Bob Merrill, Combining papercrete, Straw Bale and more Into Hybrid Construction

Bob Merrill and his company New-Ark Institute have been studying and promoting hybridized construction for several decades.

Straw bale, papercrete, and other nontraditional construction processes are part of what Robert Merrill calls “Hybridized Construction”. The idea, Robert explains, is about focusing on three spheres of human need: social, economic, and ecological. Socially, the process should be simple enough that a whole community can participate, even a child. Economically, it should be constructed with low cost indigenous materials. Ecologically, it means designing for minimal dependence on fossil fuels and reducing the need for landfills by working with recycled materials. Finally, it also means a commitment to live off the land.

Merrill’s interest in hybridized construction evolved after a life-changing experience. Many years ago when he was engaged to be married, his fiancée was involved in a severe traffic accident. He was told she might not live, and rushed to her side. As he sat by her hospital bed, he promised God that if she could live, he would dedicate his life to helping others. That was the beginning of his journey.

Amazingly, she lived, and he never forgot his promise. For a long time Robert struggled to figure out what “changing the world” meant, and how he could honor his pledge. As time went on, he learned to build with simple, earth-friendly indigenous materials, and eventually stumbled onto straw bale construction, papercrete, and fibercrete.

While experimenting with these materials, Robert found many opportunities for creativity and occasional failures. Some people run away from failures, but these learning experiences spurred him on to find answers. In one straw bale learning curve, the bales were left unprotected for several days while he was away. When he returned, elk had eaten them out of the walls!

As Robert experimented and learned more about these alternative processes and materials, he learned about papercrete. This process, used as early as 1912, failed because the paper was not as abundant as today. Today, we send huge amounts of paper landfills across America. Recently, however, he has discovered some people in New Mexico who have revived the papercrete process.

Another of his favorite materials to work with is fibercrete, which is cheaper than stucco and plaster. Everything in this material was once a tree, and it has the ability to stick to the side of straw bales without netting. He also discovered that when old latex paint is added to the fibercrete mix, it gains some moisture-resistant qualities.

His alternative construction work eventually led him to Mike Reynolds,the creator of the well known “Earthship” technique. Earthship utilizes discarded auto tires for the making of super massive walls.. This movement, which began in the 1970s, has continued to grow and evolve over time. Some earthships have walls made of glass bottles, and sometimes they have walls of aluminum cans covered with stucco. Most of them include a solarium for growing a garden, and now geothermal cooling and ventilating are fairly common in earthships.

Another strong 1970s influence in Robert Merrill’s life was Robert Rodale. Often called the Father of the “Back to the Land” movement and of the “Organic Movement”, Rodale managed an agricultural research organization. He was also responsible for Prevention magazine, and ran his family’s publishing house.

One thing Robert is passionate about is a group of people who assemble around a cause. Many people in the Hybridized Construction movement live in “Intentional Communities” with a sense of peace in their lives. They are there because of a deep commitment. In fact, Robert has lived in many of these communities, such as the Rocky Mountain Institute, which promotes the use of renewable resources. However, it is not just about the construction materials and process. It is more about building a community.

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Recently, Merrill led a community hybridized construction project that focused on sustainable lifestyle using PAHS, or passive annual heat storage, with a marble center core and a solarium. One quarter of the building has a foundation of local river rock. The rest of the foundation is made of stacked tires filled with dirt, which also helps keep tires out of landfills.

The walls are made by stacking two rows of firewood pieces parallel to each other, with an air space in between for insulation. A Russian fireplace, used for both cooking and heating, is located on the North side of the house. A massive thermal stone wall guards against cold winter winds, and summer cooling is built into the design with a natural ventilation process.

The house’s post and beam construction uses telephone pole “seconds” placed at carefully marked intervals, so that the straw bales align perfectly in between the poles. With the roof already in place, moisture is prevented from damaging the straw. The straw bales are also placed on a foundation, instead of directly on the soil.

Some hybrid habitat walls are made with aluminum cans. These can be easily erected by community members of all ages, including children and challenged people. Cans are laid in a concrete matrix as if laying brick, with every other row placed in the opposite direction. Once the cans are covered with mortar, no one knows what is underneath. This works particularly well for curved walls.

Spurred by his passion to help people be self-sufficient, Merrill has taught community members to build their own homes with straw bales, papercrete, and other nontraditional construction techniques, so they may live simply and economically off the land, without a mortgage. He credits several books with guiding him along the way, particularly Living the Good Life, Organic Digest, New Shelter, and The Empty Bread Basket. One final strong point in Merrill’s philosophy is that information must be accessible to people from all walks of life. If he cannot share a piece of information for whatever reason, legal or otherwise, he won’t use it or teach it.

Merrill, combines straw bales, earth and other material to make affordable green housing. A local Newspaper in Bend Oregon covered some of the details on Robert Merril and his building system. He has traveled and worked with many different styles of construction. He has combined the best of each system into what he has coined Hybridized Construction. Merrill also uses our stucco sprayers for traditional stucco and for his custom blend of papercrete.

Bob Merril, New-Ark InstituteHybryd home using straw bale papercrete tire foundation.

You can Email Bob Merril at

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