Burlap-crete explained

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

[papercreters] Burlap-Crete


Burlapcrete is basically loose-weave burlap, soaked in a modified rapid setting cement. Is there any advantage to using burlapcrete instead of exterior plywood sheathing?  The potential advantages are: it doesn’t warp, swell, delaminate, mold, burn, get chewed through by rodents, requires fewer tools and skills to master, and can weather years of direct contact with the elements with no noticed adverse reactions (no warping, splitting, rotting, weakening, molding, no insect or rodent issues). Twenty minutes with a blowtorch does nothing. It’s resilient, not brittle- so a hammer blow bounces off. Later I’ll tell you exactly how to make it- but first a little history.

There are a few folks that have used burlap soaked in cement slurry and
draped it over wire form work, therefore being able to build a house with a similar approach as a large piece of sculpture- but I’ve found that burlap prepared this way is weak unless done in several layers. Another way that has been tried is
to stretch the burlap over an armature and paint a weak cement
solution on it, letting it dry, and adding five to ten layers– which takes about forever unless
you have lots of people. I’ve tried a bunch of different mixes while researching how to make ‘burlapcrete’and
 have come up with one that works so well its just about amazing!  My
 exterior walls on my 40’ diameter round house are made this way, 1,200 square feet.


I found that portland and sand and water, in any combination generally
 don’t do well for burlap-crete, as the result is fairly easy to crack
 and then powders and seperates from the burlap. I tried adding latex
paint which was suggested on numerous web pages as a way to add 
elasticity, but it wasn’t very strong. I suspect in several layers 
either of these approaches could work, but I was looking for a thin
 shell that would be strong enough to use as a wall without building up layer after layer… I tried plastic cement, which is a bagged cement
 product with clay and other plasticizers and it worked fairly well,
I mixed 2 parts medium grit sand and 1 part plastic cement. However, it 
takes a long time to dry so any movement or wind at your work site could keep the burlap moving while it sets up, and then you have a dry, powdery piece of burlap waving in the breeze. In two layers this mix is only so-so for strength and it does crack easily when moderate pressure is applied. Then I 
tried traditional sculpture recipes using 20 minute casting plaster,
which in two layers was generally stronger than the cement-and-burlap
 products, and was rock hard in 20 minutes. The problem with that stuff 
is it isn’t weatherproof at all, and dissolves in damp conditions so I was concerned about water vapor condensating in the wall, as it will 
in any structure when the outside temperature is lower than the inside temp 
unless you have a vapor barrier paint on the inside of your walls or
 something similar. So then I tried 5 minute post hole cement, which 
failed miserably but did set up rapidly. It crumbled and powdered into
oblivion very readily when even mild pressure was applied by flexing the sample by hand. I tried a
 bunch of other things, and finally tried rapid set non-shrinking grout, which in two layers (one layer half overlapping the next like
shingles) is very strong, about as rigid as 1/2″ plywood coated with stucco. You can crack it with a lot of force or a hammer blow, so I
 added latex conctrete binder to the mix and that added a fair bit of elasticity to it so that when it dried, it was tougher and when enough
force was applied to break it, it would bend slightly before breaking,
and only a fine hairline crack would appear as opposed to a large
 shattering pattern. In 30 minutes it achieves 3,000 psi compressive
 strength, 6,000 overnight, and 9,000 after 28 days. (That’s what the bag says, Cement-All fast set non-shrinking grout.) It sets up
 underwater, is highly durable in wet locations, and has a sandy beige 
color when dry. The seams between pieces of burlap feather into each 
other and disappear, and when dry all it takes is dampening to be able
to blend another layer of burlap-crete onto it without any cracking
and the splice becomes invisible. If you add too much concrete binder
 (a latex glue), it will shrink when drying and cracks will appear, so I misted the walls for half an hour while drying, and came up with appropriate amounts of concrete binder to add.

Burlapcrete attached to stock panels on round house.
Burlapcrete as seen from inside of building.

