Polymer building materials make gains despite builder reluctance to adopt new technology

By Clare Goldsberry
Published: January 31st, 2013

Covering the International Builders' Show is always interesting. I've seen how plastics in building materials and applications have evolved over the past decade and become more prevalent since the days when vinyl siding was about all you could find it came to building products. Even then, vinyl siding was something equated with mobile homes, not something that someone building an "upscale" home would choose, despite its advantages.

It seems that one thing that hasn't changed is the reluctance of builders to use many of these alternative building materials and products. Talking to people from the companies that make vinyl siding, injection molded siding and roofing, even something as mainstream as decking and railing, which have been around for at least 20 years when Trex introduced the first WPC decking product, reveals that there's still reluctance on the part of builders to use alternatives to traditional building products.International Builders Show

However, from a consumer standpoint, there's more demand for these alternative materials for things such as roofing, siding, trim, decking and railing. And consumers are educating themselves about these products. As one person told me, consumers are searching the internet and finding new products and asking their builder or remodeler to use these new polymer products including vinyl, PVC, WPC, PP, HDPE and others.

Perhaps consumers expected too much from these materials. When the WPCs were first developed, they were promoted as 'virtually maintenance free.' That turned out to be not the case. With upwards of 40% wood fiber content, it still absorbed water to some extent, and mold and bugs continued to be a problem. A couple of consumer class actions lawsuits over the past decade have the industry rethinking the value of trying to combine organic and inorganic materials.

That has forced the major players to try and correct the shortcomings of WPC decks. The idea to extrude WPC with a polymer "cap" material to seal the planks and prevent mold, mildew, flaking and water problems is an attempt to keep WPC decking and railing alive. One person I spoke with in the decking business, who wished to remain anonymous, said that there's a lot going on the decking business that will "shake this industry up and disrupt a lot of channels." He then added that there are some companies that are hoping for this disruption.

There has been some M&A activity in the industry such as TimberTech being acquired by AZEK, a leader in the PVC decking business. Some companies that I remember seeing a few years ago at IBS were nowhere to be found this time around.

Some of the bigger players that are offering a complete line of products such as Ply Gem, headquartered in Cary, NC, added PVC trim and moldings to its portfolio of more than 20 product categories. Those additions include vinyl siding and windows, fencing, and vinyl and composite railing, as well as injection molded polymer shakes and shingles.

DaVinci Roofscapes, a Kansas City-based polymer roofing company is doing well with its expanded line of roofing products in both shake and slate designs. Ray Rosewall, DaVinci's President and CEO, said the company recently bought a 180,000-sq-ft manufacturing facility that the company will be moving into this year. The site, an old Amcor facility, is all set up for injection molding, complete with rail access and silos. "It has all we'll ever need to grow business and not have to worry about outgrowing our space," Rosewall told PlasticsToday.

Additionally, the company just purchased another Husky 1000-ton injection molding machine. While Rosewall declined to say how many presses the company operates now, but did say have have tonnage capability ranging from 700 to 2000 tons.

Like most of the others in the alternative building materials industry however, Rosewall has found that it continues to take educating both builders and consumers about the advantages of polymer roofing products. "Contractors are still skeptical," he commented, noting that it takes training for installers and contractors to convince them it's just not that much different than traditional asphalt roofing products.

Still, DaVinci as well as most of the other alternative building material companies that managed to survive the housing downturn are making headway in the building industry. In fact, polymer building materials are becoming fairly ubiquitous—just take a stroll down the aisle at IBS.

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