaper while allowing for construction in areas without adequate road infrastructure. (e.g. 1,500 eco bags can fit in the boot of a car; this is the equivalent of 4,500 bricks).
  • Unskilled labour can be used to fill and stack the sandbags, further reducing labour costs.
  • Reduced construction time
  •  The only “wet” trade is plastering and no mechanical tools, equipment, skills or electricity is needed on site.
  • Most specialized trades like electrical and plumbing can be completed concurrently with the initial build, further reducing construction time.
  • Minimal building waste or losses on site

Reduced environmental impact

The system has a low carbon footprint, as very little energy is consumed in the process of designing, manufacturing or building a kit.

  • The carbon dioxide emission of one square meter of sandbag wall is more than 95% less than that of a conventional brick wall.
  • On site construction requires no mechanical or electrically operated equipment.
  • Sand can be found locally nearly everywhere around the world, in some regions even directly on the construction site.
  • The energy required for making the polypropylene bags can virtually be negated as the bags are very thin and contain a small amount of raw material.
  • The same is true for the steel used in the manufacture of ecoBEAMS.
  • If natural material like hemp is used for the bags instead of a geo-textile it can be reduced even more
  • There is no energy consumption as in producing bricks or producing cement
  • If natural material like hemp is used for the bags instead of a geo-textile the carbon footprint can be reduced even more.

graeme labe ,sandbag construction, ecobeam, rollform steel

Completed Sandbag Building

Completed Staff Quarters and Utility buildings at the Kuria Tented Camp, built using Sandbags

Tented Canvas Structures

Our experiment the €5000 extension is up against many obstacles – not least coming in on a miniscule budget or having to deal with planning and bureaucratic issues , but compared with the issues my brother Graeme Labe faces in some of his  projects, We can count our blessings.

I have listened in awe to some of  Graemes’ descriptions about having to survey land which is so remote it is almost unmapped; His having to drive, camp and hike, with the company of a Maasai warrior for days in order to assess the viability of a site; Being vulnerable to wild animals and vehicle damage… And that is before the project work begins!


In this article we are looking at an interesting project that Graeme and his company FTK Design and Development  were commissioned to design. It is an Eco  Camp situated in the Wogakurya Hills in the north of the Serengeti National Park, in Tanzania.

The brief given to Graeme was to develop a tented Camp, environmentally friendly both in design and the use of materials. The accommodation units were to incorporate large glass frontage. The interiors of the tents were to have separate divisions for the bedroom and bathrooms

To get to this camp is no mean feat. It is located a 12 to 14 hour truck drive from the closest town Arusha , so logistics and construction materials had to be meticulously considered.                             tented camp  eco tourism  canvas roll form steel, Graeme Labe

Roll Form Steel and Canvas Construction

A Contemporary take on a Tented Safari Camp

Tented camps are traditionally built on wooden base structures with either mild steel or wooden upright poles.  The canvas fly sheet is placed on the frame-work and canvas body is hung from this frame sitting on the wooden deck.

In this project, however, there was a major concern with regard to the maintenance of the wooden substructure due to the high occurrence of termites. Graeme resolved this issue by making a steel substructure to lay the floor on.

floor canvas wall, roll form steel structureecotourism building materials sustainability floor canvas wall roll form steel structureecotourism building materials sustainabilityfloor, canvas wall roll form steel structureecotourism building materials sustainabilityfloor canvas wall roll form steel structureecotourism, building materials sustainability

Graeme decided to use the same steel structure for both the superstructure and the roof structure of the tent. The steel frames were then clad in canvas and where hard walls were required the frames were clad in plywood. The choice of using steel was  motivated by many reasons:

  • Lightweight and easily transportable
  • Environmentally sound: Eco-Steel is made from Recycled Galvanized Steel
  • It can be used with a combination of multiple finishing materials.
  • More design possibilities than traditional tent building techniques

roll form steeltented ecocamp canvas

Using the roll form steel he was able to design and build large multi leveled tented units which otherwise would not have been possible using traditional tent building techniques.

batterysolar panels tented camp canvas, roll form steelsolar panels, tented camp canvas roll form steel

The lighting and electrical design also had to fulfill the eco ethos of the Camp with all the Camp’s electricity being supplied through Solar power and central solar water boilers

To carry the theme through FTK Design and Development were also contracted to do the interiors of the Lodge.