Cement-All sets up 
quickly, and if you use a plastic or metal bucket you won’t have it very long. Get a rubber feed bucket from a livestock supply business, a big one about three feet around
 and a little over a foot high. That way when the stuff turns into rock
which it will until you find out what mix to use for your climate, you
 can flex the bucket and the stuff will drop out. I tried it on cold 
days and warm days and windy sunny days: each time I needed a
different amount of water. Sometimes the water coming out of my hose was hot, and that changes the setting time as well- too hot and the stuff turns to rock while you’re still mixing it. The basic mix I found worked well was to 
use a plastic 5 gallon bucket to mix it in and then pour it into the
 rubber feed bucket for use with the burlap. The sacks of Cement-All 
are 55 lbs. and you can mix a sack in a 5 gallon bucket, but as soon as
 you’re done mixing, pour it into the rubber bucket and clean your 
plastic one immediately. Using a 1/2″ drill with a mixing paddle is
probably mandatory- a drill with a small motor will not have the torque required to mix this stiff solution. I hung my half inch drill from a rope at a comfortable working
 height so all I had to do was pull the trigger to mix the stuff. It
 depends on the brand of concrete binder as to how much of the stuff to
 use. Sika brand required 3 quarts of binder and 2 quarts of water per
 55 lb. bag of Cement-All grout. Supercrete brand concrete binder is a
 lot thicker, and slightly less expensive, so that I can use 1 quart of
 it and 5 quarts of water. Put the binder and water in your plastic
bucket first, then pour half the sack of Cement-All in and stir with
 your paddle on a drill for about 30 seconds, add half of what’s left 
and stir again, and add the last of it and stir until creamy smooth,
 about a minute or two. Be sure you’ve got your burlap soaking in water
 overnight, cut into pieces that will more-or-less fit in your big
 rubber feed bucket, about two-feet square works good. Wring it out a
 little and dip it in, working the Cement-All into it from both sides 
by turning the burlap over a few times. Work your hands around the 
bottom of the rubber bucket as the Cement-All will start to harden
 there but you can get it workable again by pressing it around with
 your GLOVED hands and it will mix with the water that’s soaked into the burlap. If 
it sets up too quickly, make sure your next piece of burlap isn’t wrung 
out so well, a little water goes a long way. Soupy is good, but don’t
 go beyond pea soup consistency in terms of making it more runny.
 You’ll need a ton of large wooden clothes pins to hold the burlap onto 
your wire wall, I used stock panels, but you could get really
 sculptural with this stuff. Because it really does set up FAST, I put
 the clothes pins onto the wire about a foot above where I 
hang the burlap, so that it will be all ready to go the moment I
 need them. Oil the clothes pins, otherwise they’ll become part of your 
project on a permanent basis. To hold the middle of the burlap against t
he wire, press the clothespins around the wire trapping the burlap
 against them, this leaves an interesting divot in your wall, which can
 be filled later with more Cement-All if you don’t like the look of it.
 Seriously, if you overlap each layer half way, it ends up 2 layers
thick and is as strong as a ‘real’ house covered in stucco. Then you
 can do whatever you want inside, out of the rain and sun and wind
 while you finish your project. It’s non-flammable, too, and you can 
cut out the doors and windows as needed later on, using a cutting 
wheel or sawzall. I had been thinking of using it for a roof at about three
layers thick, but it isn’t cheap at about $18 per 55 lb. sack, and my tests showed that more than 3 coats would be required and I settled on metal lath over stock panels, and non-rapid set construction grout modified with pva fibers as my roofing material. Back to Burlap-Crete in wall applications: concrete binder is less than $10 per gallon, and only one quart is 
needed per bag of Cement-All if you use the Quickrete brand of concrete binder. In an overlapping pattern, a 
sack will yeild about 25 square feet of soaked burlap. One person can
 work quickly enough to deal with the entire process alone if
 pre-planning is employed. Wear a dust mask while mixing the stuff, its 
dusty. When hard, its fairly rough in texture, but by dampening it and
 then with a gloved hand, smoothing on a thinned out layer of Cement-All from the remnants of your rubber bucket full of
 stuff when there isn’t enough left to coat an entire piece of burlap,
 you can even out the contours and make the wall nice and smooth. You can 
also add cement coloring powder to a final coat and trowel it or glove 
it on.

A note on cost effectiveness: the materials cost for a section of wall including the heavy wire formwork aka stock panels, works out to about $1.45 per square foot as of October 2008.  This does not include the framework (rebar, 2×4, or etc.)  I calculated this based on a 50 square foot section of wall. The components included:

2 sacks Cement All, $18 ea.  = $36

2 burlap totes, which are 49 square foot pieces of burlap @ $4 ea. = $8

1/2 container (two quarts) concrete binder: $5

most of a stock panel- they currently cost $23 ea in my area, so I estimated $18

Total: $72

Divided by approx. 50 square feet = $1.44 per square foot.

13 thoughts on “Burlap-crete explained

  1. Man, I really love your ideas. Do you think sand could be put into the walls ( between the burlap on the outside and whatever you use on the inside? Also could you use another form of material on the same framework such as plaster or ferro cement?

