Will skyscrapers of the future be made of plastic and glued together?

house of the future
© Monsanto house of the future

On New Scientist, Geoff Manaugh writes about how Skyscrapers of the future will be held together with glue. Manaugh, one of the smartest design writers around (and our Best Green Tweeter back when we did Best of Green Awards) writes that “Glue is the future of architecture.”

We have the materials. These non-metallic composites – such as carbon fibre, fiberglass panels and other structural plastics – are lightweight, often much cheaper than traditional industrial materials and offer physically stronger systems for designers to work with.

He speaks with architect Greg Lynn, who is a fan of composite panels held together by glue.

“The use of composites and adhesives could revolutionise engineering in every building type, says Lynn.” He goes on to note that the buildings would be much lighter, made from fewer parts, be safer in earthquakes. They would go together faster and be much better at dealing with expansion and contraction.

Finally, Manaugh admits that there might be downsides, noting that “composites have been blamed for a hotel fire in Dubai” -even though that was a totally different kind of composite, an aluminum and polyurethane sandwich panel that was commonly used as cladding until it was banned in 2013. But there are other issues:

It is worth bearing in mind that most composites are actually petroleum products, says Lynn. They potentially offer a massive untapped market for the oil industry to exploit.

Now perhaps that is a good thing, an alternative use for all those fossil fuels that doesn’t involve burning. Manaugh compares it to forestry:
Similar to a heavily forested region promoting timber, the oil-producing nations of the world could see this natural resource used not as a fuel to be burned but as a raw material to be converted into futuristic building components.

But the similarity to forestry ends there. The manufacture of polymer resins, the stuff that holds all these composites together, is not exactly benign. Carbon fiber is actually made from rayon that is then carbonized. None of this is low embodied energy.

bolting chinaIf you bolt it together you can take it apart/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Then there is the idea of gluing it all together, which goes against every consideration of Design for Deconstruction, the ability to take a building apart at the end of its useful life and reuse the components. In fact, if you look at the strategies for design for deconstruction, they contradict almost every aspect of composite building:

Reversible fasteners should be used so that the material can be easily reused. Irreversible fasteners such as glues and chemicals should be avoided since the may damage the material as they are to be removed. Bolts, screw and mechanical fasteners should be considered. These connections simplify the disassembly process. Since different parts of the different assembly have different life expectancy, the design should consider the access to the various assemblies and sub-assemblies which need to be maintained, repaired or modified periodically.

Composites are wonderful materials; look at what Norman Foster did with them on the roof of the theater at Apple Campus 2, built by Dubai’s Premier Composite Technologies.

But they are marginally recyclable, made from nonrenewable resources, and you can’t take them apart if you have glued them together. Over at Citylab which picked up the story, an architect is quoted as saying “We are a technologically driven society and we come up with better stuff all the time.”

However I think a strong case can be made that this is a turn for the worse, not better.

Will skyscrapers of the future be made of plastic and glued together?
Been there, done that.

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