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Architect's Viewpoint

Plastics Less Than Fantastic in Long Run

July 08, 2001|ARROL GELLNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Graduate" aside, plastics is not the key to success in at least one field--architecture.

An ideal architectural material must meet three basic requirements: It must serve its intended purpose at reasonable cost, it must look good doing it and it must continue to look good doing it for a long, long time.

Most plastic-based building materials will fulfill the first two criteria, just as they would in a computer or a coffeemaker. But unlike these disposable consumer products, a building must last generations. This unique requirement is the reason so many architectural plastics have flunked the test.

For every successful plastic building material, such as laminate counter tops, acrylic skylights or ABS plumbing, there are many more that have disappointed. To wit:

* Melamine coatings, such as those used on kitchen cabinets, have short-term looks but no capacity to age gracefully. After the first scratch or chip, it's all downhill, and there's no practical way to retouch. Moreover, although minor flaws can produce a pleasing patina in wood cabinets, a cabinet with a worn plastic coating just looks like what it is: one more piece of petrochemical landfill.

* PVC gutters and downspouts. Like most plastic products that are exposed to the sun's ultraviolet radiation, PVC gutters eventually fall apart. This doesn't bode well for other PVC products now on the market, such as windows, exterior molding, and fencing.

* Awnings. Architects were quick to put their faith in newplastic fabrics that were supposed to make awnings more durable. The result? A slew of once-brilliant awnings that are faded, mildewed or hanging in rags, just like the old ones did.

* Glass substitutes. Let's see--we have glass, a material that's ancient, proven, durable and dirt-cheap. Or we have plastic glazing, a material that's costly, unstable and weathers poorly. Which would you choose?

* Flexible plumbing. The 1980s brought us flexible polyethylene tubing with fittings that were simply pushed together, rather than being soldered or glued. This yielded two unsurprising results: leaks and lawsuits. Lately, such systems have been resurrected with the assurance that all the previous problems have been fixed. Personally, I'll wait this one out.

Arrol Gellner is an architect with 23 years of experience in residential and commercial architecture. Distributed by Inman News Features.

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