The Evolution of Vinyl Worker Safety



The Evolution of Vinyl Worker Safety

David Dunston - Apr 2018

Vinyl manufacturing is incredibly safe today, with PVC factories safer than the rest of the chemical industry and all of manufacturing. It’s a story that doesn’t get told enough. Until now.

Welcome to the latest edition of the Vinyl in Design podcast, hosted by Terry Murphy.

Today’s conversation is about PVC manufacturing and worker safety.

Our guest today is Sylvia Moore, a scientist with decades of experience in the manufacturing sector. She has also served as a vice president for technical research and development for several different companies. 

In this podcast, we discuss:

  • the evolution of a culture of safety
  • how technology reduces exposure and protects workers
  • how worker safety is measured and tracked

Plus learn just how much vinyl manufacturing has changed in 50 years and why working in a PVC plant is almost as safe as working in an office building.

Is It Time to Red List the Red Lists?



Is It Time to Red List the Red Lists?

Jan 2018

The idea of red lists is simple: to avoid exposure to chemicals that can be hazardous to your health. But behind that simplicity lies a whole host of complications, not least of which is that what’s hazardous in its pure form may be an ingredient that poses no risk in an end-product.

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Vinyl in Design podcast, hosted by Terry Murphy.

Today’s conversation is about health, hazards, and exposure.

Our guest is Jack Armstrong, who developed a continuing education course for the American Chemistry Council on “Understanding Hazard Exposure and Risk in the Built Environment.” Armstrong has served on the boards of the Sustainable Building Industries Council and the Structural Insulated Panel Association, as well as chaired the Building & Construction Materials Issues Team of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division.

In this podcast, we discuss:

  • the difference between hazard and risk
  • the problem with the precautionary principle
  • how to evaluate exposure

Plus, learn why the best way to evaluate building products is to look at the final product.


Frequently Asked Questions About Dioxins



Dioxin ambient emissions to air and water from the chlor-vinyl chain have been reduced by 87 percent during the period 2000–2014.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dioxins

Dec 2016

We occasionally receive questions about dioxins from architects and designers. It’s one of those words that people find very scary – and reasonably so. Based on laboratory animal studies, dioxins have the potential to cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, and damage to the immune system.

Almost every living creature has been exposed to dioxins or dioxin-like compounds. 

Today people are exposed to dioxins primarily by eating food, in particular animal products, contaminated by these chemicals. Dioxins are absorbed and stored in fat tissue and, therefore, accumulate in the food chain. More than 90 percent of human exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish.1 Very little exposure comes from manufacturing – and an even tinier amount is attributable to the vinyl industry.

While dioxins are a health concern, they’re largely not a building materials or interior products health concern because human exposure overwhelmingly comes from the food we eat.

What are dioxins?

Dioxins are a family of chemicals that are a byproduct of incomplete combustion when halogen-containing substances are present. Halogen containing substances include common table salt (sodium chloride) and common farmland nutrients (potassium chloride). With incomplete combustion of organic materials in the presence of halogen containing substances and compounds, chemical compounds – including dioxin – have the potential to be emitted. Even common materials such as wood can produce dioxins during incomplete combustion. Think, for example, of the leftover pieces of logs in your fireplace or the remnants in your backyard fire-pit. Both are examples where the fire wasn’t hot enough to incinerate everything. In a larger scenario, a forest fire likewise results in incomplete combustion. 

If you visualize dioxin as being in small airborne particulate matter like soot, it comes out of a fire and into the air. It lands on the ground and can end up in groundwater and in vegetative growth. Cows and chickens and other livestock eat from the ground and absorb dioxin. Dioxins do not break down easily so they accumulate in animals in fatty tissue– and then in our bodies as well once consumed in certain foods.

Where do dioxins emissions come from?

Manufacturing sources of dioxin include diverse industries, such as metals, wood, brick, concrete, chemicals and plastics, petroleum refining, and certain combustion-type power generation.

