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Polyurethane: Form meets function

As a young architect, Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Louis Sullivan's architecture firm in Chicago. Sullivan is known for designing some of the earliest skyscrapers using steel-frame constructions. His famous adage, "form follows function," is still used by many architects who recognize the purpose of a building should be the starting point for its design. Wright later evolved the phrase to "form and function are one."

Many architects continue to believe that the shape of a building should not be fashioned after some aesthetic tradition, but rather should be determined by the purpose of the building. Polyurethane products used in construction help combine aesthetics (form) and purpose (function).

Today's architects are increasingly balancing structural requirements, energy efficiency certifications, cost and the design wishes of the home or office owner.  

Polyurethane provides the solution in a number of areas. The material can fundamentally alter the approach taken for a building's structural support right down to its fixtures.

The impact polyurethane has had on the construction industry comes as no surprise when you consider its wide array of properties: it is tough but flexible, durable but malleable, and can be formed and formulated to be a superior alternative in many applications. Below, we consider some of the most popular applications of this material in constructing the best possible building - from the ground up.

Insulation

Polyurethane insulation has long been used to keep homes and commercial buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Spray polyurethane foam (SPF) is a spray-applied plastic that can form a continuous insulation and air sealing barrier on walls, roofs, around corners and on all contoured surfaces. SPF that insulates, seals gaps, and forms moisture and vapor barriers. It can be used in difficult-to-reach spaces to fill the empty voids. Polyurethane spray foam's water resistance adds a layer of protection from intrusion. It also reduces air infiltration, which studies show can be responsible for 40% of a building's energy loss. 

Structural support

Load-bearing polyurethane panels can be used to create and divide rooms and bear the weight of upper stories. Polyurethane materials can add structural support to any building, offering an alternative to traditional partition walls. In addition, polyurethane is the perfect material for the production of decorative columns that look good as well as enhance structural integrity. Polyurethane's smooth, clean surface is primed for a flawless paint job - and won't warp, rot, or splinter.

Adhesives, sealants and coatings

Polyurethane adhesives contribute to strong bonding solutions. As architects and builders look to use new composite materials to bring designs to life, there can be a challenge in getting these new materials to attach properly to one another. Polyurethane shows great adhesion to a wide variety of materials and can be specifically formulated to meet the needs of newly crafted components. The use of polyurethane coatings can enhance the appearance and lengthen the lifespan of buildings exteriors as well as fittings such as pipes, doors, and canopies.

Trimmings and fixtures

Polyurethane doesn't only help with the practical aspects of buildings and homes, it is also used for the aesthetic. Polyurethane interior and exterior trims mimic the look of wood and metal and need less maintenance. For exteriors, polyurethane represents a durable, water- and insect-resistant option for traditional wood trim. Polyurethane can be molded to form cornices or corbels, ceiling domes or chair rails, window edgings or louvers. Polyurethane can even be designed to look smooth or to replicate a wood grain and can be finished in a number of vibrant colors, as well as faux finishes. Similarly, polyurethane is used in a number of fixtures throughout a home including mantels, stair brackets, banisters, balusters, wall niches, and door crossheads.  

The complementary properties of polyurethane as a durable and flexible substance make it a valuable asset for designers and builders. The polyurethane industry is working with the architectural and building markets to continue to innovate in the areas of energy efficiency and affordability. 

Lee Salamone is the Senior Director of the American Chemistry Council Center for the Polyurethanes Industry (CPI), a value chain organization that represents companies that manufacture the raw materials and machinery used to make all kinds of polyurethanes materials including those used in automotive applications. CPI promotes the use of polyurethanes in many end use markets and provides information on safe use of these materials. Visit us at www.polyurethanes.org and www.incrediblepolyurethane.com.

Editor's note: The author is a PlasticsToday contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.  

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