The Role of Cardboard in Architecture

Published on Thu, Jan 31, 2019 5:00 PM GMT

Many people usually think of cardboard as a material used primarily in the packaging of various products. In the past several years, various types of cardboard have been utilized in architectural projects as well. Its physical and mechanical properties continue to be studied in order to help manufacturers design it to be fire- and water-resistant.

The idea of cardboard structures usually brings to mind children’s play spaces. However, because it is so lightweight and easy to fold, cardboard is truly an excellent option for temporary or emergency housing.

History of Cardboard in Architecture

Concrete, bricks, steel (and even engineered timber) are among the most common materials used in the building industry. In time, cardboard may join the ranks to become one of the many important highlights in architecture.

In the 1940s, American architect R. Buckminster Fuller experimented with corrugated cardboard instead of using traditional building products. He was fascinated by the material because it was cost-effective, eco-friendly, and recyclable. He completed a prototype in 1944 that used corrugated cardboard as the main or secondary construction material. Unfortunately, his vision ended up on a shelf because of its vulnerability to water and fire. While some architects attempted to follow his lead in experimenting with corrugated cardboard over the next decade, other alternative materials (e.g. Formica, laminated plastic) were more successful.

In 1986, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban began to experiment with corrugated cardboard again. He knew that while a concrete building was a sturdy structure, it could easily be destroyed by an earthquake. However, paper-tube buildings (when properly designed and constructed) could remain undamaged and potentially survive for years.

Cardboard is an excellent construction material for the following reasons:

Easy to manufacture

Good insulating properties

Attractive texture

Made from 100 percent recycled materials


Ban developed and perfected a technique using ordinary cardboard tubes and plastic tarps. This led to the creation of waterproof emergency shelters for refugees. His paper architecture became so popular that he built more permanent structures, including Hualin Paper Elementary School in China and the Paper Concert Hall in Italy.

After discovering the significance of cardboard in architecture, many professionals in the field followed Ban’s lead. Among the more recent designs are:

Mafoombey Acoustic Space by Finnish designers Martti Kalliala and Esa Ruskeepää (2005)

Origami-like cardboard school building by British architects Cottrell and Vermeulen (2002)

“Easy Edges” cardboard furniture line by Frank Gehry (1970)

The Wikkelhouse

Dutch firm Fiction Factory has designed a tiny house made out of cardboard. The Wikkelhouse (or “wrapper”) features 24 glued layers of superior quality corrugated cardboard to create a sturdy structure. The basic segment is five square metres in size and has interlocking pieces of cardboard. Each house weighs about 500 kilograms.

The Wikkelhouse is three times more environmentally friendly than traditional houses due to its sustainability and eco-friendly materials; its many segments can be recycled and reused over and over again.

The Wikkelhouse is based more on Ban’s technique than on Fuller’s. Its modular design can be dismantled and rebuilt at any time; segments can be added for more spaciousness and rooms can be installed to match your unique style. Its adaptability and premium finishings make this unique structure comfortable in many ways. You can turn the Wikkelhouse into whatever you’d like—a beach cottage, weekend retreat, office space, or guest house. Wrapped in wood panelling and a waterproof film, the corrugated cardboard can withstand most weather conditions.

Surprisingly, the architects and designers behind the cardboard house claim the structure can last for up to a century. The Wikkelhouse is currently sold and built in different countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Denmark.

Examples of Cardboard Architecture

Narelle Yabuka (a Singapore-based publisher and editor) explained in the introduction of Cardboard Book that a piece of cardboard has a sense of democracy; it is widely available, cost-efficient, portable, and recyclable. Cardboard can be used without the need for special tools during installation or construction, but this does not necessarily diminish its value in design. Instead, it can help enhance and make different architectural projects even more impressive.

Here are five examples of architectural structures that showcase the endless possibilities of cardboard:

Christchurch Cardboard Cathedral (by Shigeru Ban) -After a devastating 2011 earthquake, renowned Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban (previously mentioned above) designed the Christchurch Cardboard Cathedral in New Zealand. The architecture was based on a simple A-frame structure comprised of prefabricated materials. The cathedral utilized 20-foot containers and cardboard tubes of the same size.

Cardboard House (by Peter Stutchbury and Col James) - The Cardboard House was developed for the 2004 Houses of the Future exhibition , an event in which architects were invited to experiment with six different materials. The Cardboard House successfully incorporated minimal technology and simplification of needs, and was built primarily from both recyclable and recycled materials. The house was designed for future use as emergency shelter or short-term accommodations.

Packed (by Min-Chieh Chen, Dominik Zausinger, and Michele Leidi) –Packed was featured in the 2010 3D Paper Art exhibition as part of the Shanghai Expo. A unique architectural structure created by design students in Switzerland, this outdoor pavilion consists of 409 truncated cones of various sizes. Cardboard hoops are connected together to create a dome-shaped network of circles. Twenty-eight layers of corrugated cardboard were cut, glued, and labelled with a machine to create the pavilion’s cones.

Subdivided Columns (by Michael Hansmeyer) – Known as the world’s most complex cardboard architecture, the subdivided columns highlight a repeating algorithm. Standing at nine feet tall, the columns are comprised of 2,700 slices of cardboard (each only one millimetre thick) and are stacked on top of wooden cores. Hansmeyer said that each column has about eight to 16 million polygonal facades, an amount of detail that was too complex for a 3D printer (at least in 2011).

Cardboard may seem too soft and destructible to be significant for use in complex architectural projects. These amazing structures prove otherwise — and showcase its surprising versatility and durability.

Hammond Paper Company continues to be a reliable source for custom paper products to clients across Canada and North America. For a quality cardboard company based in Vaughan, ON, call us at (905) 761-6867 to get a free quote.