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Push for more sustainable building bodes well for plastics

Builders will likely need to use more plastics if they want to answer the challenge issued earlier this year by Architecture 2030, the non-profit, independent organization established in response to the climate change crisis by architect Edward Mazria in 2002. PlasticsToday caught up with leaders at two processors serving the B&C market to get their take on plastics' chances as builders and architects add sustainability to the balls they must juggle.

Clare Goldsberry

July 5, 2011

8 Min Read
Push for more sustainable building bodes well for plastics

Builders will likely need to use more plastics if they want to answer the challenge issued earlier this year by Architecture 2030, the non-profit, independent organization established in response to the climate change crisis by architect Edward Mazria in 2002. PlasticsToday caught up with leaders at two processors serving the B&C market to get their take on plastics' chances as builders and architects add sustainability to the balls they must juggle.   

Architecture 2030's mission is to push the global B&C industry to transform from the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a more sustainable building culture. It has challenged the architecture and building community to specify, design and manufacture products that will, by 2030m, enable construction of carbon-neutral buildings.

Plastics experts see plenty of potential for their products in the challenge. Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council's Plastics Division, said, "America's plastics makers welcome Architecture 2030's latest challenge and the attention it brings to the importance of energy efficiency in the built environment."

There's more to a "carbon footprint" than just manufacturing a product. Christman points to a recent study by McKinsey & Company that shows that by bringing about significant reductions in heating and cooling needs, plastic foam insulation saves 233 times the greenhouse gas emissions generated in production the product's life. The same could be said about many other plastic building products. "To be truly effective, building and construction decision makers need to look at the amount of energy and greenhouse gas emissions that can be saved over the entire life of a product - not just during its manufacture," Christman stated.

Getting builder buy-in has always been a challenge           

Despite the many changes in the industry, getting buy-in from architects and builders has always been a major hurdle when it comes to alternative building materials (i.e. materials other than bricks, blocks, stone, mortar, and wood, which have been used for thousands of years).  James Mahler, president and co-founder of LifeTime Lumber, with business development and sales offices in Carlsbad, CA, and headquarters and manufacturing in Brodhead, WI, says that part of the reason for the reluctance of builders to adopt alternative building materials is they don't want to learn. "They want to do what they've always done," Mahler told PlasticsToday. "I run into that with LifeTime Lumber, particularly with contractors. The first thing they want to know is, 'How do you install it? Is it different than wood?' That's probably because they have crews that might need special training, so they prefer to have standard installation."

LifeTime Lumber is a product developed by LifeTime Composites LLC. The company was founded with the objective of creating a product that can serve as a sustainable replacement for wood and wood-plastic composites (WPCs), in any nonstructural application in which wood is deteriorated by the elements. LifeTime Lumber is a wood alternative that uses up to 60% recycled mineral ash.

LifeTime Lumber primarily consists of two major materials - fly (mineral) ash, a byproduct of burning coal to make electricity, and polyurethane. Mahler explained that over a billion tons of coal is burned in this country every year. About 10% of any given type of coal is ash, with this used as filler in cement and wallboards. "But a huge amount of fly ash goes into landfills," said Mahler. "Fly ash has extremely important character: it is inert and inorganic which means it doesn't burn, rot, is impervious to bugs and water, and its expansion and contraction characteristics are very low."

How does LifeTime Lumber compare to wood/plastic composites (WPC), which have gained in popularity over the past decade as a replacement for wood decking, fencing, and other outdoor uses? "It always stunned me that people want to produce a wood replacement with something that is 50% wood," Mahler said.  "That solves only half the problem. There must be a better way. You can mask wood for awhile. You can forestall Mother Nature for awhile, but our products are impervious to all of this." 

Mahler said he is very excited about using fly ash as filler in a polyurethane (PUR) matrix. "PU is an amazing product," Mahler added. "We worked with Bayer MaterialScience, and they developed some proprietary PU materials for us to use in outdoor living products." Installation of the LifeTime Lumber is the same as with wood, he says. "We save 20-25% in labor costs over WPCs because LifeTime Lumber is more like wood," he said, "and we're 30% lighter than WPCs. All these things add up."

