Recycled 5 Gallon Bucket Wall

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Introduction: Recycled 5 Gallon Bucket Wall

A working experiment in reusing 5 gallon buckets as low-tech structural building units.

Let me start off by saying that I'm only involved in this project in the design and tech side, no real labor yet. I hope that doesn't ruin this instructable for you, if I missed anything you can check our project website for extra details.

Visit any new construction, remodel, large painting project or stucco job and you will find 5 gallon buckets. Some of these may be reused for a short time but the majority will quickly find themselves in the local landfill. Each 5 gallon bucket uses approximately 1 cubic foot of landfill (a little less when compressed, but not much) so removing the quantity required to build this wall will reduce the landfill by many thousand cubic feet. This Bucket Wall is already attracting a lot of passer-by attention and it is expected that some new walls and other projects will be inspired by this technology, removing even more buckets from future landfills.

The Bucket Wall has a lot in common with building methods that incorporate straw bales, cord wood, bottles, and earth, in that it reuses existing products that might otherwise become landfill.

The ultimate hope for this project is that the methods perfected here will be structurally sound enough to use in ecologically friendly house construction and landscaping.

Step 1: Collect Materials

This project needs to be looked upon as an ongoing snail's-pace sort of thing. Unless you're very lucky you'll spend a lot of time waiting for buckets. You might want to warn your family that the yard will not be pretty... for a long while, even the tidiest stack of old buckets looks bad.

If you have thousands of buckets already and want to work fast forget the above and start calculating:
The basic structural unit that we used was a stack of 25-30 5 gallon buckets. The widest part of the bucket is ~1 foot in diameter and a stack buried 3-4 feet in the ground is around 7 feet high. Each stack is wrapped in wire and stuccoed but this doesn't add much to the dimensions.
So for each foot of wall you need
~30 buckets
1 foot x 14 feet of wire mesh (old chain link, chicken wire, rebar, remesh etc.) + enough for overlap
wire for "sewing" above wire onto bucket stacks
a 1 foot x 1foot x 4 foot deep trench
enough cement to stucco it
the lids from your bucket stack to fill in gaps and level top of wall
time.... (again skip this if you're not "normal")

I'm not going to break it down any further, let's just say thousands and thousands of buckets are required, and it might take a while, think of the planet, and if you get sick of it try pricing a chain link fence.

Step 2: Collecting and Planning

As you collect buckets you can stack them to the height you want your fence (+ 3-4 feet that will be underground).
If you want your wall along your property boundary you need to talk to your neighbor (you'll need to stand on their property while you work), and, if you don't know where your property corners are, a land surveyor. The surveyor may seem like overkill but being sure that you put all of the wall on your side of the line (even an inch is enough) could save you later (even if the current neighbors are cool doesn't mean they won't sell next week to someone more sue-happy). A string line is a good idea at this point, and even some sketches (SketchUp is a great free tool for project like these that are fairly irrevocable).
It is also worth checking with your local governing body to see if there are any regulations for walls or fences (especially applicable building setbacks and height restrictions).

Step 3: Dig

OK dig a trench.

Our project has been done in 30-40 foot pieces, but since there was a backhoe involved most of the trench was dug at the same time. If you're digging by hand you might want to dig the trench as it is needed since rain can ruin all you good work very quickly.
Stack the buckets (for tall walls it is easier to create the stacks in the trench) then tamp the soil back into place. Since this wall is ~7 feet tall, 1/2" rebar (reinforcing bar) was wired to the stacks horizontally to align them.

Step 4: Option 1

In this project the height of the wall created a number of problems and consequently a number of solutions. Here's what we tried first, a single row of partially buried bucket stacks. This didn't provide much sideways strength but would be fine with lower, or curved walls.

Step 5: Option 2

On the parts of the wall that we found to be a bit wobbly, or just looked like it could be, we added a single bucket stack buttress every 10 feet. This fixed the problem but used up a bit more room in a smallish yard. (Looks great though).

Step 6: Option 3

For parts of the wall that had not been built yet a third method was developed. In every tenth stack the bottom two thirds of the buckets had their bottoms removed to create hollow forms. After being tamped in place (with the upper third of the stack removed) these forms were filled with concrete to make a solid pier / anchor / footing.

Step 7: Wrap

When a section is ready it can be wrapped in wire mesh. We used old chain link, chicken wire, rebar, remesh, wire mesh fencing etc.
The bucket lids were used to fill any spaces, especially at the top of the stacks where the top buckets taper and on top of the stacks to adjust for any dips in the trench.
The mesh was bent over the top of the stacks and, where required, sewn down with strands of wire fed between stacks.

Step 8: Stucco

Beginning with a couple of filling coats start to fill in any gaps and built up a flat base and eventually a beautiful smooth finish. We used normal stucco mix but other types of plaster could be substituted (cob, papercrete, adobecrete etc.)

Step 9: Finished

If we ever finish this project I'll post a few more pictures but at the moment we need 5000 more buckets. Below are the portions of wall that are almost finished. This property has a very old adobe house on it that we will be adding to with strawbales. The final stucco color of the house will be matched on the wall.
You're welcome to look over our project website (www.recycledbucketwall.com).