Strict regulatory controls on these major industrial sources of dioxin have reduced emissions into the air by 90 percent, compared to levels in 1987.2 According to the National Institute of Health, dioxins are produced through a variety of incineration processes, including improper municipal waste incineration and burning of trash in addition to being released into the air during natural processes, such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions. Exhaust from diesel and gasoline engines, and smoke and ash from wood-burning fireplaces, have also been shown to contain dioxins.3 Cigarette smoke also contains small amounts of dioxins.4 Even fireworks displays produce dioxins.5

Click on the image below to enlarge.

According to 2014 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data, 4.5 grams of toxic equivalent (TEQ) of dioxin released into the air and water came from the chlor-vinyl industry. Contrast that to the 190.2 grams TEQ released to air and water from all U.S. industrial sources during that same period– and 472.6 grams TEQ of dioxin estimated by the EPA for its 20066 Dioxin Assessment  released into the air from the combination of forest fires and backyard burning events.

The vinyl industry has significantly reduced its ambient environmental (air and water) dioxin emissions over time. In fact, based on the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory reports, dioxin ambient emissions to air and water from the chlor-vinyl chain have been reduced by 87 percent during the period 2000–2014. 

Why is there so much focus on dioxin?

Back in the 1970s, dioxin levels peaked, and prompted new safeguards and regulations to be put in place to reduce dioxin levels in the United States. At the same time, vinyl manufacturers along with those in other industries started to tackle the problem with new technologies and new environmental controls. Much progress has been made in reducing manmade exposures over the past 40 years. 

Indeed, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says that “the extent of the hazard has diminished in the U.S. as environmental controls significantly reduced the introduction of new industrial sources of dioxin.”7

  1. EPA website:, accessed Dec. 13, 2016
  2. Dioxins, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, June 2012,
  3. An Inventory of Sources and Environmental Releases of Dioxin-Like Compounds in the United States for the Years 1987, 1995, and 2000, US EPA, November, 2006
  5. Schmid P.,, Releases of chlorobenzenes, chlorophenols and dioxins during fireworks. Chemosphere. 2014 Nov;114:158-64. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2014.03.088. Epub 2014 May 14.
  6. Ibid. 3
  7. Ibid. 2

We Live in a Chlorine Economy



We Live in a Chlorine Economy

Sep 2016

We live in a chlorine economy. And, no, it’s not all about vinyl.

Yes, vinyl is composed of two simple building blocks – one of which is chlorine (the other is ethylene, from natural gas). But chlorine, which is based on simple salt, is used in a very wide range of products far beyond those made of vinyl.

Chlorine is a key building block in everything from automotive components to firefighters’ clothing. You can find chlorinated compounds in wetsuits (neoprene rubber from chloropropene). It’s used for everything from water treatment to erasers (thio-chloride curing agents used in some rubbers).

These sectors depend on chlorine chemistry.

Health care, transportation, building and construction, defense and law enforcement, and the food and water sectors all rely on chlorine derivatives and chlorinated chemicals. Chlorine is versatile, and it plays well with other chemicals to create some pretty cool stuff. 

In fact, did you know that chlorine chemistry plays a role in components for wind turbines and solar panels? 

It’s also part of the chemistry in aerospace components and high-precision lasers and environmentally friendly coolants.

All these products rely on chlorine chemistry and the multitude of chlorinated chemicals and compounds.

Here’s a partial list of items that rely on chlorine chemistry at some point in the manufacturing process:

  • computers 
  • smartphones
  • cosmetics
  • mirrors 
  • window screens
  • mattress covers
  • blankets
  • nonstick cookware
  • sportswear 
  • golf bags
  • artificial glass
  • guitar strings
  • bulletproof vests
  • tires
  • batteries

The Chlorine Tree, prepared by American Chemistry Council Chlorine Chemistry Division, shows the breath and scope of chlorine’s use and demonstrates just how critical the chemical is to manufacturing – and how it exists at the core of many products. Without it, what would you miss most?

The Role of Lifecycle Assessments in Sustainability



The Role of Lifecycle Assessments in Sustainability

Jun 2016

In our last post, we talked about the importance of a materiality assessment, a key step in understanding your brand’s pathway to sustainability. This post talks about the second major research you need to do.