    1. To completely entrap the metal framework I have added ferrocement on the inside, attaching stucco wire to the stock panels with a hog ring gun. I’ve thought about ‘roman’ ferrocement- using roman cement for non load bearing applications much like a ferro-reinforced render or stucco. (Lime, sand, and clay). And yes, sand could be put between the walls for thermal mass, as could gravel or tamped earth (preferably with lime in the earth to discourage mold). The concern I’d have with sand, is that if a hole occurred in the wall, a lot of the sand could pour out.)

  2. In Australia there was a similar substance used in the Depression, called petrified hessian (ie petrified burlap). The ingredients were water, cement, lime, alum and salt. It set hard as a rock, was weatherproof and I saw some buildings dating from the Depression, as late as the late 1950s so it was also very durable.

    1. That sounds very intriguing! There was an architect in San Francisco who designed the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exhibition named Bernard Maybeck who used something similar, “the palace’s beautiful Greco-Romanesque rotunda and the eight colonnades that made up the original Palace of Fine Arts were framed in wood and covered with a burlap-fiber and plaster known as ‘staff’.”Palace of Fine Arts

      Maybeck is also known for building houses out of burlap sacks soaked in “bubble stone” and draped on chicken wire. “The disastrous fire in Berkeley in 1923 destroyed many of Maybeck’s houses. In search of a cheap fireproof surfacing material, he tried coating burlap sacks with a foamy concrete mixture called “Bubble Stone.” This material, invented by a Berkeley man [John A. Rice], was produced by mixing chemicals with cement; it was so light in weight that a mass the size of a bale of hay could be lifted by one man.

      Maybeck’s production of Bubble Stone has been described by Jack Hillmer, San Francisco architect, who, in 1959, with Roy Flamm, photographer, prepared the first large exhibition of Maybeck’s work. The water and chemicals were mixed in an old washing machine, then Maybeck folded cement and sand mortar (without aggregate) into the froth ‘like adding sugar to whipped cream.’ Wet burlap sacks dipped into the mixture came out with about an inch of foamy concrete adhering to them. The coated sacks were then nailed to the studs and sheathing of a cottage, in which factory sash served as windows and as French doors to the garden. The total cost of the cottage was $600. It is still in use today, although the cement is chipping away from the sacks (McCoy 1975).”

  3. Kurt Billig in England used stretched burlap over arched frames to build Quonset-like storage structures during World War 2. The burlap was the onlky reinforcing on small structures.

  4. Is the recipe complete as written. Is ther other chemicals that you could add to make it completely water proof and rust proof.
    I would like to make some smaller scale buildings: root cellar, water collection and out buildings. Thank You for any help you could provide I am sure no one would like to take the structures
    apart to rework them.

    1. To ensure water proofing and rust proofing, I would add a waterproofing agent designed for cement and concrete.I would suggest a product called “Anti Hydro NC” which is used for waterproof, dust proof cement, concrete, stucco and mortar. The NC designation means non-chloride, so it doesn’t attack (rust) metal. I’ve used galvanized stock panels to attach the burlapcrete to, and had been wanting to keep the breathability which might be lost with this type of waterproofing. The burlapcrete was a bit rough as a finish coating, so I’ve tried a variety of stucco treatments which all seem to work well. (And stucco is designed to be somewhat porous / breathable.)

  5. Sure would like the recipe for the “foamy” concrete.
    If it were me I would use rice hulls for insulation. Thermal mass is wonderful but the strength , and cost, of the necessary foundation is higher.
    Rice hulls weigh about 10lbs. per cubic foot and a cubic foot has an r-factor of a bit over 50 . It is is also much less labor to install , is varmint proof, fire proof, and packs very little.
    There is a method of using several layers of very taunt fiberglass window screen painted with a mixture of latex paint, waterproof carpenter’s glue and sand that supposedly last 20 years in very dry conditions. If that mixture would work on burlap it might be a cheaper alternative for interior walls and ceilings .

    1. Rice hulls sound like a decent insulator, I haven’t looked into it personally. As for the ‘necessary’ foundation having to be stronger and more costly dependent upon the addition of thermal mass, that’s if you’re building a concrete foundation. Straw bale and earth bag construction has often employed the rubble filled trench foundation, and my own earth bag structures have included the first several courses of bags being filled with gravel to reduce settling and erosion. Then I’ve backfilled the first few feet to raise the floors up out of any plausible flood zone. From 2006 to 2014 I haven’t noted any cracking of plaster or stucco related to settling.

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