Will the House of the Future Be Plastic?

The petrochemical industry certainly hopes so, but it's a bad idea.

Monsanto House of the Future
Monsanto House of the Future.

Getty Images

When the Monsanto House of the Future opened in 1957, it was an inspiration. Built almost entirely out of plastic, the architects from MIT designed a house that was maintenance-free and almost indestructible. It was supposed to be a model for affordable, mass-produced housing, but In his essay "Plastic Fantastic Living," Dave Weinstein notes plastic housing never caught on.

"Plastic has yet to become the material of choice for homes. In the late 1960s, when the house came down, folks in the industry blamed a lack of understanding among designers [the same problem the House of the Future was designed to eliminate], troublesome local building codes, the “attitude of labor unions,” and pending environmental regulations regarding disposal of chemical waste."

But now, plastic building materials are back with a bang. Post-Covid, the washability of plastics is a big plus. Quartzite and Caesarstone counters made of thermoset resins are all the rage. Everybody's favorite green company, Interface, is selling vinyl flooring. Urethane foam insulations are suddenly climate-friendly with their new blowing agents.

The problem, as we have noted before, is they are all made from fossil fuels, and the growth in the production of virgin plastics has turned into a lifeline for the fossil fuel industry. According to the Healthy Building Network (HBN):

"Plastics contribute to greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of their lifecycle. Greenhouse gases are released during fossil fuel extraction, transport, feedstock refining, and plastic manufacture, and carbon is released into the atmosphere through degradation and incineration at plastic products’ end of life. A 2019 Center for International Environmental Law report concluded that these lifecycle emissions may make it impossible to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees if growth continues as projected. Any comprehensive climate change plan must curb the production of plastics."
60s armstrong ad
Vinyl flooring ad from the 1960s. Armstrong Flooring

There is a reason plastics were so popular in the '60s. They were resilient, thanks to the phthalates that make vinyl flexible. They were colorful; that yellow chair is probably tinted with cadmium. Many of these additives could leach out and cause health problems, and many are now banned or restricted.

HBN drawing of plastics
Healthy Building Network

But our homes are still full of them; HBN notes they are in pipes, insulation, sealants, composite wood materials, even paints. Many designers who are careful to design healthy buildings and interiors still use them in products like countertops; these solid surface materials are all GreenGuard certified and don't outgas, but are still made from fossil fuels. We have outsourced the pollution from our home to where they make the propylene through steam cracking of shale gas, which is oxidized into acrylic acid, and then turned into the acrylic resin.

u-PVC window frame for passive house. Lloyd Alter

Plastics are still in our buildings—they have just moved and cleaned up their act a bit. Unplasticized polyvinyl chloride (UPVC) windows are all the rage in the Passive House world and considered safe to use because there are no phthalates or other plasticizers added to soften the PVC; being hard and rigid is a feature in a window frame. Windows for Passive House designs are expensive, and UPVC has made a huge difference in affordability, as plastics often do.

But one of the main reasons it is affordable is it is made from ethylene made from fossil fuels and we are awash in the stuff thanks to fracking, and chlorine electrolyzed from saltwater.

Bill Walsh speaking at NAHPN conference
Bill Walsh speaking at NAHPN conference. Lloyd Alter

And as HBN founder Bill Walsh noted in another article, producing PVC is seriously polluting.

"Our study found, among other things, that the Gulf Coast region is home to nine facilities that use outmoded asbestos technology, and home also to some of the industry’s worst polluters: Five of the six largest emitters of dioxins––a long-lasting, extremely toxic family of hazardous waste that causes cancer and many other health impacts, are located there."

Walsh concludes: "That is why PVC should not be part of any building, or any building rating system, that claims to advance environmental and health objectives. It’s not green. It’s not healthy. It’s not sustainable. It’s just cheap––for us."

HBN has some recommendations to minimize the impact of plastics, including "avoid halogenated plastics or plastics reliant on halogenated chemistry during production – such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC, also known as vinyl) and epoxy-based materials." They also suggest avoiding virgin plastics and using recycled ones, but that can be problematic; recycled plastics can be full of chemicals and plasticizers that you don't find virgin materials.

They recommend the use of materials with health product declarations, but these are for the finished products, not the refineries where the hydrocarbons are separated from the gas and oil supplies. HBN concludes:

"With all of these plastic products, our buildings may seem increasingly like Barbie’s DreamHouse and a climate nightmare." Indeed they are. "In the case of plastics, choosing better materials can lead to less reliance on fossil fuels, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease in toxic chemical use, and a win for our changing climate."

It's hard. UPVC windows have made Passive House buildings more affordable and accessible, and luxury vinyl tile (LVT) is durable and easy to clean. But there is always a price to be paid, if not in dollars.

View Article Sources
  1. Vethaak, A. Dick, and Heather A. Leslie. "Plastic Debris is a Human Health Issue." Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 50, no. 13, 2016, pp. 6825-6826., doi:10.1021/acs.est.6b02569