You need to undertake a lifecycle assessment.

The aim of a lifecycle assessment (LCA) is to calculate the environmental footprint of a product, a company, or even an industry across its supply chain. This results in a process to map the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire life (e.g., vinyl pipes) from the raw materials to recycling and/or disposal.

What’s your impact on the planet and people?

Since the goal of sustainability is to produce more with less, it’s important to understand both the small and the cascading impacts of every step in your production and distribution system. The impacts that a typical LCA might measure include: 

  • air emissions (e.g. global warming potential, carbon footprint, acidification, photochemical smog)
  • land and water emissions/contamination
  • water use
  • waste (to water, to landfill)
  • energy use
  • land management
  • biodiversity
  • natural resources use

As much as possible, you will want to tie your LCA to your hotspot analysis so that your assessment is focused on the impact categories of importance to your stakeholders. For example, if your materiality assessment found that energy is not a hotspot, then it might not make sense to include energy in your LCA for now unless there is a specific business driver for highlighting certain related sustainability gains or efforts.

Use data broadly.

In undertaking your lifecycle assessment, it’s important not just to rely on your own internal data alone. For example, you might want to use public data (e.g., state and federal environmental protection agency data, labor and land management statistics). You’ll also want to bring in at least three sources of primary data from key participants in your value chain (including yourself). This will allow you to get a more complete picture of your product, brand, and/or industry footprint. 

It’s not just about the environment.

While the lifecycle assessment focuses on the environmental impacts, sustainability also encompasses the social and economic impacts of your actions. Some social impacts, such as shifting employment patterns and child labor, are typically handled via third-party verification and certification programs. Economic impacts, such as job creation, unemployment, and community economic growth, can be found via government and private sector tracking and reporting. It’s equally important, therefore, to conduct a lifecycle study assessing the total cost of ownership (TCO). By combining the LCA information with the TCO, you can obtain a more balanced ecological and economic overview of the current impacts to use to make future decisions.

Use comparative (rather than single) measurements.

The main purpose of calculating LCAs  is to use them in a decision-making process of continuous improvement. If progress can be shown for certain impact categories, communicating those results can help to alleviate stakeholder concerns and reduce the importance of the relevant hotspots. Lack of progress for impact categories that are hotspots, on the flip side, should trigger focused product research and innovation. 

In both cases, however, it is hard to drive a conclusion from one number only (e.g., “what does it mean to have 50 mg of CO2 per unit of product?”). If your LCA assessment is done comparatively (with other alternatives or with the same product development over time), decisions can be made regarding the future sustainability development of the product. It is generally recommended that companies and industries perform the comparison over time, rather than alternative products, for the sake of “doing more with less.”

Review, translate, and disseminate your results.

Once your lifecycle assessment is complete, it should be peer-reviewed. Ideally, it would be good to identify a panel of experts that know something about both your product and your methodology. The goal here is to get a “seal of approval,” if possible a certification by a third-party body.

A typical LCA report is filled with data and not terribly actionable to the average reader. To make sure stakeholders understand your impacts, it’s critical that your accomplishments be translated into a format that resonates with your reader. 

For example, you could say you reengineered your manufacturing processes to reduce land use by 20 percent. Or you could say, “We saved over 300 acres of land, the equivalent of 227 football fields.” Which do you think is more useful?

Publishing your results in a way that your stakeholders can understand and talk about becomes more important over time, as you redo your lifecycle assessment ever few years (hopefully using the same data sources and methodology so you are comparing apples to apples). Finally, remember that, like your hotspot assessment (which is perception-driven and qualitative), your LCA is measuring quantitatively what is an iterative process toward a more sustainable future. 

Check out the "Vinyl for a Sustainable Future" series.

Three Aspects of Sustainability: Examining SURE HOUSE



Three Aspects of Sustainability: Examining SURE HOUSE

Sep 2015

In Three Aspects of Sustainability: Useful Shorthand for Understanding a Complex Idea we defined sustainability as “taking care of human needs today without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.”

