A Plastic Future

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The beauty of a creative profession depends on working within, and possibly around, external constraints. Regardless of their source, these factors can both inspire and frustrate, frequently doing both at the same time. A fairly recent development in Architecture centers on the use of plastics as aesthetic building materials.  This represents a significant evolution for an ancient profession. Since the beginning, Architects, builders, and craftsmen have worked wood, stone, and eventually metals and glass into countless structures. These materials and their variants have for thousands of years represented the external constraints of Architecture. Now however, polymers could provide a way to break free from the inherent limitations of these hard materials.

Throughout the twentieth century plastics worked their way into buildings, but only by serving utilitarian purposes. Although they “are perhaps the most deeply engineered building materials today, [plastics] are still in their nascent stages of understanding in terms of their potential applications and uses.”[1] They can mimic building materials, as with Trex® decking, incorporate other building materials, as with EnviroGLAS® terrazzo, or stand alone. Plastics have the potential to create lightweight, yet durable, components in nearly any shape desired. In this respect they diverge from the more traditional building materials, providing additional possibilities for both form and function.

The arguments circulating around plastics rely on objective evidence backed by subjective interpretations of materiality. One of the obvious benefits of using plastics lies in their recyclability. For both petroleum based and plant based products, recycling reduces the consumption of virgin materials while also decreasing the amount of waste generated by the demolition of existing structures. The decision of which polymer to choose depends on the available production methods and the ultimate goals of the designer; although, “all the processes that form plastics include heat. [Those] that can be reheated and reformed many times are called thermoplasts, and they tend to be better candidates for recycling. More durable are thermosetplastics, which can be heated and formed only once and are much harder to dispose of.”[2] In addition to these natural factors, the designer must consider the perception of the public. Because plastics have come to exemplify a cheap, disposable culture, many people feel they are unworthy representatives of personal or corporate entities. More importantly however, the scientific studies of how plastics affect bodily systems have a high potential to influence the use of polymers in construction. In general, these studies propose that the ingestion of plastic residues or food contaminated by the chemicals found in plastic containers disrupts the body’s hormonal balance. While most people will probably not be licking or otherwise consuming portions of a building, the concept remains intriguing. Could living in a mostly plastic environment have any detrimental effects? Several factors to consider include:

- material off-gassing post manufacture

- material off-gassing because of exposure to normal temperature fluctuations

- fumes created if and when such a structure is exposed to fire

- particulate created as the material breaks down due to normal elemental exposure

Despite these potential problems, “the new generation of plastics will use more recycled materials and will have increased insulating, durability, and structural properties.”[3] Experimentation with polymers as building and finishing materials will continue; as the industry discovers more uses for plastics and develops more aesthetic options their presence in the built environment will increase. Whether plastics will eventually eclipse typical materials remains to be seen.

[1] “Permanent Change: Plastics in Architecture and Engineering.” GSAPP Online. Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Columbia University, 2011. Web. 18 April 2011. <http://www.arch.columbia.edu/permanentchange>.

[2] “Plastics Finally Get Respect.” Architectural Record. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2011. Web 18 April 2011. <http://archrecord.construction.com/resources/conteduc/archives/0112plastics-1.asp>.

[3] “Plastics Finally Get Respect.” Architectural Record. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2011. Web 18 April 2011. <http://archrecord.construction.com/resources/conteduc/archives/0112plastics-1.asp>.


Article Info
Posted by: Stefanie Dirks
Thinking About: Architecture / Building / Collaboration / Creativity / Design / Sustainability / Technology
Location: New York City
Website: http://www.stefaniedirks.com
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