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The Green Life: A Building Brick That Held Beer

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June 22, 2009

A Building Brick That Held Beer

Green beer bottles You've heard of Heineken beer (the company claims to have the world's largest brewery, after all.) Some of you may have visited the flagship brewery in Amsterdam, and most of you have probably quaffed a few. But how many of you knew that former company president Alfred "Freddy" Heineken, who died in 2002 at age 79, was a sustainable-building visionary?

In the early 1960s, on a world tour of the company's breweries, Heineken visited the Dutch island of Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles, off the coast of Venezuela. Taken aback by the substandard dwellings of the island's impoverished residents, he took note as well of the number of beer bottles littering the beaches and the lack of affordable building materials on the island.

In an epiphany that was nearly half a century ahead of the curve, Heineken decided to design a beer bottle that could be used to construct the walls of homesafter the contents of the bottle had been consumed, of course. Back in Holland, he hired noted Dutch architect John Habraken to design "a brick that holds beer." The result was the so-called WOBO, or World Bottle, which could interlock with other bottles. Bonded with cement, a 10-foot-by-10-foot dwelling could be constructed using about 1,000 bottles.

In 1963, some 100,000 WOBOs were produced in two sizes. Unfortunately, the idea was so ahead of its time that it never took off, and only two WOBO buildings survive today, both on the Heineken estate in Holland; click here to see a photo. The bottles are now extremely rare and considered collector's items. A small display explaining the history of the WOBO can be seen at the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam.

Still, if Heineken could pioneer a bottle in the 1960s that could be not only recycled, but reused as a building material, imagine what a large bottler or brewer could do with the idea today. Foodor at least liquid foodfor thought…

--Tom Valtin

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