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Pallet houses

October 20, 2009

Two young Austrian architects have developed an environmentally-friendly way to build a house - out of construction waste. They're already building in developing countries and hope to convince buyers in Europe soon too.

A pallet house on display in Linz, Austria - European Capital of Culture 2008
The houses provide a solution to the waste pallet problemImage: palettenhaus.com

Pallets are everywhere; they are used worldwide as the standardized means of transport, a prefabricated element which allows for easy transport and handling in most sectors of industry.

But what happens when the pallet arrives at its destination and the cargo it has been supporting is removed? Walk past any construction site or industrial storage area and you'll get the answer: dozens of wooden pallets lying discarded among the other detritus or burning on a bonfire in a distant corner.

The burning of pallets is a global concern due to harmful by-products such as CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Pallets are usually destroyed rather than mended when more than three elements are missing - which means a great deal of wood ends up getting burned.

Austrian architects Gregor Pils and Andreas Claus Schnetzer have hit upon an idea which not only gives wooden pallets a second life but can also provide simple, cost-effective and energy efficient housing for people in need and those wanting a greener home. Unsurprisingly, given the raw material, the idea came from a building site.

A stroke of green inspiraton

Andreas Claus Schnetzer & Gregor Pils
Andreas Claus Schnetzer (l.) and Gregor PilsImage: palettenhaus.com

"My parents were having some construction done at their home around the time we were working on a project for the GAU:DI European Student Competition on Sustainable Architecture," Gregor Pils told Deutsche Welle. "My dad asked us if we could help him to put all the old pallets, which had come from many different companies, on the truck so he could take them back. He wasn't very happy about this. We thought that other people must think the same way.

They also considered all the energy needed to transport the empty pallets back to their companies. "So we started thinking of what else a pallet could be used for and started thinking about the pallet as a building material,” said Pils.

After playing around with various prototypes, Pils and Schnetzer settled on the first solid design for a pallet house, complete will full utilities and built with sustainable living in mind. Their design utilized pallets to the maximum.

A house covering 60 square meters (650 square feet) would need 800 reconditioned pallets at a price of around 8 euros ($12) per pallet. Pallets are used as walls, facades and ceilings with the spaces between the pallets used to conceal support beams, insulation, electricity cables and lighting. The need for other materials in the construction of pallet houses is reduced to a minimum.

Local materials used in eco-friendly insulation

An artist's impression of pallet houses in the slums of Cairo
The future pallet houses in Cairo will be insulated by local sandImage: palettenhaus.com

When it comes to heating and cooling, various insulation materials can be utilized, depending on the purpose and the location of the house. For a housing project the architects are planning in the slums of Cairo, sand would be used as a cooling element between the pallet layers with cheap plastic elements employed instead of glass panels. A weekend home in Austria, for example, would use cellulose and glass panels for insulation, thus creating a low energy, ecological and sustainable building.

"The beauty of this design is that you can insulate the pallet house with different insulation materials," Pils said. "The main idea is to use local materials. In Europe we now use glass wool but you can also use sheep wool or cellulose or any other insulation materials you have."

He said that, in January, they would be using straw to insulate a low-cost pallet house in South Africa.

The creators claim that a pallet house requires no more than 9.5 kWh/m2 per year for heating, with more luxurious versions using 24 kWh/m2 per year. This means that only a small heater with 2000 Watt maximum power is needed to heat the pallet house during the whole winter.

Transport and fuel costs cut by worldwide availability

A pallet house on show in Vienna
The availability of pallets cuts down on transport costsImage: palettenhaus.com

Pils and Schnetzer say that the high energy and material efficiency of the pallet house adds to its green credentials. The pallet itself is a waste product of the transport business and so no extra additional timber extraction is needed. The idea of using locally provided or naturally occurring substances as insulation, along with the fact that the worldwide availability of pallets allows short distances of transport and handling, means that fuel costs are drastically reduced.

Due to the standardized size of wooden pallets and the interconnectivity provided by the bevel design on each side, the houses can be tailored in composition and size to fit the needs of those living in them and the environment around them. This makes a pallet house an ideal alternative to other emergency or temporary housing options in slums, refugee camps and areas hit by natural disasters.

While a tent may still be a more immediate solution, the pallet house creators say their product offers greater durability and longevity.

Longer-term solution to emergency housing

An artist's impression of pallet houses used as shelters in a refugee camp, Sudan
Pallet houses are being considered for refugee campsImage: palettenhaus.com

"Shelters are a very good short term solution, but normally these people have to live for some years in such tents," Pils said. "These shelters protect from rain, but they are not very helpful when it becomes hot or very cold because normally they are not insulated."

A pallet house is quicker to build than a standard house and offers a better standard of living than a tent, he added.

The flexibility of the pallet house is a feature that particularly interests aid and development organizations. Relocation of homes due to changing environmental situations or geo-political instability is in important factor in some areas of the world where large numbers of refugees are forced to gather.

"As for moving the house, you need about five days for dismantling and ten days with two workers - when the prefabricated elements are already ready - for building it up again," Pils said.

Project preparing for large-scale use in poor nations

An artist's impression of a pallet house as a weekend home
Pallet houses could provide a green alternative in EuropeImage: palettenhaus.com

Pils and Schnetzer hope to develop the design further to allow the pallet house to be used in larger- scale housing projects in poor countries, while hoping that the environmental angle will appeal to Europeans wanting to live in a green alternative to standardized housing.

"We will be conducting a study during the next 14 months to improve the pallet house and make it ready for large-scale use," Pils said. "We want to make it perfect for use in poor counties like South Africa, and to build more of them in cooperation with non-governmental organizations and local governments.

"On the other hand, we are sure that there is also a market in Europe for the pallet house as a family or weekend home in the future," he added. "Now we are looking for a partner who wants to cooperate with us to sell our low energy pallet houses in Europe."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Kate Bowen