There's no place like home to illustrate how plastic products have pushed the envelope when it comes to changes in the building industry over the last quarter century.
Plastics have grown to dominate the residential markets for plumbing fixtures, siding and windows; meet new demands for thermal performance and moisture resistance; and reduce maintenance needs from backyard decks to polymer roof shingles.
Sure some plastics like vinyl floors and laminated countertops have come and gone out of vogue in the past 25 years. But no doubt the increased use of synthetic materials have had a role in the affordability, durability, energy efficiency and curb appeal of U.S. housing from the ground up.
In the built world, plastics continue to displace copper, wood, aluminum and other materials, including older polymers, sometimes as the cheaper alternative and sometimes as the premium product.
One of plastic's biggest contributions to construction since 1989 has been its role in putting a proper seal on the building envelope, according to Edward Hudson, director of the market research division for Home Innovation Research Labs, a subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders.
From flash tape around doors and windows to polyolefin wraps around entire exterior shells, material science experts have improved building performance with plastic.
“A big driver has been energy costs and ratcheting up of energy codes,” Hudson said in a telephone interview. “That means the thermal envelope has to be much more efficient and air tight, and those two things mean we're adding more insulation and we're tightening the envelope to reduce air infiltration into the home.”
House wraps provide a weather-resistant barrier under cladding that blocks air leaks and stops moisture. Any water that does get through the cladding drains off instead of being absorbed by the sheathing, where it can cause rot, mold or mildew.
“Ten years ago there was a major industry-wide shakeup on mold growth in homes,” Hudson said, citing another benefit house wraps bring to a wall assembly.
Finding ways to reduce labor and operating costs for contractors, while making homes more comfortable for end users, also factored into innovation, according to Tim Lacey, business director for Dow Building Solutions-Americas. He refers to a new product, Froth-Pak, as a game-changer for spray foam for installation.
However, providing a sustainable energy supply, addressing climate change and reducing carbon footprints are among the most urgent issues facing the building industry, Lacey said in an email, pointing to statistics that show buildings are the largest energy user. In 2013, 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption was consumed in residential and commercial buildings, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“As a result, greater emphasis is being placed on transforming the building sector,” Lacey said. “This, coupled with the urbanization megatrend, is driving the need for greater awareness, understanding and a growing interest in the impact plastics can have in providing sustainable solutions that will help to offset greenhouse gas emissions and a create a more sustainably built environment for future generations.”
Looking back at the built world of 1989, copper was the material of choice for pipes that carry hot and cold water through a house. However, the cheaper, easier-to-install thermoplastic chlorinated PVC (CPVC) began displacing it. Now it is losing market share to another plastic — cross-linked polyethylene (PEX).
“PEX zoomed passed CPVC as a water supply pipe,” Hudson said. “CPVC is doing fairly well. It's got a quarter of the market, PEX is looking at 65 percent and the remaining is copper.”
Hudson has been with Home Innovation Labs for 20 years, monitoring the building industry the entire time. In some applications, like windows and siding, he said plastics became the dominant material because of their reputations as durable, low-maintenance products.