Sustainability is about the resilience of people and the communities in which they reside, and how they are able to respond to changes—whether gradual or sudden and expected or not—and bounce back and adapt when needed.

Sustainability is also about the choices we make within three categories (economic, environmental, and social) and the impact these choices have on our health, safety, and well-being.

SURE HOUSE’s construction choices make the home sustainable.

SURE HOUSE is built with many different materials, including the economically efficient vinyl. Vinyl is derived from two abundant natural resources, chlorine and ethylene, and the vinyl industry is committed to using these natural resources wisely and efficiently while at the same time protecting the health and safety of thousands of workers and the communities in which they live.

Vinyl is durable, and it has the ability to last for many years to many decades. The lifecycle cost of vinyl applications is thus far lower than for materials in competition. The SURE HOUSE’s use of vinyl applications reduces maintenance and replacement costs.

SURE HOUSE’s construction also lends itself to a more environmental friendly home. Energy needs are reduced by 90 percent through a combination of increasing insulation levels, rigorous air sealing of the envelope, the use of high-performance glazing, and energy-efficient heat ventilation, heating, and cooling.

In addition, SURE HOUSE is fully solar powered. Its rooftop array will provide enough power to supply all of the home’s energy needs over the course of a year. The SURE HOUSE also features custom building integrated photovoltaics (PV) on the storm-shutters which are capable of producing up to 70 percent of the home’s hot water, replacing cumbersome and expensive solar-thermal systems with an elegant electrical PV solution.

SURE HOUSE was built with people in mind.

SURE HOUSE was built with society in mind. It is a coastal home, but not one built to FEMA’s coastal construction standards. Because it is not built on stilts, it maintains the neighborhood’s atmosphere.

Because of the materials and technology put into the SURE HOUSE, the chances of the house being destroyed are minimal. Imagine an entire community of houses with similar construction. If that community went through a severe weather event, like Hurricane Sandy, it would not be destroyed.

Sustainability is never about one component. SURE HOUSE brings the economic, environmental, and social components together for the well-being of both people and the community in which they live—both today and into the future.

What Is Resilience…and Is It Sustainable?


What Is Resilience…and Is It Sustainable?

George Middleton - Jul 2015

In a recent article, we examined the meaning of the term sustainability. According to many experts, including the United Nations and the U.S. Federal Government, sustainability is taking care of human needs today without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.

In determining whether a material, product, system or technology is sustainable, emphasis needs to be placed on its environmental, economic and social impacts, both positive and negative. These are interdependent and overlapping criteria. When understood using the comprehensive life cycle assessment (LCA) criteria of inputs and outputs, the best and most sustainable outcomes result.

Today, our society and the design professionals who make our built environment possible have a whole new set of design criteria to consider. Sometimes referred to as ‘the next step in sustainability’ we must now also think in terms of resilience. What does this term actually mean, and can we understand it using some of the things we already know?

Resilience is used in connection with cities, systems, buildings, people, institutions and even products. Resilience has several meanings; classical definitions which come to mind and with which we need to be familiar in order to understand it. These include:

  • Ability of a system to bounce back from stress, to spring back into shape
  • Ability to adapt to adversity and to recover quickly from difficulty
  • A measure of toughness and elasticity
  • Withstanding stress, threats or catastrophe
  • Resistance to failure, adversity, trauma, or tragedy
  • Being strong, healthy and successful after disruption
  • Surviving, adapting and growing regardless of the type of shock or chronic stress
  • What are the stresses or events that can affect people and systems, causing them to need to be resilient in the first place? Potential stressors might include:
  • Climate change, excessive or extended heat or cold
  • Flooding due to excessive precipitation or sea level rise
  • Fresh water shortage due to drought, contamination, reduced runoff, loss or waste
  • Structure fires, forest, grass or range fires
  • Air and water pollution, emissions
  • High wind events, severe storms, tornados or hurricanes
  • Civil unrest, political disruption, terrorism or sabotage
  • Disease pathogens spread naturally or intentionally
  • Population shifts, immigration, migration
  • Market and economic shifts, change in employment
  • Supply chain interruption
  • Insect or animal migration, infestation
  • Chemical spills, transportation accidents
  • Economic disruption, failure or change in balance of trade
  • Currency fluctuation or sudden devaluation
  • Seismic or volcanic activity
  • Solar flares, geomagnetic storms, asteroid impact
  • Disruption of emergency blood, medicines or medical supplies
  • Disruption or failure of power generation or distribution systems
  • Disruption or failure of networks or communications systems
  • Disruption of food production or distribution systems

