Plastics Now addresses one primary question: Why do we build with plastics the way that we do?
For decades, plastics have been described over and over again as "the future," yet we still do not know precisely what to do with them. Billie Faircloth tracks the process by which plastics became defined as a class of building materials. Drawing on original data from industry press, original timelines, hundreds of historical and contemporary images, advertisements dating to the 1940s, and technical data, this unconventional book explores the emergence of plastics as a building material and presents new findings.
Compared to the thousands of years that masonry has been in existence, the lifetime of plastics is a mere one hundred years, and popular architectural press, peer-reviewed journals, and conference proceedings exist as ample sources for tracing their history.
The author's findings reveal that plastics continuously emerge, and regardless of decade, they are described using three consistent phrases throughout the literature:
“Plastics are the future”
“Plastics are not substitute materials”
“Plastics are difficult to decipher.”
The repetition of these phrases captures a prevailing inertia surrounding plastics as a building material due to an incident in the mid-1970s that halted experimentation with all-plastic houses. Legal action was taken by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission against the Society of the Plastics Industry, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), and 25 plastics manufacturers on grounds that faulty tests grossly misrepresented the burning characteristics of plastics, endangering human safety.
Since that time, architects have primarily used plastics as small, bit parts, and plastics companies remain aloof regarding further experimentation. It was only in 2008—54 years after the incorporation of plastics into a building code—that structural usage was finally a consideration.
Faircloth argues that architects' ignorance of plastics feeds this inertia. In the mid-1950s, the architecture industry asked manufacturers to use the single term “plastics” to encompass thousands of different materials, a nomenclature that has reinforced a collective misapprehension. However, in the present moment, the opportunity exists to reverse this decision. By correctly identifying the diversity of materials identified as “plastics” and demanding to know exactly what they contain, designers will be able to better protect the health and safety of the people who use and inhabit their buildings.
"We have fallen blindly in love with the word 'plastics.' We believe that in plastics we can find answers to all our problems...But let's be more candid—let's tell architects not to make the units too large, as yet...The plastics industry just hasn't the experience and equipment for the large units that the architect desires."
—Frederick J. McGarry, professor of polymer engineering at MIT, in 1956
Plastics Now calls on architects to participate in redefining plastics in the present moment. In a larger sense, it challenges the industry to recast the role of the architect with regard to the emergence of building materials—prompting a broader dialogue about how new building materials are defined and positing how the next generation of architects might reposition themselves as active participants in the process.
Plastics Now is a veritable candy store for the mind of the materials enthusiast. This thorough assemblage of essays, timelines, case studies, interviews, and conference proceedings takes the reader on a giddy ride through the vibrant history of one of our most common - and least understood - materials. Faircloth's rich and multilayered portrayal of polymers in architecture is both a masterful work of research scholarship and a useful reference for architects - and as such establishes a new model of materials book.
–Blaine Brownell, author of the Transmaterial series and Associate Professor, University of Minnesota, USA
If C.P. Snow had not already used "The Two Cultures" it would have made a fitting subtitle for Billie Faircloth's book Plastics Now. Providing a depth of information on how plastics are made and processed, Faircloth additionally weaves a story of how both technologists and architects, each in their own culture, learn what plastics are, what they can do and what 'plastic' means - practically. And the two cultures do not fully understand one another even after 75 years.
–William F. Carroll, Jr., PhD, Adjunct Professor of Chemistry, Indiana University, USA