Daily life 5 min
Architecture: polymers in the limelight
Although plastics have long been used in the building industry, they were initially used mainly for their functional properties. Little by little, architects have taken a different look at them and began to use them to enhance the aesthetics of their designs.
Architecture: polymers in the limelight
Architecture: polymers in the limelight

Polymers in a comfortable position

Polymers are perfect for enhancing architectural works of art, but they provide many other services in the building industry. They have long been widely recognised for their energy performance, thanks to their insulating capabilities, which are so important in curbing global warming. Perfectly watertight and fireproof, they are the best for carrying fluids (water, electricity, etc.).


However, the issue of recycling or re-using them has become crucial in recent years. Manufacturers of building products are now looking at what happens to their products at the end of their life, seeking to create new circular economy models.
Today, roofing, ceiling tiles, flooring and even high-performance concrete incorporate recycled plastics (Read our article Plastic waste, a resource for the construction and public works sector

PVC is doing more and more

PVC is a very multifaceted material. Very easy to manufacture, it can be flexible (shower curtains, flooring, adhesive films, etc.) or rigid (for pipes, for example). When all its qualities are put in a line like that, it is difficult to see it as a material with unheard-of resources, and yet it is used in stretch ceilings, for example, which are so popular in top-of-the-range homes or in hotels and restaurants that are often awarded several stars.
For a long time, stretch ceilings were appreciated above all for their brilliance, but they have since shown that they have many other qualities. Thanks to new hanging systems, they have gained an extra dimension and can be given all types of different shapes. They are now designed using 3D software and cut directly in the factory for greater precision and to avoid waste as much as possible. They are assembled on-site and hot glued to make the welds completely invisible. The result certainly lives up to expectations. Their soft, round shapes soothe and give a feeling of well-being.
However, they offer more than just a treat for the eyes; they also play an important role in terms of acoustic insulation. For example, a wave-shaped ceiling is perfect for diffracting sound waves and avoiding the "hubbub" effect so common in large halls, for example. In addition, the intrinsic sound-absorbing properties of the polymer further enhance the properties offered by the ceiling’s shape.


With stretch ceilings, PVC has made a brilliant entry into the world of luxury.

In addition to absorbing sound, stretch ceilings also play perfectly with light. Depending on the degree of translucency and the colour of the canvas, the light is diffused in different ways, giving interior designers a great deal of scope to create the right atmosphere for their clients. Its natural gloss makes PVC a particularly suitable material to interact with light. Based on this principle, the French company Barrisol, a world leader in stretch ceilings, has developed a new family of ceilings that directly incorporate a set of LEDs in their fabric. The secret lies in weaving polymer and glass fibres together. The effects achieved are amazing, and the sensation of space and depth can be slightly disconcerting at first sight. Of course, all colours are possible.

PVC is the most widely-used polymer in the building industry and in the early 2000s, when the words “global warming” were not yet on everyone's lips, its manufacturers organised a genuine recycling initiative based on voluntary participation. Called VinylPlus, it has recycled 6.5 million tonnes of PVC in 20 years. Quite a number considering that the initiators started from scratch.

From comfort to energy savings, polymers are outdoing themselves

Home sweet home… For many people, increased comfort remains a real concern. A quest that often has repercussions on the energy bill.
Arkéma, a polymer manufacturer, has built a house that is intended to be an "open-air" laboratory that integrates these two parameters. Named SmartHouse, it will, over time, be fitted with the latest innovations developed by the manufacturer in order to test them in real life situations. The results will be known around 2030. In the meantime, some of its solutions have already proven effective, such as its windows whose frames incorporate tiny beads of the manufacturer’s Siliporite©, a material that absorbs 1/3 of its mass in water and therefore prevents condensation. Also for the windows, a coating called Certincoat® SunE allows visible light to pass through but prevents heat from escaping. This results in savings of up to 30% in heating costs.
To achieve an excellent level of energy efficiency, the designers focused on the building envelope. They opted for a construction system developed in Canada that integrates the insulation into the masonry. The concrete is poured directly into reinforced polystyrene formwork blocks. This makes it possible to create a double insulation system, both exterior and interior, from the beginning of the structural works; this solution is all the more effective because it is totally integrated into the structure. In addition to its thermal and acoustic performance, it ensures perfect watertightness. To further improve the performance of the concrete, Arkéma has added its own personal touch to the process. It has added "superplasticizing" additives to increase fluidity by preventing the formation of air bubbles, a major cause of water penetration. On the interior, this type of insulation is also an ideal test bed for evaluating the action of an insulating acrylic-based smoothing compound that reduces heat loss by 15%.