Mahler said the demand for LifeTime Lumber is picking up after the long slump in the building industry. "It's like anything new - people have to warm up to it," he said.  "Some don't want to use it because they don't understand it. They're naturally defensive about composite materials because some of the WPCs didn't live up to the claims. We have to convince them that LifeTime Lumber has what we say it has."

Green must be truly green

Mahler said that where others claim to be green, LifeTime Lumber actually is sustainable. "First, we do recycle fly ash which otherwise goes into a slurry pond, and we get LEEDS credits for that. Secondly we have zero emissions from our plant into the air and water. And third, because we get our heat from a catalytic reaction, we use about 10% of the electricity needed for common WPCs" Mahler explained.  "Our use of energy is minimal - no water or gas is used. But, the ultimate payoff is if you use Lifetime Lumber, you're replacing material that comes from the rain forest. Wood is the greatest building material ever but there are better uses for wood than in applications that are vulnerable to the elements."


Despite reservations, PVC remains the one to beat

Although extruded polyvinyl chloride (PVC) window and doorframes have been around for decades, and are in fact the market's leading material for window frames, there's still "resistance" to accept plastics - in particular PVC - over traditional materials such as wood and aluminum, admits Ric Jackson, director of marketing for Quanex windows. Quanex Building Products Corp. includes consisting of window component technology-brands from Mikron (extruded products), Truseal (warm edge window spacers), and Homeshield (weather-resistant door thresholds and sealing).

"However, the pressure to increase thermal performance is growing, so getting the numbers needed to obtain Energy Star qualification will be much more difficult to obtain with traditional wood and aluminum windows," said Jackson. "Fiberglass is a growing category of materials but has limits. The other choice is PVC and it's becoming much more popular in products like door casings as well as windows. A lot of residential building products are transitioning toward composites and PVC because of its durability, low maintenance and ease of use."

Quanex member company Mikron extrudes window frame profiles and offers its customers the option of PVC profiles manufactured with a special color coating for a more durable finish and increased energy efficiency. "That's one of the advantages of partnering with a window component technology provider like a Quanex. We are able to focus on R&D and let the manufacturer build windows. In this case, PVC previously had been limited in the colors you can apply with paint into that frame," Jackson said. "Now with new color coating technologies, colors are co-extruded so the resulting frame profile arrives at manufacturers in colors." The co-extruded, colored is 12 times harder than applied paint, he says, so it better resists weathering and scratching. These color coating systems can also be specified to include materials that reflect over 75% of infrared light, to reduce solar heat gain and to prevent heat-related shape distortion.

Color and heat-reflection play a big role in window performance as do the internal 'value-adds' engineered inside the window. "One of the Mikron brand technologies, EnergyCore, is an air-cell insulating core designed to create a high-performance thermal barrier within the PVC window frame," Jackson noted. "Unlike manually foam-filled processes, the new Energy Core system is manufactured via a patented tri-extrusion process. This process ensures frame profiles are fully insulated without internal voids," said Jackson.

Despite plastics' lingering perception problem, "Builders are accustomed to using PVC now, and most new homes contain Energy Star rated windows," Jackson said.  "As a builder today, looking at thermal performance as a key element of your window package; a recent report noted that 50% of consumers said that high performance windows are an essential element of home buying criteria."

Jackson also pointed to a study published by Ducker Research on materials and design of architectural products, with the study revealing that PVC windows currently represent 66% of the window market. "The key is the technology for PVC has continually improved. It insulates the frame better and the coating systems allow windows to be used in climate zones that would otherwise result in shorter life spans for the windows," Jackson explained. For example, "Twenty years ago you wouldn't want a PVC window in Arizona. Like any product however, improvements in the technology and with stringent codes both in place and coming have resulted in improving the thermal performance of the window. The highest performance choices for residential windows today contain almost no metal and much less wood than in the past, and PVC is leading the category for high performance."

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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