From Bottles to Bricks: Alfred Heineken’s 1964 Effort to Build Homes with Beer BottlesIn the early 1960s, visiting the Dutch Antilles (now the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten), Dutch businessman Alfred “Freddy” Heineken encountered a surprising problem: waste.

The islands lacked proper infrastructure to collect and reuse empty beer bottles, a significant portion of which were his own Heineken brand.

The sheer volume of discarded bottles – he could barely walk 15 feet on the beach without stepping on one – alarmed him for two reasons.

First, the environmental impact of his product was concerning. Back then, bottles were typically refilled and reused numerous times, but the lack of a proper recycling system led to excessive waste.

Second, the impoverished communities he visited lacked access to good building materials.

Determined to address both issues, Heineken conceived a unique solution: a brick that could also hold beer.

heineken wobo brick bottle photosOver the next three years, the Heineken World Bottle (WOBO) underwent a design process.

Early designs featured interlocking and self-aligning bottles, aiming to eliminate the need for mortar to keep the construction simple and affordable.

While some designs worked well as building materials, they were too heavy and slow to produce economically.

Other designs were rejected by Heineken for not being visually appealing. Ultimately, the final bottle design was a compromise between the different prototypes.

heineken wobo brick bottle photosEventually, the final version of WOBO was designed in collaboration with architect John Habraken.

The bottle was designed to be interlocking, laid horizontally, and bonded with cement mortar mixed with a silicone additive.

Its short neck fit into a large recess in the base, and the square-shaped bottle had dimpled sides to help bond with the mortar.

Building a 10 ft by 10 ft shack would require about 1,000 bottles. In 1963, 100,000 WOBOs were produced in two sizes: 350 mm and 500 mm.

The size difference was necessary for bonding the bottles together when constructing a wall, similar to how half bricks are used in traditional bricklaying.

heineken wobo brick bottle photosDespite the good intentions, the bottle met with resistance, in particular from the marketing division of Heineken.

There were concerns that it would damage the image and open the company to claims over wrong usage of the bottle.

Only two WOBO structures exist, both located on the Heineken estate in Noordwijk, near Amsterdam.

The first is a small shed with a corrugated iron roof and timber supports, where the builder struggled to resolve the junction between necks and bases running in the same direction.

Later, a timber double garage was renovated with WOBO siding. Alfred Heineken did not further develop the WOBO concept, and the idea never fully materialized.

heineken wobo brick bottle photos

A display of WOBO “bricks” from the Heineken Experience, in Amsterdam.

In the 1970s, Rinus van den Berg, a Dutch industrial and architectural designer, collaborated with John Habraken and designed several buildings.

One of his designs was published in Domus in 1976.

Additionally, in the late 1980s, Dutch architect Gerard Baar created a third WOBO structure, using a small batch of WOBOs for the side walls of his garden shed.
heineken wobo brick bottle photosTen years later, Habraken contacted Heineken again after the publication of “Garbage Housing” by Martin Pawley, a British critic and professor of architecture and design.

Pawley, known for his strong opinions on recycling waste, prominently featured Heineken’s WOBO garden house on the cover of his book.

Habraken wrote to Heineken, stating, “The WOBO initiative from ten years ago is now widely recognized as the first industrial effort to develop recyclable packaging.”

heineken wobo brick bottle photosIn 2008, French design company Petit Romain planned to reinvent Alfred Heineken’s WOBO design with the Heineken Cube.

Like the original concept, the Heineken Cube is stackable and packable, making it much more travel-friendly than traditional cylindrical bottles.

However, the primary goal of the cube is to save space, not to build homes.
heineken wobo brick bottle photos

heineken wobo brick bottle photos

heineken wobo brick bottle photos

heineken wobo brick bottle photos

heineken wobo brick bottle photos

heineken wobo brick bottle photos

(Photo credit: Heineken Collection Foundation / Smithsonian Magazine).