Plastic Bottles Turn to Roofing Materials in Disaster Zones

A model of NYIT’s SodaBIB fastener. (Courtesy of NYIT)

A research team at the New York Institute of Technology has come up with an innovative way to cut recovery costs from natural disasters. It’s cool, it’s recyclable and best of all, it’s almost free.

Jason Van Nest, associate professor in the School of Architecture and Design at NYIT, says that the team has developed a way to use plastic water and soda bottles as roofing materials for housing in disaster zones. The team has registered the project with Kickstarter and is seeking backers to create a full-size prototype of the roof.

The SodaBIB project (short for Soda bottle interface bracket) takes advantage of the very thing that makes plastic bottles such a problem in landfills: their durability. Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET for short, is the substance used in most commercial water and soda bottles that gives them their longevity and impervious structure. The plastic is great for resisting leaks, and according to Van Nest, perfect for constructing a simple emergency roof that can be erected on the spot with virtually no tools or equipment.

According to Van Nest, the team had to go through several redesigns before they found the results they were looking for. Since the goal was to create a roof that could both withstand the elements and be built manually by homeowners and emergency aid workers, they found that slicing the bottles lengthwise into concave units (which required the use of knives and produced sharp edges) wasn’t an option.

“That was our biggest tripping point,” says Van Nest. “In disaster areas or relief situations there might be children handling these bottles,” which could lead to increased risk of injury.

But the team found that compressing the bottles by hand, or with a swift stomp or two with the foot, produced just the results they were looking for: tile-like units that could then be placed in an alternating pattern much like terra cotta, or Spanish-style roofing tiles that are used on houses in warm temperate zones.

To interconnect the bottles, the team designed a plastic fastener made of holes the size of water bottle caps. The concave bottles would then be screwed into the fastener in an overlapping design and connected to the building. The team found that when the makeshift roof was sloped, water would cascade off of the tiles instead of seeping between the bottles and leaking into the domicile.

Then came the question of how to ensure that the fastener and purlins needed to construct the roof were shipped with the water. The team realized that the answer lay in the solid-looking pallets that drinking water bottles are shipped in – the same kind that places like Costco, Sam’s Club and other warehouse stores move about when their forklifts are transporting water and soda products onto the floor. By redesigning the pallet, the instructors and students were able to incorporate the plastic supports into a self-contained unit.

“And what we are most excited about with this project is … that the pallet ends up getting disassembled practically without any tools. Individuals can break (it) into building material and then merely crush the bottles,” before attaching them to the fastener. Van Nest points out that since there are no nails or screws used in this construction phase, a person can literally put the roof together with nothing more than a hammer. Plus, the bottles that would normally end up in a landfill or by the side of the road are reused after the water has been consumed.

“This is just a win, win, win,” says Van Nest, who points out that the projects like this benefit students as well, as they learn and develop new ways to promote green technology. “(Students) can work on architecturally significant problems, we can help people in disaster areas and we can encourage a culture of reuse,” he says.

An exhibition showcasing the SodaBIB project in its early stages (Courtesy NYIT)

Asked whether a SodaBIB roof would work in cold climates, he acknowledged that its real benefits would be found in more southern regions.

“One really great place to use this is in the tropics where the heat builds pressure against the roof… and this roof (can vent) the heat out.” The roof can also be painted with an opaque covering to extend the life of the PET, which breaks down faster when exposed to direct sunlight.

The team is now at the critical stage of raising money to build the full-size prototype, which is where the Kickstarter campaign comes in. According to the team’s project overview, a large part of the $32,500 estimated budget reflects the costs of manpower, since most of the construction will be done by NYIT students on their own time. The team plans to build a roof the size of a garden shed, from start to finish, including the five pallets necessary to build a roof of this size.  The students will also be filming the process so they can show prospective investors the end product when they market it to beverage manufacturers.

SodaBIB’s Kickstarter campaign provides a comprehensive description of the project, a breakdown of its financial projections and a video of some of the early stages of research. Unlike with some crowdfunding projects, all of the team’s financial projections are provided upfront.

Van Nest says that for him, the real plus of this project is what it gives to the individual or family that has just gone through a natural disaster, such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Community members often feel a sense of helplessness after experiencing a disaster, says Van Nest.  “So, one of the ancillary benefits is empowerment,” The plastic water and soda bottles you were given for replenishment can now be turned into your essential building supplies: a perfect cycle of reuse.

“There is the need for water, there’s the need for shelter and there is the need for safety – the need for life,” says Van Nest. And having the tools to be able to make a difference in the midst of tragedy is just as important.

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

9 responses

  1. I need better photo’s and real world examples. But great concept and yes, has been used before to add light to village poor where there is no electricity.

  2. Thanks everyone for the great comments –

    Robert: I understand NYIT is planning a video with more up-to-date images. The Kickstarter page has some of the architectural drawings for the current prototype. Also, although I didn’t go into this aspect, Van Nest and his students apparently designed and wrote computational software for the angle and requirements of the roof.

    Robert and Eric – Yes, there have been examples in which plastic bottles have been used for creating skylights or entire roofs for houses in impoverished communities. However, in most cases those require expertise, power or tools that wouldn’t necessarily be available in a disaster zone.

    The real benefit of this project is that it provides an on-the-ground way for communities in disaster zones to build a roof quickly without a) electrical power (often not available after a disaster of this presumed magnitude) and b) the help of relief aids or a tool box. My understanding is that everything needed for providing overhead shelter (and shelter that could last a few months or a few years) would be included with the drinking water (and thus, the bottles).

  3. As someone that has been in a number of disaster areas, I think this idea would be difficult to implement. There is no shortage of used water bottle but the availability of materials yo create the slope with level enough surface is hard to find. Personally, I think a tarp would work better.

  4. It may be difficult to implement this roofing, but I think that it is a roofing alternative that can be pursued. It is great that we have people thinking outside the box to come up with solutions to help deal with the results of Sandy. With each disaster, we hope to get better at dealing with them the next time. Many people may be suspicious that water bottles can be used as roofing; especially here in Westchester, and other areas of NY where we are about to have a rough winter. However, as a professional roofer, MCAS Roofing thinks it can work as a temporary roofing solution. If we can find a way to fasten it down, this would be much more wind resistant than the typical tarp solution. I would love to hear the results of this concept, please follow up with me, and I would very much appreciate it. Keep up the good work guys

  5. Hi i have simple solution .. you have chicken meshes readily available in the market no need to make one. n the bottle mouths fit in. The bottles are fixed to the mesh n the mesh tied with cable ties to the frame works very well. I have tried the same on my projects.

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