Every time I close a realty transaction I send 10% of my commission to a friend’s organization in Haiti*, where a home can be built for about $1000. And I remember the Heineken House.
In a shining example of colonialism gone weird, Mr. Heineken himself was sunning on the Dutch-ruled island of Curacao, lamenting the native habit of discarding his product’s packaging in places that spoiled his view, when he conceived a grand idea: He would make his beer bottles brick-shaped, and the natives could use them to build their homes.
He did in fact return to Holland and commission a brick-shaped bottle that would even interlock when stacked to form a wall.
Although the public was apparently unnerved by a squarish beer bottle, depriving natives of the opportunity to dwell in their own backwash, so to speak, you have to admit it was a clever idea.
It wasn’t Mr. Heineken’s. His wasn’t even the first brewery to make a bottle brick. Bottle walls, as they’re called, go back at least to ancient Rome, where the empties were amphorae. It’s the type of clever idea that rises again and again: After the massive and horrible Haitian earthquake of 2010, I recall seeing a snapshot of wall that amounted to a chicken wire sandwich filled with soda bottles. Add stucco, and you’d never know the difference.
What bottle walls may lack in stability, they make up for in so many other ways: The air voids are insulating. They lighten the entire structure. They turn a waste product into a cheap or free “brick” in a world where manufactured building materials are increasingly costly to produce and transport. And they can act as windows, as well as walls.
Functional fixedness, that’s that phenomenon whereby we can only see one use for an object–its same-old, traditional use. Functional fixedness is the opposite of creativity. It thrives on comfort and plenty. But functional fixedness can be broken. In a time of need, any one of us could probably come up with a way to build a $1000 house.
*Co-created by a friend of mine, Matenwa Community Learning Center has evolved into a powerful engine for sustainable and respectful development.