When you think about a skyscraper, large metal beams, concrete, and heavy bolts likely come to mind because that’s exactly the way skyscrapers have been built, going all the way back to the very first skyscraper that was constructed in the late 1880s. But, just as technology is changing the way we interact with each other, new technological advancements are forcing us to think differently about how skyscrapers can be built. Like, plastic skyscrapers.
Now, think about plastic and what it’s used for. It’s everywhere. You’re probably drinking a cold beverage out of a plastic bottle right now. The office chair you’re sitting in probably has plastic handles. Even the vehicle you drive contains more plastic than you think. Innovative uses for plastic have really changed how we live our day-to-day lives, but plastic is about to impact our lives more than we ever could have imagined. Soon, we’ll all be living and working in plastic skyscrapers.
How a plastic skyscraper works
We imagine plastic products to be disposable, which likely causes you to believe that plastic would make a terrible building product. The thing is, plastics have already been used in building materials. The Apple Campus 2, currently under construction in Cupertino, CA will utilize a freestanding carbon-fiber roof, while the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has the largest composite-based building facade in the United States. But, to use plastic materials as the bones of a skyscraper? As outrageous as it sounds, it could happen soon with the announcement of the Tall Plastic initiative, which will allow builders to use plastic to construct towers and apartments.
This new project hinges on the popularity of prefabrication and flatpack design. The new Tall Plastic system utilizes reinforced polyethylene beams, which are then slotted into prefabricated columns. Cladding is snapped onto columns with a simple peg system. This system is so flexible—minus the fact that it can’t create curves—that it’s even been recommended for a variety of other projects that include highway systems, airport infrastructure, and more.
There are also quite a few benefits associated with using plastic as opposed to traditional building materials. It is much lighter and affordable. So light and affordable, in fact, that it can reduce the weight of a structure by as much as 30 percent, providing a savings of up to 80 percent off the total cost of materials. Its lightweight construction could also prevent the structure from swaying in an earthquake, greatly reducing the cost of repair after a natural disaster, not to mention the lives it could save.
Holding it all together
If the Tall Plastic system has you thinking about K’nex the child’s toy system, you’re probably wondering how the whole thing is really supposed to stay together. Slots and grooves certainly aren’t sturdy enough to keep the building in one piece?
The answer is glue. Not concrete. Glue.
With such an innovation in building materials, glue could completely revolutionize how buildings are constructed. Fast-drying glue is quicker and more efficient than bolts, screws, and rivets.
Still a little stuck in development
Currently, the right glue hasn’t been developed, which means all these innovative new plastic structures are still being held together using traditional methods. That’s because current adhesives don’t do well in warm temperatures. They can even exacerbate a fire.
Adhesives also pose another challenge. Buildings are generally made with deconstruction in mind. This means once the building is ready for demolition, you should be able to deconstruct and use various parts of the building in new projects. Adhesives make this nearly impossible. Add to that the fact that certain areas of a building have different life expectancies and need to be replaced at different rates, and you can see what a challenge adhesives pose to the construction industry.
So, we’ve got to wait a little while longer for plastic skyscrapers
Chances are, the next time you venture into town, that new building project won’t be made out of plastic, but you should definitely expect to gaze in awe at a plastic skyscraper sometime in the future.