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    63 Discussions

    Thanks for your input! The wall is complete and The bucket house has passed the codes for NM , the website will be up soon . So look again Thanks Dave

    WOW, You should change your first pic. The first couple times I saw this I thought I would hate to live next to you, But then I looked on further. Now I must say very well done after giving a third chance at the entire Instructable. Very Good!

    1 reply

    The wall is complete without any code problems. The bucket house is near complete meeting all codes , the web site will be back up and running soon.

    thankyou for your comments! The bucket house has taken some time to work out the new idea and the time has been worth the effort. The web site will be up soon with fresh pic. Thank !

    Using the bucket stacks as a house wall has been discussed... but is a much larger proposition (esp. from a engineering and permit standpoint). My initial idea is to build a wooden framework using existing building practices and infill with the buckets. I read that this was how a lot of the early strawbale houses avoided code issues, but that doesn't really use the buckets to best advantage.

    I was thinking a bucket house would be nice too.

    You'd probably have to go with poured concrete footings to put the buckets on. Also, you'd probably want to fill the buckets with some sort of insulation, like you'd do with the spaces between in cord wood masonry  construction.

    While you would be using more buckets up in making the wall as it is planned, perhaps you could spread your buckets out farther by using spacers to help with the height of the wall. In other words, put some sort of spacer on top of each bucket before stacking the next one on top. I figure you could roll corrugated cardboard and tape/tie it into bundles of equal lengths, you could use wood, heck you might even be able to do something with the lids.

    I do realize that this might reduce some of the rigidity of the wall if pressure was applied to the uppermost section, however if you're just looking to fill volume, you could always reinforce with rebar through the buckets or something to that effect.

    Ingenious! Way to go!!! :0) Growing ivy to cover the wall to would soften the look if that interests you Here are some examples.


    http://www.customgardendesigns.com/gr_vines.htm

    I REALLY love the idea of recycling with creative building materials. One concern I have been struggling with is that if the plastics manufacturers of these buckets (and other such manufacturers) can claim their products are enviro friendly or "green" because they can be reused in this way, they will continue to justify and strengthen the initial manufacture of SO many of them. It may even become a sales pitch to sell more. Do you have any concerns that your idea could end up being the impetus for MORE plastic buckets? Can the wall be recycled when it reaches end of life? (Sorry to rock the boat, with all due respect, I like the idea, but am getting alarmed that the enivro movement is starting to be based on , or depend on, enironmentally unfriendly output from businesses to be the input for such green projects. )

    8 replies

    They're going to make more buckets regardless of whether we recycle them or not, so why not recycle them?

    I have re-used buckets from laundry soap, cat litter, paint. The problem with them is that after year or so they become weak and brittle and start to disintegrate. It would be a bummer to go to all the trouble and then have it start collapsing! It's a fabulous idea 'in theory'!!

    your became brittle due to the other cemicals you introduced to the plastics , if you used friendly save launder D. they would last longer ...about getting your cat to pee in a bucket im still scaching my head on ill have to get back on that one

    The reason the buckets become brittle is because they break down over time when exposed to UV radiation. When they're encased in stucco they're protected from UV, so they will last a very long time.

    as the plastic will out live even you , perhaps it will become a wall els were in life or perhaps filled with other unwants/ nonrecy.`s it could bebome a foundation to a building , freeways are another thing it could be recycaled in to once grond/sherd into little matters : to many play on word`s just recycal them .

    What's wrong/ungreen with making walls out of plastic? if the hdpe really lasts "forever" and if the wall is being put in a place where people will want it for a long time then it's more environmentally friendly to make a wall out of hdpe then clay bricks or wood. Personally i love trees and I'd rather they not get chopped down to make walls, and most trees get cut down with gasoline chainsaws and the wood is shipped with ICE trucks.

    I'd love to think this idea was good enough to absorb the number of buckets being produced but until it gets close I don't think the manufacturers will even notice. Did I mention that this project is UGLY as sin until the smoother coats of stucco have been applied, I don't see many spouses allowing these walls to go up in their yards. As to the recycling of the wall after the fact I think that would be possible once the stucco was broken up the buckets would probably come out with no more concrete and dirt than they had before they went in. Having said that, with even minimal maintenance we expect this wall to last a long long time. With no UV hitting the plastic I don't know how it would break down and the stucco is pretty thick because of the irregularity of the surface... so I'd estimate it might be 100- 500 years before you'd need to think too much about recycling. This might be a good time to suggest a bit of location planning, you probably want this to go in the right spot the first time you build it.

    I chuckle at the idea of plastics manufacturers stooping THAT low. I am sure they could come up with many, many, reasons that their products are green that are at least *more* reasonable (but still completely unreasonable). If you look at everything that way, nothing is "green".

    Could this be used somehow to make a low wall that was also a raised garden bed? I am thinking that in some areas, keeping children in a yard (or keeping the chicken in) would be well-balanced by having gardening space on top of the wall. The buckets would reduce water-loss and root-damage from animals and insects. I really like this idea. Urban areas are encroaching on subsistence farmers in developing countries, and some urban dwellers over here are looking to do a little subsistence farming.