 Using the roll form steel we were able to design and build large multi leveled tented units which otherwise would not have been possible using traditional tent building techniques.

IndustryBuildingStructural systemTensile architecture,canvas-wall-roll-form-steel-structureecotourism-building-materials-sustainability

For a more in-depth look at the development of this project click here

A Canvas Tent for The 5k Extension?

Graeme, the Eco Design Warrior, assures me that a tented structure could work in my damp, back garden in Dublin city. He does not recommend Rollform Steel for my project as that would be outside of our budget. He suggests looking in scrap yards for disused steel H beams,or timber to create the skeleton structure.

He advises that once we know the R-Value requirements, we can insulate between two sheets of canvas, with the most economical and effective insulation possible. (I have seen so many half used rolls of insulation on skips, it shouldn’t take long to amass enough) and then join them together. Or we could insulate between the canvas and economical plaster board to have a rigid interior wall.

The external Canvas would need to be water and fungal resistant, with ,a fire-retardant. Graeme suggested a teflon treated canvas called Ferrari. I made some enquiries from a company in the UK called Canvasman. They recommended  a product VIP-PVC_FR, which is available in many colours and comes in a width of 2.5 meters available at £15.12/linear meter so for 20 meters it could cost £302.00.

I wonder if we may be glamping in the back garden yet?

Have a look as well at my friend Francis Fullens’ company C I Structures , whose large high tensile framed membrane structures are dotted around Ireland. i have offered him my garden to build one..He has not responded..

Anyway, have a browse through the images below, and try not be too envious of Graeme Labe , who gets to hang out and work in locations like this one.

Kuria Hills Tented Camp

My Brother the Eco Design Warrior

For those of you with an interest in environmentally sensitive architecture and building methods, combined with a love of nature and wildlife, you will be green with envy when you hear about the work my brother Graeme Labe does

Eco building, serengeti, sustainability, vernacular architecture

Graeme works in the most remote unspoilt locations in the world, designing and developing eco-friendly safari and guest lodges.

He has to deal with the most enormous logistical problems that are almost unimaginable from my computer desk in Dublin. – including having to consider how to keep the swimming pools that he designs inaccessible to elephants

Roll form steel, canvas constuction, tented, eco building,Because of this, Graeme has to be highly creative with his construction methods. He builds with very innovative materials including sandbags, roll form steel and canvas to name a few.                                   Most of the developments he works on are totally off – grid so the primary power needs to be self-sufficient, economical and environmentally friendly,

Because so many of the locations are so remote he has to design solutions for the treatment of sewerage and solid waste as well as domestic water in areas where no infrastructure exists

He has worked on many projects all over Africa and travels to exciting places over the world to consult and provide feasibility studies, and yes, I am thrilled to say he is sending me lots of advice for the 5k extension.

Over the next few weeks I will be bringing you examples of some of his projects that are really fascinating. On this post we will show you a project he worked on 10 years ago  in the Okavango Delta – a lovely example of vernacular architecture rethought –

Building with recycled aluminium drink cans

mud and tin can wallIn this development, Baines Camp, the wall panels of the lodges were made from 140,000 aluminium cans collected by school children in Maun in Botswana, as a local community project. This project raised money for local schools and helped clear the streets of Maun.

It also drew on the local knowledge of mud-and-wattle construction – turning it into ‘mud and can’ construction.

In order to lighten its carbon footprint, Baines’ camp  is a semi-permanent structure. There are no permanent foundations and all the decks are raised to allow for flooding. Please take some time to look through the development of this project, just tap on the following image…

Makes me wonder if we could collect 140 000 empty Guinness cans to build our 5000€ extension in my back yard in Dublin? I know a few lads on my street will do their bit on a weekend binge to assist.

FTK Logo, Eco Design,Graeme worked on this project before he set up his own business called Full TurnKey Development and Design. His website is currently under construction, but you can access his details by clicking here

My favourite picture of Graeme, taken years ago, fishing with elephants

One of my favourite pictures of Graeme, taken many years ago, fishing with elephants in the Okavango Delta

An interesting article in Architectural Digest from 2001 featuring Graeme and a similar project he worked on in the Okavango Delta