An Earthquake-Ready School for China (Just Add Cardboard Tubes)

shigeru ban paper tube schools china photo

Shigeru Ban's Paper Tube School
The devastating earthquake that struck in central China's Sichuan province on May 12 killed 69,000 and left 4.8 million people homeless. The most chilling symbol of the Wenchuan quake were the thousands of schools that flattened like pancakes, crushing scores of children -- the result of shoddy construction. While the investigations continue (and serious criticisms continue to be suppressed), scores of domestic and foreign initiatives have come to Sichuan, hoping to rebuild stronger and more sustainably. One of the more elegant and poignant design projects, led by prominent Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and a team of Chinese and Japanese students, is erecting temporary but resilient schools out of plywood and recycled cardboard tubes.

sichuan paper tube school ban blueprint image

How it Happened
Ban has been putting recycled paper tube structures into use as shelters in devastated places for a decade.

Shortly after 5.12, as the deadly quake is known in China, Ban arrived in Sichuan to propose his idea to the local government. Once approval came from education officials, Ban assembled a team of students from his research center banlab, and the Hironori Matsubara Lab at Keio University, along with volunteer teachers from around China, who were assigned by the country's education ministry.


How it Works

Recycled paper tubes aren't just useful for holding architectural blueprints. They can be molded into load-bearing columns, bent into trusses and rapidly assembled, and can be made waterproof and fire resistant. Because paper tubes are available in various thickness and diameters, they can be added to a structure to support more weight as necessary. Ban has said he hopes to build structures a few stories high.

At Pingmag, Wataru Doi, the director of the Sichuan student project, goes into detail:

Basically, the framework is made from paper tubes and the walls are made from material that is cheap and easy to produce in China. The roofs are made of plywood, and we used polycarbonate as insulation.

It is cheap, and more importantly, it uses materials that are available anywhere in the world. It is also structurally sound, so you do not have to worry about safety issues. Shigeru Ban has already used paper tubing for rebuilding after earthquakes in: India, Turkey and Kobe.

Ban was also behind 2005's shipping container Nomadic Museum, and in 2007, he and a group of students completed a cardboard bridge in France.


Improving Understanding
The project didn't just help rebuild in an innovative and sustainable way. It helped build new ties of understanding between young Chinese and Japanese students.

It also illustrated the gap in design and precision between China and Japan.

From the beginning of August for around 40 days, students from Japan and from Southwest Jiaotong University, as well as elementary school students volunteered for the construction. When we arrived at the site, there were no materials, no tools or anything. So we started by getting together the things we needed, which was much harder than expected! For example in Japan, if you order 100 pieces of 12-millimetre plywood, that is what will be delivered. But in China, you would get 100 boards varying in thickness from 10 millimetres to 14 millimetres. So you have to check the thickness of each and every board as you work. You could never imagine having these kinds of difficulties in Japan!

Balancing Safety with Comfort
As families wait for permanent housing and students wait for new schools, rebuilding efforts are hard pressed to just build, and build fast. But areas hit by disaster also have a golden opportunity to start from scratch, and incorporate sustainability for the future.

Zhu Tao, a Chinese architect behind Retumu, a non-governmental design and rebuilding initiative that sponsored Ban's project, insisted that designs like paper tube house help to highlight the importance of planting sustainable roots.

"Everyone is talking about rebuilding strong structures, but safety considerations are only the bottom line of design -- it shouldn't be the ultimate destination," he says. "Even for temporary construction like Ban's, it's all about the balance between quality and quantity. Their painstaking design and hard joints slowed down the process and elevated the cost slightly," compared to typical temporary buildings. "But we think it's worth it. A high quality design can win over other factors."

While most temporary buildings "are always reminding you you're living in a disaster zone," the students using the buildings, he said, love the spaces, and "love to hang on little columns like monkeys."




Going Foward
The next step is to roll the paper tube design to a larger audience in a standardized form, which would bring down the cost to that of typical temporary buildings. The project is collecting donations online.

Aside from providing temporary schools, the project's legacy will be for architects too. Said Wataru Doi: "People tend to think that architecture is only about building skyscrapers and homes. And sometimes, architects let that kind of attitude go to their heads. Architects have to think about what they can do for society. The answer to that is doing something for people who need help. That’s an obligation. We will remember this very experience probably into our old age."


To donate to the project, visit this donation page

And see more pictures at Zhu Tao's blog.

Retumu (zh) and Ban-Matsubara Lab (jp)

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An Earthquake-Ready School for China (Just Add Cardboard Tubes)
Shigeru Ban's Paper Tube School The devastating earthquake that struck in central China's Sichuan province on May 12 killed 69,000 and left 4.8 million people homeless. The most chilling symbol of the Wenchuan quake were the thousands of schools that

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