A new focus on housing sustainability is expected to boost the use of plastics in residential construction.
Consumer awareness of materials is increasing. The availability of information is increasing. The residential housing market isn't slowing down, and home buyers are demanding homes that have better resistance to mold and mildew problems.
According to the Washington-based National Association of Homebuilders, single-family housing starts are expected to remain at high levels, declining slightly from 1.5 million units last year to 1.49 million in 2004 and 1.42 million in 2005.
But just what does the construction industry mean when it talks about sustainability?
``Sustainability is a term that is still being defined,'' said Dana Bres, a research engineer with Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing in Washington.
``We want products that are durable. We want products that are affordable. We want products that don't adversely affect the environment. We want products that are healthy. We want products that don't consume an undue amount of energy. We want products that can be used flexibly. There are probably many more on our wish list.''
More than 32,000 ``green homes,'' have been built since 1990, according to NAHB data. Officials credit cutting-edge green building practices that are available for new and remodeled homes; houses built today are twice as energy-efficient as they were 30 years ago.
Plastics processors are joining forces in several ways to market products and services. Extruder Rehau Inc. of Leesburg, Va., teamed up with Amvic Inc. of Toronto earlier this year. Amvic makes insulated concrete forms that use closed-cell expanded polystyrene and concrete.
``In the past, traditional technologies for sustainable building added significant costs to the upfront development and construction,'' said Gary Anderson, manager for Rehau's construction business unit. ``Today, the plastics systems are driving down cost, making it much less cost-prohibitive. The individual systems have been available for a long time, but the present focus on integration encourages the industry to consider the various combinations of these techniques and their associated benefits. This focus is bringing many of the sustainable design concepts further into the mainstream.''
The two companies partnered on a residential housing project in West Pasco, Wash., which was one of the first homes in the nation to earn Freedom Seal of Approval. The Freedom Seal is the first total home certification program in the United States that rates homes that are healthy, environmentally friendly and energy efficient.
``The biggest barrier to adoption is that there's still a perception that it's way more expensive than traditional construction,'' Keith Peterson, who owns the house built by Rehau and Amvic, said in a June 1 telephone interview. ``In my case, it wasn't. This house was built right around the $100 per-square-foot range.''
People are paying $125 per square foot and more for traditional high-end houses, he said.
``If the average person can't afford to live in this house, then it's not sustainable.''
For Peterson, radiant heat, high-efficiency windows and the insulated-concrete-form construction were the important attributes.
``All the components work together so well that the sum is much better than the individual parts,'' he said. ``I wanted to demonstrate that an environmentally friendly, healthy, quality home could be built with local tradesmen, using industry-standard construction methods and budgets. In combining all of these features, that is really where you start seeing the payback. [It's] not the only house in my area that's being built this way. It's continuing to grow.''
Anderson said the plastics industry will grow with the sustainable approach.
``The solutions are becoming more realistic for the average home or building owner since they are economical, energy efficient and often easier to install and maintain,'' he said. ``People are demanding a house that lasts, and this demand will continue to grow in coming years.''
Mississauga, Ontario-based Icynene Inc., a company that makes insulation, claims to be growing faster than its competitors, in part because of the sustainable properties of its product.
Icynene is a spray-in-place, soft foam insulation and air barrier system that is 100 percent water-blown and contains no harmful emissions, according to the company. The material expands to 100 times its initial volume and adheres to the building material to seal all gaps and crevices, officials said.
The company said its growth has outpaced that of the insulation industry as a whole by almost 10 times. To meet soaring demand, Icynene last year opened a new plant in Mississauga, said Teresa Orofino, marketing communications coordinator.
In April, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa Home Exteriors Inc., Dow Building Materials and Progressive Foam Technologies Inc. of Beach City, Ohio, announced a partnership to develop and manufacture a new insulated siding system called Structure.
Officials said insulated or foam-backed siding is becoming an increasingly popular alternative for consumers largely because of the low maintenance aspect.
Other firms, such as BASF Corp., of Wyandotte, Mich., have developed products like its Engineered Building Envelope System. The sustainable construction solution is based on the use of BASF's spray polyurethane foam, including zero ozone-depleting foams, the firm said.