Have you ever heard the story of the fourth little pig?
He shunned brick, he shunned stick, and the only straw he used was a plastic straw, used to drink his grande iced quad latte.
This little pig is savvy. He built his house out of polymers. He had access to the Internet and he was educated. He knew about extruded PVC trim boards, injection molded roofing panels, and residential piping systems made of this material called cross-linked polyethylene. If you've never heard about him, it's likely because he's lounging on his wood composite deck, too busy relaxing with his family.
Processors serving the residential building and construction market, I know your journey has not been the stuff of fairy tales over the past 15 years. But it is getting better. Your work is paying off, and the market itself is starting to reward you. Residential has been a hotbed of activity now for at least three years. At various construction industry trade shows over the past year, I've seen increased participation by plastics processors eager to get a piece of the market.
The little pig and his family are happy. They've learned a lot about plastics, allowing the material to make substantial progress. Over the past year alone, I personally have collected samples that clutter my desk in Columbus, Ohio, including an injection molded wood composite spindle; and coupons of deck and fencing profiles extruded from polystyrene, reinforced cellular PVC, high density polyethylene, and wood-composite with a grain finish.
Before we look forward, let's look back, at 1989, when GE unveiled its Living Environments concept house. It was ahead of its time. The 2,900-square-foot home showcased plastics potential in residential construction, with applications including siding, windows, electrical systems, skylights and heating and air- conditioning systems. It was the first application that showcased injection molded roofing panels, and it gave a lot of credibility to plastics use in residential construction.
The house still lives on in Pittsfield, Mass., although it doesn't get a lot of attention anymore.
``We're not running tours through it because it doesn't have anything new,'' GE spokesman Terry Dunn said in a recent telephone interview. ``We've chosen not to put our new technologies in there because we show [customers] our new technologies in other ways now.''
Over the years, processors have stayed the course, serving a sector that is risk averse and slow to adopt new technologies. Contractors by nature are not people who take a lot of risks. Builders, of course, are very concerned about durability and liability, and there have been a number of fairly dramatic building product failures over the years. Need we mention polybutylene pipe?
Perhaps we can adopt some wisdom from Josh Billings: ``Be like a postage stamp - stick to one thing until you get there.''
The plastics industry is getting there, with a trail blazed by vinyl siding, which led to vinyl windows, which led to fencing ... you get the picture. As one industry source said, ``Every conversion has happened faster. I think there's a broad acceptance that plastic materials do work. People in general are aware of alternate materials in building and construction. Most people don't want anything to do with maintenance.''
And as those conversions happen, the price gap closes between traditional materials and alternative options. Companies are teaming up to serve the residential market, encouraged by the trends of the past years which made the housing sector one of the strongest during an economic blight, such as low mortgage rates and the need for nesting after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But several developments over the last 10 years have made this sector ripe for innovative plastic technologies.
Rising awareness from consumers
The little pig is smart. Thanks to home improvement channels and the Internet, he and his wife especially are more aware of alternative materials. They are demanding. They want building science and energy efficiency; strength and safety; a home that's connected with the latest technology and a home that's affordable. Oh, the little pig doesn't want to work in order to maintain his home.
PATHway to boosting housing industry
By 1998, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development developed its PATH offshoot, bringing together manufacturers, home builders and code officials who defined National Construction Goals and formed this Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing. The group said it can take 10-25 years for a new housing technology to achieve full market penetration. PATH looks at the issues and barriers related to technology development in the housing industry, and strives for viable cost-effective solutions. The group issued its 2004 list of the top 10 technologies, which includes cross-linked PE pipe.
``We've been doing a good deal of outreach on that product,'' said Maureen McNulty, PATH's communications manager, in a recent telephone interview. ``We've also done some field-testing with that product. A lot of it simply is awareness.''
PATH has identified a number of new technologies related to plastics, including composites and PVC trim.
``We're seeing an increased role for plastics in housing for three reasons: durability, the quality, consistency, ease of use; and labor,'' said Dana Bres, a research engineer with PATH. ``The very fact that PEX piping is doing well is a testament to the innovators in the industry.''
Now, there are also Web sites like www.toolbase.org, which is a portal for the building and construction industry with information on materials, new technologies, business management and housing systems.
Government rules and code issues
One extruder acknowledged that its business was zero percent vinyl in 1989, but vinyl now represents 80 percent of its window production. Vinyl has battled aluminum, and came out on top as an efficient option, especially when dealing with energy code issues. It's been adopted as the mainstay in the market and now is the core of the U.S. market.
Plastic lumber and wood composite manufacturers are enjoying a burgeoning market for decking and related products, and a push from government always helps.
The Environmental Protection Agency's phaseout of chromated copper arsenate-treated lumber also will close the price gap with alternative lumber materials. Code battles have restricted several plastic products, including PEX for use in plumbing. Joe and Jane Q. Public broadly brush PVC, PEX, any type of pipe, as ``plastic pipe.'' So problems with one type of plastic in the past have some communities convinced never to use another type of plastic pipe in certain applications, even if PVC wasn't to blame.
But the plastics industry is fighting, and that united front will continue to build awareness over time. After all, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
Angie DeRosa is staff reporter for Plastics News whose beat includes building and construction.