Interview: Cardboard? That looks like a house!

06 August 2018

At several Stayokay hostels you'll find the special Wikkelhouses. These stand in the middle of nature and are made of layers of cardboard wrapped around each other (hence the name).

What makes these houses so fun, sustainable and surprisingly strong? We the producer, Oep Schilling.

Main photo by: Bart Houx

Houses made of cardboard, you just have to think of it! How do you come up with such a thing?

💬 The idea of the Wikkelhouse came about in several stages. About ten years ago, engineer René Snel discovered that you can build very strong structures out of cardboard. However, he didn't succeed in making a cardboard house that was also commercially interesting. He quit the project, which then lay dormant for seven years. Then I met him by chance, heard his story and, as a materials man, was immediately impressed.

Meanwhile, we'd entered a completely different era. The era of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. When René was working on it, he wasn't thinking about green building and the environment. Seven years later, a lot had happened and I looked at the concept very differently. I saw that it was a green way to build a house, and knew that sustainability was also increasingly alive among the public. This created opportunities. With a house like this, you're obviously not going to improve the world on a large scale, but it is inspiring to show that you can build a house from paper.

I also noticed that the shape with rounded corners, which you have to use because of the material to make it structurally stable, had great design value. Alongside the era of sustainability, the era of product design had also arrived, with the return of Steve Jobs at Apple. Besides inspiring and building sustainably, this is an important pursuit for us. This is because I'm convinced that design has a positive effect on people's well-being.

Cardboard doesn't sound like a material that will stand up in all weathers…

A cardboard house is just as strong as a wooden or stone house! If you want to build in the Netherlands, you have to meet all kinds of conditions. For this, we entered into a collaboration with TU Delft. We did all the static tests with cardboard, which fully complies with Dutch regulations.

How do you get a Wikkelhouse so strong?

We wrap 24 layers of high-quality cardboard around each other. This gives you a thick, strong construction. We test this on tensile benches.

But actually it's a hybrid construction, of plywood and cardboard. So it isn't just cardboard, although the cardboard does 70% of the work.

This composition meets the highest wind rating in the Netherlands, but of course you also have to deal with Dutch rain. We solved this very simply. You just have to give the house a rain coat! We use a high-quality construction film that works just like Gore Tex. It has a 100% waterproof exterior, but breathes. If you cycle with a Gore Tex rain coat, you won't get wet, but you won't sweat either. The moisture you create yourself can get from inside to outside, but the rain cannot get from outside to inside.

Wikkelhouses' rain coat does exactly the same thing. If you were to wrap the cardboard in plastics, it does stay dry, but the moisture you create inside the house has nowhere to go and gets trapped in the wall. Then the structure gets wet and starts to mould. So Wikkelhouses have a so-called 'vapour-open construction'. In addition, Wikkelhouses ventilate very well, so they last very long.

How did the collaboration with Stayokay start?

At a small fair called FabCity, we came into contact with Peter Coffeng from Stayokay's management. He was enthusiastic and then we started a pilot in Dordrecht. Here we set up a house and the response was very positive. Stayokay has since purchased eight houses from us. In total, we've sold 35 houses, a quarter of which to Stayokay. This makes Stayokay our biggest customer, which is special and of course we are very happy with it. There are currently Wikkelhouses in Dordrecht and Apeldoorn, but we will also start producing for Gorssel. The idea is that the other locations will follow.

A match made in heaven, then.

What I like about Stayokay is that they make a serious effort to activate awareness about the environment and our surroundings. I think it's a really nice partner, trying to make a sustainable, inspiring place. Of course, green is hot so also from a PR point of view it is smart to jump on this, but at Stayokay I feel that this is genuine. In the end, that's also where Stayokay comes from: the Youth Hostel Central, a club with ideals.

How do you see the future of the Wikkelhouse?

We can produce a Wikkelhouse more and more easily. I hope we'll grow to producing 25-50 cottages a year in the Netherlands. We're also investigating whether you can make them as a kind of construction kit. Then we'll use other natural insulators instead of cardboard, such as hemp and flax.

We're also looking across borders. There's a lot of demand from abroad. We want to spread our wings in places where there's plenty of space, like Canada and Scandinavia. This can be done by setting up a new factory here or by building Wikkelhouses under licence. We've now got everything figured out and it's becoming increasingly clear what's involved in the production of a Wikkelhouse. And once you have that under control, you can transfer this relatively easily to another party.

Ultimately, for me it doesn't have to be idiotically large-scale. But they are nice houses to live comfortably in. So I can imagine more people worldwide wanting to bivouac in a Wikkelhouse!

Want to experience this unique overnight stay yourself?

Escape the crowds in a tiny house on National Park De Biesbosch, in the woods at Stayokay Apeldoorn or in the always cosy Achterhoek! Which one is your favourite?

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