In order to begin to understand the real meaning of resilience, we could divide up these potential stressors (and the potential responses to them) into manageable categories. Such a strategy might categorize stressors as:

  • Short-term (sudden or shock) events
  • Long-term (chronic or prolonged) events
  • Expected events
  • Unexpected events

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) states that it is committed to creating safe, secure, and resilient communities. “We provide our members with advocacy, research, and training to engage in all phases of disaster mitigation, response, recovery, and adaptation.” The AIA has recently adopted a broad and useful position statement on resilience, demonstrating its importance not only to its members but also to society at large:

“Buildings and communities are subjected to destructive forces from fire, storms, earthquakes, flooding, and even intentional attack. The challenges facing the built environment are evolving with climate change, environmental degradation, and population growth. Architects have a responsibility to design a resilient environment that can more successfully adapt to natural conditions and that can more readily absorb and recover from adverse events. The AIA supports policies, programs, and practices that promote adaptable and resilient buildings and communities.”

(Approved: December 2014 through December 9, 2017)

This statement recognizes that change is occurring in the built environment in response to new issues. It also implies that licensed architects will come under increased scrutiny because of their professional responsibility to protect the public health, safety and welfare. They should recommend and specify materials and products carefully so as to leverage attributes that are valued and desirable in terms of resilience including flexibility, efficiency, economy, speed, strength and durability.

The products and systems used in buildings and infrastructure should be considered so that the best methods of design and construction are used and all potential impacts from all potential stressor events are considered. There is a tendency to simplify resilience down to “hurricanes and seawalls” which addresses only one stressor and one response. But this approach is limited in value because it misses the point that resilience must be understood more broadly, so that people and communities are ready to survive, adapt and grow regardless of the type of shock or chronic stress that may occur.

Here are a few examples of various systems with emphasis on specific impacts and the desirable response attributes which can enhance resilience. This type of analysis should apply to all materials but for the moment we will consider vinyl (PVC) and some of the products made from it.

PVC pipe is used in water distribution systems as well as in drain, waste and vent applications. It can be used for storm water management and recovery systems. It is highly durable with a predicted service life of well over 100 years. It is flexible, sanitary and highly resistant to breakage, reducing water waste. It is potentially more resistant to seismic activity than systems made from brittle materials such as concrete or iron. Repairs are typically rapid and economical, minimizing disruption and cost to local communities.

Building cladding systems are potentially at risk in high wind events. When properly installed, vinyl siding is resistant to all but the most extreme weather exposure. Damage is relatively easy and economical to repair enabling rapid recovery of neighborhoods. Local housing stock can be inherently more flexible and adaptable, offering a longer service life since additions and modifications are more practical and economical than with other systems such as masonry. This product requires little maintenance over its service life and is immune to rotting and insect damage, which may occur with organic materials as insects migrate due to changes in weather patterns.

Vinyl membrane roofing is noted for its solar reflectivity which can have a dramatic effect on reducing building air conditioning loads and resulting energy consumption, utility costs, and electrical generation demand. Higher reflectivity can also help to minimize heat island effect in urban areas and is thought to have a positive effect on local microclimates. Roof systems are tested and approved to meet the strict wind-uplift criteria in building codes. This material is inherently self-extinguishing, enhancing its resistance to combustion and overall fire performance. PVC roof membranes can be the enabling technology in vegetated roof assemblies which can help keep cities cooler, generate oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide.

