That not-so-crazy bottle guy and his innovative desert homes

In the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, some unusual round bottle houses are dotted among the typical adobe structures that house the thousands of people who have lived there since they were displaced in Western Sahara more than 40 years ago.

These homes, built with recycled plastic bottles filled with sand, were the brainchild of Tateh Lehbib Barika. But it was really an accidental brainchild, as it turns out.

Circular sustainable home

After a 2015 flood affected almost 80% of the homes in the refugee camps, including his grandmother’s home, he started looking for a construction technique that would make the adobe houses sturdier and more long lasting. While getting his Master’s degree in energy efficiency, he studied the Nubian Vault,  a construction technique that makes a curved surface using mud brick. 

But when he tried using it to build a new house for his grandmother, he ran into problems. He decided to make a green roof but had to use metal sheets, which generate a lot of heat. Then he decided to cut plastic bottles in half, putting earth and plants inside and placing them on the roof. But that didn’t work either.

However, all the leftover plastic bottles inspired the idea of the bottle house experiment. “I use the sand-filled bottles like bricks, held together with a mixture of earth and water, or sometimes with cement and river sand, which is stronger.  The design has a double roof with a ventilation shaft in-between, which lowers interior temperatures. We put a layer of adobe over the bottles, and a nice pattern appears, almost like art.”

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Innovation Service, which supports innovation among refugee communities, provided USD$60,000 in funding to build 25 plastic bottle houses across each of the five Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.

But not all the refugees immediately accepted the idea, he says. “Nobody believed that you could construct a home with plastic bottles. I was called ‘ the crazy bottle guy’. Also nobody wanted a home made of ‘rubbish’.”

And then there was the shape….

“Most of the homes in the camp are a square shape, but I made mine a circular shape to give them more strength. Also during storms, sand accumulates around the walls of square –shaped homes. This doesn’t happen so much when they are circular.” People weren’t sure where they were going to get round rugs, he said.

Nevertheless, construction began in November 2016 and by April 2017, the refugee community had built 27 buildings (two more than expected) under Tateh’s direction. It took about 6,000 plastic bottles and about a week to build each home. One group collected bottles while another filled them with sand from the dunes. Trained masons stacked the filled bottles horizontally, filling in the gaps with sand to make a basic cylindrical structure with two windows. The interior walls were covered with a layer of earth and straw, and a thin layer of cement. The homes have a double layer ceiling to reduce heat – vitally important where temperatures regularly reach 50°C.

The project directly employed 200 people, who in turn paid another 1,500 people to collect and fill bottles. The homes have rehoused around 50 refugees who are on very low incomes, elderly, or have special needs or disabilities. 

While Tate’s prototype plastic bottle house cost USD$291 to build, subsequent houses cost USD$2,400 per home due to increased labour, staffing, transportation, training, materials and tools costs. As the need for training dropped, the cost reduced to USD$1,630. The adobe structures typically used in the camps cost between USD$582 – USD$1,160 to build.

Because the bottles and sand can be collected free of charge, refugees are more able to pay for other materials, like cement. The construction recycles tonnes of plastic waste that would likely end up in landfill or in the ocean, and it uses significantly less water than building with mud bricks. The project was a finalist in the 2018 World Habitat Awards.

Tateh Lehbib plans to build a centre in the camp to investigate building design with plastic bottles and hopes to attract engineers and creative architects to help improve design and efficiency. He is currently involved in a research project with his professors at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to develop further solutions.

“The technique can be applied in different locations, not just refugee camps,” he says. “Just a short time ago an organisation called me who were interested in me doing a project in the capital of Mauritania. These homes can be built wherever there is plastic waste. And wherever you go, there is no shortage of that.”

“But I don’t think my project is a be all and end all solution to plastic waste in the camps – and I don’t want people to think that it is. It came about via looking for a construction solution with material that was readily available; sand and plastic bottles.”


The Sandman. Exhibit called Design for a Better World, Roca Gallery, Barcelona, Spain, Nov. 29, 2018. (The photographs above come from this exhibit.)

Plastic bottle houses transform life for refugees. World habitat

This Refugee Builds Homes Out Of Recycled Plastic Bottles. NDTV, Sep. 23, 2019

Houses for Refugees by Plastic Bottles.Transsolar, Dec. 13, 2018