Heineken Wobo Bottle: A Solution To Sustainable Housing Before its Time

wobo bottles
The TriplePundit European tour had an interesting break today at the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam. Easily one of the world’s most recognizable brands, Heineken’s brewery tour itself was an impressive, if somewhat over-the-top exploration of marketing saavy. Somewhere on the tour they may have mentioned brewing beer.

With an eye for sustainability, I would not have been particularly impressed if not for a small display explaining what can only be described as a genius Triple Bottom Line idea way before its time – the Wobo bottle of the early 1960s.

wobo-bottle-heineken

Let me explain…


Apparently, while on tour in Curacao, Alfred Heineken was troubled at the substandard, and in some cases, non-existent dwellings of the impoverished residents on the Dutch island. He decided to design a beer bottle – a “a brick that holds beer” – that could actually be used to build the walls of homes after being emptied. He went so far as to hire a renowned Dutch architect, John Habraken, to design a new bottle specifically designed to interconnect with other bottles, as well as masonry so that large numbers of them (about 1000 for a 10×10 foot room) could easily be fitted together to create a functional and attractive structure.

Unfortunately, though the design apparently worked, the project never took off and no buildings survive.

I’d be curious to know exactly why this project didn’t take off, but even more curious to know why other brewers, or Coca-Cola for that matter, haven’t thought of something like this. Certainly there are shipping efficiencies to packaging square bottles, and there’s no cost to the company if people decide to build things out of them. Re-use is always better than recycling, and if properly done, this could result in a virtually waste-free product.

Perhaps this was something the world was just not ready for. Perhaps Heineken didn’t see the benefit in it for them at the time. I’m not sure we’ll soon know the answer, but what’s commendable about this idea is that it’s very rare to see something so “outside the, ahem, bottle” coming from a colossal global brand like Heineken, and when we find things like this, even if they are 40 years old, they’re worth bringing up to show people and companies what could have been.

wobo-bottles-curve.jpg

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

25 responses

  1. Beyond just being waste free, think of the advertising boon from a permanent structure built of the brand! Plus all the people stocking up on cases of Heinie in order to have enough building materials. Brilliant!

  2. I recall reading somewhere (Papanek?) that the problem was the Heineken PR/advertising people didn’t think it matched Heineken’s image so they nixed it.

  3. David – Now that is really fascinating. You don’t happen to have a clue where to find info on that do you? I’m googling around, but nothing so far!

  4. To increase stability in the buildings by using these bottles, you could just fill the bottles up with sand or concrete to make it stronger. Using empty bottles to build a house seems kind of shady… but filling it up with atleast sand or something would make it much more durable and efficient.

    1. It's actually very durable as-is. Bottles from the 60s were much thicker than modern bottles, to reduce breakage. There are tile blocks very similar to these bottles which are available for sale, and were very common forty or eighty years ago, but now are only seen in the most artsy homes and 50s diners. And yet, we can make them more cheaply than ever. And it's very insulating, conducts light, and can conduct heat if positioned correctly.

  5. My Dutch wife told me that it was due to the glass houses not working well with the bright sunlight of Curacao.
    You can see a display about these bottles at the Heinkein Experince in Amsterdam.

  6. By strange coincidence there is a piece in a bi-weekly dutch magazine today on the wobo (de Ingenieur [the Engineer]). It states that the plastic pallets on which the bobbles shipped, could be used as a roof. According to the article the square bottle was heavier, thus raising the transport costs, drastically. Another reason for the lack of success was the climate in Curacao. The temparature got too high in a glass house.

  7. My understanding was that the board of Heineken at the time were extremely nervous about Alfred’s radical idea and thought it was going to destroy the company. As a result the idea was shut down. I can’t find my source for that info though…

  8. I don’t know what kind of shape the masons would be in after drinking enough bricks for a days work. lol.

  9. It's actually very durable as-is. Bottles from the 60s were much thicker than modern bottles, to reduce breakage. There are tile blocks very similar to these bottles which are available for sale, and were very common forty or eighty years ago, but now are only seen in the most artsy homes and 50s diners. And yet, we can make them more cheaply than ever. And it's very insulating, conducts light, and can conduct heat if positioned correctly.

  10. We need WOBOs. Yes, You could fill as many or as few as you'd like. Fill them with water, sand, dirt, wool, hay, etc.

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