UniBrick building blocks are stackable, with a self-locking design, like giant blocks of Lego. No cement or binding materials are required. The shape ensures a flexible construction and guarantees a proper connection between the bricks. The wall is held in place using an anchor tie down system, which basically means inserting rods through the entire wall into the foundation at regular intervals and bolting them at each end. This system of construction lends flexibility to the structure, thus improving its resistance to earthquakes. The roof is a simple double roof system, which blocks the heat in the summer and helps to harvest rain water.
A family of four adults could build a 50m2 house in a few weeks using this system, recycling approximately 6 tonnes of waste plastic and saving up to 40% in construction costs.
Families can choose to build their house incrementally: starting from a small family home, more floors can be added in the future, creating more space, which could also be rented out, providing a supplementary source of income.
Designing in sustainability
The thermal insulation capacity of the plastic UniBricks has been shown to be three times greater than that of clay bricks. They can easily withstand the temperatures of most places. During production, the molten plastic is mixed with natural fillers like glass sand or fly ash, which is also an industrial waste, in order to make the bricks fire resistant and to improve their compression strength. Each brick weighs around 6 kilos and contains 3 kilos of recycled plastic. The two main waste plastics used to produce the bricks are PP and PE. These two plastics account for the vast majority of plastic waste in the environment. Filler material makes up the remaining 3 kilos. Some 2000 bricks would be needed to build a 50m2 house.
Additionally, while the bricks will virtually last forever, they can be re-recycled after use. As producers, we would have an extended producer responsibility to take them back and recycle them, creating a closed material flow loop. This could lead to the creation of circular communities and, eventually, less plastic ending up in our oceans.
The bricks are produced on the basis of existing technologies, plastic production techniques and material research. According to our calculations, using waste plastic to make the bricks will benefit local communities and the environment specifically by saving at least 3kg in CO2 emissions per kg of plastic used, also offsetting the use of virgin construction materials.
So how to implement on a global scale?
Most cities in the developing world have a thriving army of local informal waste recyclers, who collect, sort and sell all types of recyclables. They are the unsung heroes of the local communities and a very vital part of the waste management system.
The strategy is to create a decentral circular system, by formalising the role of the local informal waste recyclers and helping to collect the plastics from source. Neighbourhood waste banks should be set up with the help of local governments, where the local population could exchange their household waste for cash. The collected waste plastic could then be transported to a decentral material factory where the bricks can be locally produced and used to build houses.
Our target groups are individuals or families, who want to be self-reliant for their housing needs. We are primarily focusing on low-income communities. For these, we would like to work out a financing system, that facilitates periodical payments, to achieve affordability.
From project to production
While the UniBrick started out as a graduation project, today it has grown into a start-up venture called Conscious Designs. The aim is to create architectural designs and solutions for the circular economy, working in the fields of water, food, clean energy, waste and affordable housing.
Conscious Designs is working on the project in collaboration with Frans Taminiau and his Rotterdam-based Community Plastics initiative. I contacted Frans after graduating for help in making my first real prototype, as up to then, I had only 3D printed versions of the brick. Before long, the first UniBrick was made and we took it from there.
Frans himself is no stranger to recycling plastic as a product designer he has been running Community Plastics since 2014. Community Plastics is a workshop where local plastic is collected, recycled and reused for new products that can return to the local community.
We currently are running several tests on our material and have an operational prototype with a few test/launching customers in the Netherlands. We are in the design development mode, seeking other applications for the bricks as a commodity and examining options such as urban and interior furniture. For our launching customer DUWO, a student housing corporation in Delft, we will be making 6 interlocking urban furniture modules, using 144 bricks, recycling 300 kilos of plastic, and saving up to 900 kilos of CO2.
We are now designing a mobile production facility, in order to be able to provide the tools and machines necessary to start producing these bricks at any location throughout the world. In another year, we hope to be ready for mass production.
While there are various other companies currently working along similar lines to develop a construction method using waste plastic, these projects mainly feature designs that are strong enough for ground floor structures only. In urban environments, where land is expensive, it makes more sense to build up in order to reduce costs and to optimise space utilisation. For this reason, UniBricks are designed to build structures that are at least three storeys high.