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From grass to "plastic": polymer architecture

Polymers. Their omnipresence contributed to the improvement of our every day life but also to a mass production of a very "durable" kind of waste. Polymer revolution is an unquestionable fact. They can be found in all areas of our life: food containers, packaging, bottles, toys, shower gel, you name it! But what about building materials? Traditionally, when we think about buildings what comes to our mind is wood, brick, concrete or steel. However, polymers are an intriguing type of structural material that offers innovative architectural character.

Polymers are a class of materials with high versatility in shape, color and properties, and that, at the same time, are characterized by a relatively low cost. If we think about polymers, it does not come into our mind that buildings are made of “plastics”, as generally referred to. However, polymers are used in constructions since antiquity. An extremely interesting example is the Incan bridge in Peru, which is rebuilt every year for over 5 centuries. The natural polymeric rope is made from a specific type of grass grown in this area.

Only in Europe, in 2015, 49 million tons of oil and gas were used to produce polymers. The construction sector is the third main industry that utilizes them. Polymers are used not only for insulation and pipes, but also in the production of facades and even concrete binder. Teflon-made panels are used in several modern constructions. One example is the Water Cube or Beijing National Aquatic Center constructed for the Summer Olympics of 2008. Within the same constructional choice the Eden project in Cornwall (England) was built. Under this “plastic” bubble, you can find the largest indoor rainforest in the world, a waterfall fed by rainwater and a Mediterranean environment with several species of plants.

Another interesting project is called the Bubble Building. It is an inflatable made of nylon that is able to breathe and interact with people living inside the construction. The project was proposed by the 3Gatti architectural studio as an innovative solution to renovate a building in Shanghai. The ventilation is regulated according to the presence of inhabitants in the building and the inflatable is changing the configuration from its full tensile capacity state to an almost deflated state when the building is empty.

A very inspiring example of a connection between architecture, construction, and materials, is represented by the translucent concrete. At the University of Houston, the scientists replaced the traditional concrete materials such as cement, sand and aggregates with plastics, glass of various sizes and bound them together with a transparent glue. Moreover, a Hungarian architect, Aron Losonczi, patented and developed LiTraCon, which are blocks made of glass fibers inside a mixture of crushed stone cement and water. The fibers were placed parallel to each other and the block was translucent. A similar idea was patented by the Italian company Italcementi and the building in the video is one of the constructions they have made from this crazy and innovative material, the Italian pavilion during Expo Shangai 2010.

The polymers are not only present in architectural forms but are also applied to change the properties of traditional materials. Recently, a lot of effort is concentrated in utilizing polymer waste in building materials such as concrete or brick. Certainly, polymers have a great potential in construction industry. They rocked the structural world and they are here to stay for long time to come.

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