PVC is a reliable and high performing wire and cable insulation used in line voltage and low voltage applications in buildings and infrastructure. It is durable, resistant to damage in service, has high electrical resistance, wide thermal range and is self-extinguishing. Used in server farms, local networks and other digital application, this material is a contributor to making the Internet possible. This in turn enables a modern global digital economy to function. It also has many applications in radio communications networks and renewable energy generation and power distribution.

Vinyl facilitates healthcare and disease control through products that help to control infection, impacting the health of millions of people and the resilience of communities around the world every day. Vinyl flooring and other interior environmental surfaces in medical care facilities can be easily cleaned and disinfected. It is a well-known fact that PVC blood bags make a safe blood storage system possible, a resilience factor which is of no little importance in the event of a major stressor event.

Finally, the economic and social factors of resilience should be considered when evaluating materials and the products made from them. Vinyl-related manufacturing activity has many effects on local communities, beginning with providing steady employment. The many thousands of jobs along the entire value chain from manufacturing, to transportation, sales and distribution, installation, maintenance, repair and remodeling, disposal and recycling are all integral to the production and use of vinyl building products. Add to that the community development and provision of services made possible by the significant financial contribution of industry to local and national taxing entities. There are also potentially large global export and balance of trade impacts. Communities that are healthy economically are likely to be more resilient, enabling them to adapt to adversity and to recover quickly from difficulty, should that ever be required.

Vinyl is the Key for Sustainable Access!


Vinyl is the Key for Sustainable Access!

Jane Rohde - Nov 2014

Arriving at Greenbuild in New Orleans late on October 21, 2014, as I’m checking into the Hilton Hotel, an irate woman approaches the main registration desk.  “This is the second time that I’ve come back down, because this key isn’t working for my guest room door!  Give me a ‘real plastic key’, instead of this wood thing!”

This begs the question: When is “sustainability” a gimmick versus truly a sustainable solution?

The key cards for the Greenbuild conference are made out of birch, harvested from a sustainably managed forest.  It further states, “It’s 100% PVC-free and manufactured with no hazardous chemicals or additives.”  However, in order for the card to work, it has to have a plastic coating and strip to work with the electronic card system.

So let’s look at the service life of this key:

  • One use advertisement for Greenbuild, but also promotes Sweets Sweepstake
  • Not directly recyclable back into another coated “wooden” key
  • Did not fulfill the basic use and application of being a good key solution
  • Provides no indicator for use or direction arrow for using with the card reader hardware on the entry door
  • No indication of how to dispose of the key

I asked for a standard vinyl plastic key card.  It states on the back of the card “made from 43% recycled material” with recyclable “3” symbol on the back.  It also requests to return to front desk when checking out.

In comparison, the service life of this key:

  • Multiple re-use with Hilton Hotel advertisement for reservations
  • Includes recycled content
  • Is recyclable after useful service life
  • Indicates how to dispose of the key
  • Includes brand of hotel and includes countries served
  • Includes a graphic arrow to assist the user how to insert into card reader hardware

In this example, the wooden key is clearly a ‘gimmick’ approach to sustainability.  This also flies in the face of collaboration and progress made between the USGBC and The Vinyl Institute; working toward transparency.  The dialogue needs to not only include the leadership, but clearly needs to reach some of the marketers promoting Greenbuild.  This key solution is not a sustainable approach.

This simple example supports the evaluation and specification of products from a durability, life cycle, and multiple attribute approach.  The appropriate product for the appropriate application; clearly wood isn’t the best solution for a flexible key card that has an electronic plastic strip imbedded.  An example of this situation in building products could include the use of an absorptive carpet within a healthcare setting, where bodily fluids are present, versus a resilient vinyl product that is heat welded.   In this situation, durability isn’t the only concern.  Maintenance, cleanability and infection control are all important factors for consideration.  The entire building or product service life is the key to sustainability.

