At SMU's Living Village, Harvey Lacey Demos a House Built One Plastic Bag At A Time

Categories: The Environment
Photos by Patrick Michels
Inventor Harvey Lacey in front of a mud-covered house built with his Ubuntu Blox, bales of compacted plastic bags and Styrofoam..
Today marks the middle of SMU's Engineering & Humanity Week, where, as Robert already told you, students are field-testing some the latest in emergency shelter technology, cooking their meals outside and carrying their own water in an operation called the Living Village.

I dropped by this morning, where a few students were still snoozing inside various tents and about 18 different flavors of yurt -- LiteYurt, TekYurt, HexaYurt, any yurt you like. bcWorkshop's E & H Commissary was open for business selling Pop Chips from shelves in the converted shipping container, and students from Ursuline Academy were getting a lesson in carrying water jugs on their heads.

At the end of the row of shelters, Harvey Lacey was busy giving an enthusiastic pitch for his Ubuntu Blox, next to a mud-covered house walled entirely with his bricks of compacted plastic bags, bottles and Styrofoam.

Since we mentioned his invention last December, Lacey says he's been busy fine-tuning his ideas and courting interest from Stephanie Hunt at the Hunt Institute at SMU, hoping to recruit engineering students to test out his design and tweak it some more.

He had some blocks built already, but Lacey said it took about a month to build the house that's on display this week. He's got two of his grandsons, students at Oklahoma University, living in it this week.

Lacey demonstrated just how his open-source design works, tossing a few bundles of plastic shopping bags into his hand-powered bag compactor, and letting a volunteer turn the big steering wheel to punch them into shape. "People say this is terribly labor intensive," Lacey said. "There are parts of the world where work is considered opportunity."

Lacey said he imagined a $500 microloan could pay for one of his hand-cranked compactor designs, so in a place where landfills are packed with plastic bags, it would be easy to turn trash into wire-wrapped building blocks.

Lacey said he's heard from plenty of naysayers and skeptics already -- "They said, 'If this was such a good idea, somebody would've done it already," he recalled -- but he delivered a pretty polished pitch for his idea. "The end goal is that one day the people who are out picking up all the trash will be able to afford one of these houses," he said.
Volunteers and Ursuline Academy students try carrying water in jugs on their heads, just like they do in Africa.
bcWorkshop's E & H Comissary in a converted shipping containter
The Cal-Earth Sandbag Shelter, with a student still asleep inside.
Assorted yurts.
Lacey demonstrates his bag compactor.
Lacey demonstrates wrapping wire around one of the bricks.
Lacey with one of his Ubuntu Blox

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Harvey Lacey
Harvey Lacey

EandHweek was one of the highlights of my life. The Hunt Institute went way beyond the call of duty to make the event a success. But I believe all of us who were there have a new found respect and appreciation for the students of SMU.

In the week and a half before the event we built the Ubuntu-Blox house from the ground up on site. Mature type adults would come up and ask us a four word question, "what are you doing?" Student type adults also had a four word question, "how can we help?"

Yesterday as we were closing things down some of those students that had worked so hard with us came by to say good bye. I believe they had even more fun than we did. And we had more than what we thought was possible.

The Ubuntu-Blox house now goes to OU. There it will be on display as an interactive experience like we had at SMU all next week. Then it will be given over to the OU Structural and Environmental Engineering lab for testing. We will then learn what we did right, what we did wrong, and most important of all, what we should do to make it the best it can be.

Monday the 18th the idea will be five months old. We have a model house, three Ubuntu-Blox machines, scheduled testing by engineers, and best of all, a vision of where we want to go with the Ubuntu-Blox. We want to change the world as we know it.

That might sound daunting to some, not to me. That's because we have the biggest source of energy on the planet just begging to make it happen. It's called, "Millenials". It's their planet now. They will make it better.


I was at the 4% project event hosted at SMU and also checked out the E and H week event 200 yards to the north. Almost positive Art Laffer (Laffer Curve) was in one of those yurts. There were some very interesting people, some quite famous, touring it during breaks. I took up Harvey Lacey on his advice to come back and check things out after the site was built. Even though I did not see him it was worth it.

I think someone should approach the State Fair and allow something like this to be shown on the Fair Grounds this fall. It's much more interesting than ONCOR handing out free light bulbs or showing a 30 second looping DVD on how wind farms work. The Conex box with a bicycle running on a belt drive, using a simple solar/wind charge controller and LED lighting was really interesting. Same with the GE water purification system that can take water in almost any form and make it drinkable. Totally 100% more interesting than anything at the State Fair because its not dumbed down.


I've done drawings of pallet houses with mud, newspapers, and plastic bags for insulation and structural integrity with solar panels and wind turbines on top to provide electrical power. If I wasn't such a lazy bum i'd probably do something with it, but i'd need someone to compose schematics of me getting off my behind. That would be a true engineering feat!


I was there around 2:00 - the whole village was pretty amazing. Harvey's box is simple to use and low-tech. It seems ridiculously time and labor intensive in the developed world, but drop this into an area with little infrastructure, where wood is scarce, it could make a big difference.

Gen Eckert McKay
Gen Eckert McKay

Quite interesting idea... and the saying "someone else would have already done it...", well, it has to start SOMEwhere, and this guy's got a pretty good start.

Bill Holston
Bill Holston

well done Harvey, I'm mighty proud of what you are accomplishing. I feel certain the naysayers haven't laid a glove on you.


I can see an entire new town designed for the modern American by Fox & Yurts or K. HovnanniYurts. But are they tornado proof? And isn't y'urt a creamy delight?


Actually, this is a pretty good idea and the device Harvey came up with to make the blocks is simple and effective, good luck to him, hopefully someone will take him up on it.

Peter Roberts
Peter Roberts

Hey Harvey,

I'm workingin Pakistan at the moment trying to build houses in very poor areas (wholevillages were washed away in the flood last year). I am interested in your ideaas there is a lot of trash around here. But please tell me how the lab testingwent?

My onlyother concern is the rubbish here is dirty and smelly. So I am thinking it willneed some mud mortar to hold the smells in. this will also improve visualacceptability. But if successful, then creating livelihood approaches for thosein poverty here could be an option. I would be gratefully to discuss on thephone sometime if you are free.



Bill Holston
Bill Holston

I just want to add, I met Harvey through this here blog, when we had very good natured discussions/debates about our differences in belief about God. We've met and talked many times since then. I thank that's a great comment on what can happen in these online discussions.

I met him in person for the first time, when we both attended an event where Rawlins Gilliland was talking at his old elementary school.

He's a very good man, I'm pleased to have met.


I think Harvey should reply to Peter, sounds like he needs the info more than most first-worlders!

Jack E. Jett
Jack E. Jett

When I have gone out of bounds of these blogs, (as I often do) Harvey brings me back to earth and helps me get my point across.

Someday, when I grow up, I want to be like him.

Harvey Lacey
Harvey Lacey

Jack, nothing personal, but I don't want to see you grow up. I like you just like you are. As for being like me, you're too tall, too thin, and I'm sure you would look terrible in Rustler jeans and a red pocket t.

Bill, don't let me forget to tell you a story about our story when we get together May 12th.

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