To go beyond laboratory tests, Arkema has built the smart house, a house that allows solutions and materials to be tested with a view to genuine sustainable construction.

Insulation: polymers slim down

When it comes to sound and heat insulation, plastics have little to prove. When it comes to capturing sound, polyurethane foam is the most popular. This material has been known for several decades now and is still irreplaceable or at least unrivalled today, for its formidable insulating capabilities as well as its ease of installation and relatively low cost. There are many ways to insulate a building: double or even triple glazed windows, elimination of thermal bridges and good insulation materials.

Copyright: BASF SE

Neopor, developed by BASF, is an innovative material based on polystyrene and graphite. It is widely used in the construction of so-called passive houses.

These range from the revisited cob to old polymeric materials such as expanded or extruded polystyrene. Others have appeared more recently, such as Neopor©, a highly innovative material developed by BASF.
It is a derivative of its cousin expanded polystyrene enriched with graphite. It is currently one of the most insulating materials on the market.

The material’s performance is achieved thanks to the graphite particles that reflect heat radiation like a mirror, thus reducing heat loss. This is why, with less raw material, it has an insulating capacity equivalent to that of other materials six times thicker, such as rock wool for example. Another advantage is that it can be installed both inside and outside. In just a few years, it has become a popular material for both renovations and new constructions, especially in passive houses. Moreover, its manufacture limits the emission of greenhouse gases since it is 98% air, the rest being made up of balls of material expanded by injecting them with water vapour.

Cladding, more than just a cover-up

For a long time, cladding, usually made of metal, was used as a facade covering because it was easy to install and inexpensive. It was perfect for covering warehouses where aesthetics was not the most important consideration. It was not until the new millennium that the cladding’s appearance changed.

Once again, it was PVC that was to allow for some great innovations thanks to its ability to take on just about any appearance.
Some manufacturers found the right formula to make it look like wood. This type of cladding has come to adorn many single-family homes in northern Europe, countries with a great tradition of building with wood.


PVC cladding imitates wood perfectly and is also maintenance-free and sometimes insulating. 

For the inhabitants, it is a real relief because these vinyl cladding systems are maintenance-free and can withstand the rigours of the climate. This could have been the end of the story if some manufacturers had not come up with the idea of incorporating polymer foams such as polyurethane or expanded polystyrene into the cladding. This type of eye-catching cladding is now a fairly cheap solution for insulating a building from the outside.

Plastic floors: the kings of home decoration magazines

Since the 2000s, plastic floors have been moving upmarket. New formulations have been developed. The floor coverings have become more brilliant by adding a layer of polyurethane varnish, which has the added benefit of increasing their resistance to abrasion. They can be reinforced with glass to make them more stable and rigid. The machines used to manufacture them are also evolving. For example, calender machines are equipped with rollers capable of reproducing an almost infinite number of textures to resemble wood, ceramic, stone, cement tiles, waxed concrete and even tile joints. PVC floors are by far the most widely used floor covering today, both for commercial and residential use. These kings of trompe l'oeil are finding success after success in many kitchens and bathrooms. They are resistant to moisture, water, grease and heat and are even slip-resistant. Vinyl floors, for their part, are strikingly realistic. Visually, they offer a very convincing wood effect. It’s all there to see: the worked texture with its never identical veins, the natural colours. Some of them even reproduce the famous Hungarian point... As for the touch, there again it is amazing and as warm as real wood.

We have all seen those high-gloss underground car park floors but few of us know that they are actually plastic floors. More precisely, they are a mixture of epoxy resin, a polymer used in particular on the hulls of pleasure boats, a hardener and mineral fillers to increase their resistance to wear. Hence why such floors are used in car parks and shopping centres, all of which are high-traffic areas that must resist abrasion and be easy to clean. Resins are perfect for this. A new trend has taken them out of the underground and into more prestigious locations. Thus, interior decorators and other interior architects have recently begun recommending the floors for their most demanding clients, even the wealthiest, since the price for such a floor can reach several hundred euros per square metre. This is particularly true of polycarbonate resins, whose fine grain gives a very pure mirror effect.


PVC floors are not afraid of anything, take on any appearance and are easy to install. They are now the darlings of interior designers everywhere.


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