Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Homes built from recycled plastic?

I've been a keen observer of what one might call 'alternative home technologies' for some years, given my background in the Third World and my awareness of the very great need for relatively low-cost, durable, environmentally friendly alternatives to current home construction methods. I've written before about the use of recycled shipping containers for housing, and I've looked into other techniques such as straw-bale houses, cob housing, adobe housing, earthbag construction, etc.

I've been puzzled at the lack of use in housing construction of planks made from recycled plastic. These are already common, with a number of companies making park benches, decking, etc. out of this material. (The four companies linked in the previous sentence are only a few of many in the industry.) The Coney Island Boardwalk is apparently going to be resurfaced with it, and I've seen several boat docks on the Great Lakes made out of these planks - but I've never seen it widely used for beams or siding in conventional houses, and wondered why. I'm told it's not strong enough for structural use, but surely that's just a matter of making it thicker, or modifying the plastic 'mixture' used to produce it?

It seems a British company has taken the next step, and is actively pursuing houses built entirely of recycled plastic waste. The Daily Mail reports:

It puts the fab into prefabricated. And goes some way to solving the huge problem of managing the mountains of rubbish we throw away.

For the latest use of recycled plastic is building family homes.

And the price? All yours, complete with bathroom, kitchen and plumbing, for £42,000 [about US $65,000] - although you will have to provide your own land.

A pioneering company is building three-bedroom houses with frameworks made entirely of recycled waste plastic - including thousands of water bottles.

Each house is made up of 18 tonnes [just under 20 US short tons] of recycled plastic trash that would have been destined for waste tips across the country.

... the special plastic is almost four times as strong as concrete and insulates the house twice as well, enabling house-holders to cut their heating bills in half.

It is fire, storm and wind proof and, being made of plastic, is naturally waterproof.

The firm, Swansea-based Affresol, uses material that cannot be recycled any other way, to make panels that bolt together to create low carbon homes.

Any plastic, from old patio chairs and tables to building fixtures and fittings, are ground down into small granules that are then fused together in a chemical reaction to make Thermo Poly Rock (TPR).

Forty TPR panels are then bolted together to form the load bearing frame of houses.

They can then be externally clad with brick, block or stone, with the interior insulated and plastered as any other house.

Managing director of Affresol, Ian McPherson, believes the company is solving the country's housing and recycling problems at the same time.

He came up with [the] brainwave three years ago, after selling his IT company, and teamed up with manufacturing expert Scott Phillips and the universities of Cardiff and Glamorgan.

Father-of-two Mr McPherson, 60, said: ‘The materials are stronger and lighter than concrete.

‘They are waterproof, fire retardant, do not rot and have great insulation.

‘We estimate the life of the houses at more than 60 years and after that they are recyclable.

‘We believe there is tremendous potential for this new product particularly with the growing focus on carbon reduction, low energy affordable homes and sustainability.

‘At the moment about 50 to 60 per cent of all plastic is recycled – we take the other 40 to 50 per cent and use it to make something really useful.

‘Individuals can buy houses from us or developers can buy in bulk.

‘This is a new kind of prefabricated house which helps the environment as well.

‘As a country we put far too much waste into landfill and this goes some way to helping solve the problem of all our rubbish.

‘It’s exciting to build something new out of things we throw away.’

There's more at the link.

This is really interesting news. If they get it right, there's no reason why the same technology can't be applied in the USA and other countries. The price is fairly reasonable, and would probably become cheaper with mass production; and think of the maintenance savings! By impregnating the plastic panels with the desired color, one would never need to repaint; never have to replace worn-out siding . . . there are all sorts of advantages. The houses might even be portable! If they're made by assembling plastic panels, I can't see any reason why those panels can't be disassembled, transported to a new site and re-erected there, if necessary.

I'll be watching this very carefully. It's a development that's long overdue.



tweell said...

Very nice, and I can see the application in many places. Unfortunately, I don't think they'd work in Arizona. Dry heat and lots of sunlight eat plastics here. Anything made of plastic or rubber has half of the 'normal' lifetime at most.

Dirk said...

As the article says, they can be clad with brick, block or stone, and of course the roof would be conventionally-built, though maybe the framing of the roof would be plastic, with standard decking and shingles on top of that.

I imagine something that's mostly plastic like this would also be insect-proof, too - especially termites.

Anonymous said...

My worry would be fire. How fire retardant is the material? Plastics release some nasty fumes (dioxins)and smoke when they burn.

bruce said...

plastics would be an improvement over treated wood in the mid latitudes where termites rule.There seems to be just enough missing from the designers words to suggest the actual load bearing ability of the substance is limited. ie second floor ability, and as mentioned siding is not part of the talked about panel's design.

However the benefits of plastic building should be great. Especially concerning waterproofing and bug resistance. Imagen seaming the window with the siding ...

cybrus said...

Fire would be my biggest concern. The new wooden I-beam joists have become a huge concern in the world of firefighting. In the past, hefty solid wood beams could withstand fire for a decent amount of time. The new construction practices result in structural collapse much sooner. This leads, in the best case, to more property damage and in the worst case, potential for more loss of life.

Nancy said...

Along with fire, my concern would be with the outgassing of the plastics. Imagine your home saturated with that? I wonder what the cancer rates would be for people both living in the homes and in the surrounding area.

Shrimp said...

Fire and outgassing are both excellent concerns. While fire resistant, when it does burn, it is likely going to give off some serious noxious fumes, as most plastics would.

Also, on a mere practicality matter, what about remodeling and repairing? Suppose you want to change out something. With most homes, that could be done relatively easily and for modest cost. With these panel bolted together to form the load bearing structure, it sounds like that makes the prospect automatically more difficult and likely more expensive. Unless I'm misunderstanding how they go together.

I think as long as the foresight for remodel and repair is included, it could be a pretty good idea.