Looking at Buildings

Materials & Construction


Plastics, or polymers, are amongst the most recent synthetic building materials. Plastics are hard-wearing, highly adaptable, can be moulded and cast in a variety of forms and can mimic, and perform the task of, every other building material. Plastics continue to be seen as a potential replacement for other natural building materials. The first semi-synthetic plastics were developed in the mid 19th century to replace the need for natural materials such as horn. In the 20th century, plastics, either synthetic polymers or hard resistant lacquers, were not suited for construction. Instead their use was limited to coatings, floor coverings, or moulded interior details such as door handles. But in the 1930s, new polymers: acrylic, polythene, PVC, polystyrene and nylon were all introduced and their potential as building materials explored, initially as cellulose paints or wall linings but also in the first "all-plastic" exhibition house which had prefabricated wall-panels made of resin. Military use in the Second World War expanded the application of plastics and building systems of plastic panels were used for the first time. Post-warGlossary Term, this technology was applied to the priority rebuilding schemes. After 1945, with the development of lightweight aluminium frames, plastics were used for claddingGlossary Term and interior walls which could be insulated as necessary.

Since the 1950s, pre-castGlossary Term plastic components have been used to provide the materials for the whole structure of a building. FRP (fibre-reinforcedGlossary Term plastic) and GRPGlossary Term(glass reinforcedGlossary Term plastic) were the most suitable forms for this purpose. Corrugated sheets were employed for roofing but soon GRPGlossary Term was developed for walling systems and for pre-casting and mouldingGlossary Term entire sections for rapid assembly as, for example, low-cost housing units.

Into the present day plastics continue to be most widely used for essential components such as gutters, drains, sheeting for windows or entire window units. Many houses have had their timber or steel window frames replaced with plastic.

Although the 1970s saw the first large-scale buildings to use plastic as the principal building material it is only in more recent years that different forms of plastics have been developed to perform various functions. At the Space Centre in Leicester, the Rocket Tower is enveloped in an inflatable plastic coat of "pillows" held within a grid.

More about the National Space Centre

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Eden Project

At the Eden Project in Cornwall a similar use is made of hexagonal inflated plastic sections which are inserted into the structure of the biomes. This makes it possible to replace them if worn out or damaged.

Read more about the roof of the Eden Project's biomes



External covering or skin applied to a structure, especially a framed building.


(glass-reinforced plastic): Synthetic resin reinforced with glass fibre; also called fibreglass.


Shaped ornamental strip of continuous section, e.g. the classical cavetto, cyma or ovolo.


Upright support in a structure.


Of concrete: cast as components before construction.


Of concrete: incorporating steel rods to take the tensile force.