Material Economies and Innovation: Resilient Planning by Graduate Architecture Students


Material Economies and Innovation: Resilient Planning by Graduate Architecture Students

George Middleton - Jan 2013

Recently we have discussed how architects, engineers, and interior designers are in the business of solving design problems for their clients, the owners of buildings and other elements of our nation’s infrastructure. The process of educating new architects is a complex one. It involves having them learn not only how to see the world in terms of traditional design problems, but also to learn how they will ultimately fit into a more complex world, full of new design issues. Soon they will be expected to have expert knowledge not only of materials, technologies and processes, but also the ability to lead diverse teams of other experts as they deliver not just buildings, but entire communities.

The Columbia Materials Conferences

In April 2011, The Vinyl Institute was the primary sponsor of “Permanent Change: Plastics in Architecture and Engineering at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). The fourth in a series of materials conferences on architecture and engineering, it explored the boundaries of plastics in the built environment. Over three days, keynote lectures, panel discussions, and exhibitions investigated engineering and architectural practices and explored how plastic materials and material concepts define design and construction. A book was published by Princeton Architectural Press.

Since the launch of the Architecture, Engineering and Materials conferences at Columbia in 2007, followed by the introduction of Materials-Based Design Studios (MDS), issues of infrastructure and housing, and the technical questions of energy, materials and urban design have been researched and analyzed. It has become clear that the United States faces a critical need for new housing models and new forms of innovation in housing design, materials and industrial practices that are central to methods used to build. Calls for higher density and greater efficiency have been linked to new forms of transportation, and even to the way communities are defined.

Material Economies, Plastic Resiliency

A new MDS sponsored by The Vinyl Institute called “Material Economies, Plastic Resiliency: Plastic in Building” is now underway at Columbia’s GSAPP. Led by Architect and Professor Michael Bell (the main organizer of the Permanent Change conference) this new work will tie in with Bell’s research and design for the 2012 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” and the related study of Tampa, Fla. and its neighboring city of Temple Terrace. The studio will also incorporate the outcomes of Bell’s 2012 MDS on the Houston, Texas area and, specifically, the Houston shipping channel.

The studio is designed to look at market-based housing and its material make-up, to study the commodity aspect of building materials, and to better understand the potential for innovation. To do this, Bell and his students will build on the four GSAPP publications on materials (glass, concrete, metals, and plastics) and in particular on Permanent Change. It will include the perspectives of more than 20 authors, scholars, scientists, architects, engineers and chemists who were involved in the conference. These perspectives form a basis for architectural study, and GSAPP sees the material economies studio as a way to test the conference output. It is also seen as a unique opportunity to present this original material to its graduate students.

The work of the MDS will focus on the United States at a time when environmental issues and changes in energy costs and have caused renewed interest in housing density and proximity to mass transportation. Design changes considered now could change the basic assumptions about housing in urban and suburban life that have been in place for more than sixty years.  The studio will focus in particular on new potential for high-density housing in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. Mobility and housing account for a high percentage of household income today, and the California site selected for this MDS is a zone where new design is urgently needed.

Partnership with The Vinyl Institute

The unique chemical engineering properties of plastics continue to present them as a family of ‘new’ materials that architects and engineers need to know more about.  The depth of product applications and innovation in building such as in wiring, plumbing, siding, roofing, cladding, waterproofing and many others, makes them indispensable in modern construction.

These materials help to define hygiene and life span and are at the center of practical definitions for sustainability. Plastics are engineered to perform; and to really know plastics, future practitioners need to understand some basic chemistry and to get past existing assumptions. The studio will attempt to break this divide and to place plastics at the center of design. It will acknowledge the resiliency of these materials, bringing them to the surface of design.

The MDS will welcome a chance to engage with chemist Dr. William F. Carroll, Vice President, Industry Issues with Oxy Vinyls LP, and to visit production facilities to see the industry up-close. The studio will travel to the site in California and focus on a case study exploring how a new model of housing for an American suburb could be more closely linked to the materials it is made of and to the industries nearby.

The Vinyl Institute hopes to help frame research around materials (piping, electrical supply, roofing, windows, etc.) but also around the uses of polymers as a wider substrate for building design and construction. The studio will be taught with the participation of engineers who will bring specific capabilities, and with two advanced modeling experts who will assist with structural and material modeling.

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