Around the world, over 1 billion people live in slums. What if these people could easily build their own affordable houses ánd fight plastic pollution at the same time? BlueCitizen Frans Taminiau and architect Rushabh Chheda try to make it happen by developing an interlocking brick made out of plastic waste- the UniBrick.
The UniBrick is mainly made of recycled polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE), and can be used to build houses without the need of any skilled labour. “Literally every family could build their own house with these bricks,” Rushabh says, “we really want to empower people to help themselves.”
Two birds with one stone
The idea to tackle two global problems at once, housing shortages and plastic waste, occurred to Rushabh during his time as an architect student at the TU Delft. “Looking back now, I realize that I’ve been interested in projects regarding waste for quite some time,” Rushabh says, “but it was during my master graduation project that I started working on the idea to create affordable, selfbuilt housing using local plastic waste.”
Through his research, Rushabh discovered that within the next 10 years, the amount of people living in slums will double, and at the same time plastic production is increasing while we’re not recycling enough. “I realized that we needed to create a system that shows people the value of plastic waste.” he says. “And we do that by letting local communities benefit from that plastic waste.” Frans ads.
While being aware of the fact that there are other similar projects out there, Rushabh and Frans are eager to improve the concept of a plastic brick. “Other projects are predominantly working on constructions that are strong enough for ground structures only,” Rushabh explains, “but in cities, where land is expensive, you really want to build skyward. That’s why we’ve designed the UniBrick to be strong enough to build at least up to three layers: ground, 1st and 2nd floor.”
From slums to disaster areas
Even though the clearest market for the UniBrick are slums, the brick is also suitable to build houses in disaster areas. “You basically need a place where there is a lot of plastic waste and an urgent need for housing,” Frans explains, “disaster areas are in that respect not too different from slums.”
On top of that, the UniBrick, unlike other emergency housing, is earthquake proof. “After an earthquake, the area often experiences aftershocks,” Frans says, “but because there’s no need for a binding agent like mortar or glue in between the bricks, the houses we build are able to move along with aftershocks and are therefore very safe.” Frans concludes.
The fact that there’s no need for cement or any other kind of binding agent, is due to the UniBrick’s innovative design. “I was walking to university one day and noticed the shape of tiles used in the pavement,” Rushabh says, “I got fascinated with that particular shape and wondered how it would interlock in 3D.” So Rushabh started playing with the idea of interlocking bricks in a computer program until one day he had a breakthrough moment: “I remember sitting alone in the corner of the cafeteria at University and suddenly seeing on screen that I’d figured it out, and I was like, is anyone seeing this?!” he says with a smile.
Not only the specific shape of the UniBrick is a unique characteristic, also the material that it’s made from is a bit more exciting than ‘just recycled plastic’. “It’s not just plastic in the bricks,” Rushabh says, “we are actually trying to create a hybrid of two waste materials: plastic + a filler material to improve the quality of the brick. One option for the filler material is sand, in which case we could use recycled glass.”
At this point, you might be wondering how much plastic waste actually goes into one UniBrick. Well, here are some numbers for you. Each brick approximately consists of 3 kilos of plastic waste plus 3 kilos of a filler material. And to build a house of 55m2 you need 2000 bricks. That means that one house not only puts a roof above a family’s head, it also creates new value for 6000 kilos of plastic waste.
Conscious Designs x Community Plastics
The UniBrick was originally designed for Rushabh’s master graduation project which he turned into a start up venture called Conscious Designs. “After my graduation I had 3D printed versions of the brick, but I wanted to make a real prototype.” Rushabh says. “I knew Frans offered help to people with ideas like mine, so I contacted him and not long after we made the first UniBrick and took it from there.”
Frans himself is no stranger to recycling plastic- as a product designer he has been running his own company 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.” Frans explains, “Rushabh’s idea to make local communities benefit from local waste was thus a one-on-one connection with Community Plastics. It was basically a no-brainer, I loved the idea.” So the two decided to team up and started a collaborative venture of Rushabh’s Conscious Designs and Frans’ Community Plastics.
Ted talks and competitions
Currently, the duo is still running tests on the UniBrick, but they have great belief that everything will work out as planned. “Within two years we hope to have at least one working house up and running,” Rushabh says, “maybe even two or three in different places.” He quickly marks his statement as optimistic, but Frans prefers to call it realistic: “two years is a long time, one house is definitely reasonable.” he says firmly.
To achieve this goal, Frans and Rushabh are on the lookout for more funding. Barely one month ago, they won the What Design Can Do – Clean Energy Challenge which provided them with some money to continue their research. “But, we’re working really hard on applying for every possible competition that can help us reach our goal.” Rushabh states. “In June, I’ll also be talking about the UniBrick at a Tedx event in Delft, hopefully that will attract more investors as well.” he concludes.
Would you like to read more about the UniBrick? Visit the website here.
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Text: Manon Dijkhuizen, photography, unless mentioned otherwise: Sophie de Vos