Editor’s choice: plastic

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Temporary writers' residence, Hadrians Wall, UK by Matthew Butcher, Kieran Wardle and Owain Williams. Composed of a steel frame clad in panels of translucent polycarbonate.

Temporary writers’ residence, Hadrians Wall, UK by Matthew Butcher, Kieran Wardle and Owain Williams. Composed of a steel frame clad in panels of translucent polycarbonate. Image: Brotherton/Lock

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Temporary writers' residence, UK. This mobile structure is a reference to the area's industrial architecture and features a dysfunctional chimney stack and a set of fin-like shutters.

Temporary writers’ residence, UK. This mobile structure is a reference to the area’s industrial architecture and features a dysfunctional chimney stack and a set of fin-like shutters. Image: Brotherton/Lock

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Eden Project, Cornwall, UK by Grimshaw Architects. The biomes' cladding is made of triple-layered pillows of ETFE foil. Structurally, each dome is a hex-tri-hex space frame reliant on two layers.

Eden Project, Cornwall, UK by Grimshaw Architects. The biomes’ cladding is made of triple-layered pillows of ETFE foil. Structurally, each dome is a hex-tri-hex space frame reliant on two layers.

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Eden Project, built in 2001. The lightweight ETFE panels naturally adapt to the local topography. The biomes were partially inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic designs.

Eden Project, built in 2001. The lightweight ETFE panels naturally adapt to the local topography. The biomes were partially inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic designs. Image: Hufton + Crow

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2015 Serpentine Gallery, London by SelgasCano. A minimal steel frame wrapped in multi-coloured ETFE sheets and webbing, the design focuses on the creation of "secret corridors".

2015 Serpentine Gallery, London by SelgasCano. A minimal steel frame wrapped in multi-coloured ETFE sheets and webbing, the design focuses on the creation of “secret corridors”. Image: John Offenbach

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Interior of the 2015 Serpentine Pavilion. The lightweight, dynamic ETFE used was printed in 19 colours to achieve the architects' kaleidoscopic, somewhat trippy design.

Interior of the 2015 Serpentine Pavilion. The lightweight, dynamic ETFE used was printed in 19 colours to achieve the architects’ kaleidoscopic, somewhat trippy design. Image: Jim Stephenson

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Kengo Kuma's Meme Meadows Experimental House, Japan. The translucent cabin has a thick layer of polyester insulation made using recycled plastic bottles that allows light to pass into the house.

Kengo Kuma’s Meme Meadows Experimental House, Japan. The translucent cabin has a thick layer of polyester insulation made using recycled plastic bottles that allows light to pass into the house. Image: courtesy Kengo Kuma

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Meme Meadows House, 2011. Constructed around a coated larch frame with polycarbonate cladding, the home was designed to test the limits of architecture in very cold climates.

Meme Meadows House, 2011. Constructed around a coated larch frame with polycarbonate cladding, the home was designed to test the limits of architecture in very cold climates. Image: courtesy Kengo Kuma

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Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center by HOK, California. The bold design features a structural system of diamond-shaped steel arches infilled with translucent ETFE pillows.

Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center by HOK, California. The bold design features a structural system of diamond-shaped steel arches infilled with translucent ETFE pillows. Image: John Linden

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The airy interior of the Anaheim Transport Centre, 2014. BIM was used to match ETFE connections with the geometry of the steel in a structure that is constantly expanding and contracting.

The airy interior of the Anaheim Transport Centre, 2014. BIM was used to match ETFE connections with the geometry of the steel in a structure that is constantly expanding and contracting. Image: John Linden

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New Zealand Maritime Museum, Auckland by Bossley Architects, 2011. In this extension, large planes of coloured polycarbonate cladding explode the traditional form of the sheds.

New Zealand Maritime Museum, Auckland by Bossley Architects, 2011. In this extension, large planes of coloured polycarbonate cladding explode the traditional form of the sheds. Image: Simon Devitt

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New Zealand Maritime Museum, Auckland. The double-skin multi-cellular polycarbonate exterior has excellent UV and thermal protection properties and transmits softly filtered light inside.

New Zealand Maritime Museum, Auckland. The double-skin multi-cellular polycarbonate exterior has excellent UV and thermal protection properties and transmits softly filtered light inside. Image: Simon Devitt

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Parasite Office, Moscow by za bor architects. Built in 2011 for the architects' own studio. The polygonal main façade is made from light and durable cellular polycarbonate.

Parasite Office, Moscow by za bor architects. Built in 2011 for the architects’ own studio. The polygonal main façade is made from light and durable cellular polycarbonate. Image: Peter Zaytsev

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Parasite Office, Russia. This project makes the most of the unused space between buildings in a city with a huge lack of creative office spaces.

Parasite Office, Russia. This project makes the most of the unused space between buildings in a city with a huge lack of creative office spaces. Image: Peter Zaytsev

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SSE Hydro Arena, Glasgow by Foster + Partners, 2014. The façades of the large arena are clad in translucent ETFE panels, onto which patterns and images can be projected at night.

SSE Hydro Arena, Glasgow by Foster + Partners, 2014. The façades of the large arena are clad in translucent ETFE panels, onto which patterns and images can be projected at night. Image: courtesy Foster + Partners

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SSE Hydro Arena, Glasgow. The ETFE translucent building enclosure is lit up each night and allows the viewer to discern what is happening inside from the outside.

SSE Hydro Arena, Glasgow. The ETFE translucent building enclosure is lit up each night and allows the viewer to discern what is happening inside from the outside. Image: courtesy Foster + Partners

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The Kate Edger Building walkway, Auckland University by Architectus. The innovative Kaynemaile polycarbonate mesh is striking while also offering protection from the elements.

The Kate Edger Building walkway, Auckland University by Architectus. The innovative Kaynemaile polycarbonate mesh is striking while also offering protection from the elements. Image: Simon Devitt

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Kate Edger Building walkway. The coloured polycarbonate mesh by Kaynemaile creates a dappled light that moves and shimmers in the breeze.

Kate Edger Building walkway. The coloured polycarbonate mesh by Kaynemaile creates a dappled light that moves and shimmers in the breeze. Image: Simon Devitt

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Seasonless House by Casos de Casas. Built in Spain in 2013. The home's double walls made from cellular polycarbonate means that the house feels open and closed at the same time.

Seasonless House by Casos de Casas. Built in Spain in 2013. The home’s double walls made from cellular polycarbonate means that the house feels open and closed at the same time. Image: José Hévia

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Seasonless House. The sophisticated use of interlocked metal tiles and plastic mean that this home's façade easily captures solar energy and acts as an external layer of insulation.

Seasonless House. The sophisticated use of interlocked metal tiles and plastic mean that this home’s façade easily captures solar energy and acts as an external layer of insulation. Image: José Hévia

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Future project: Stockholm Offices by Urban Design AB and SelgasCano. The greenery from the neighbouring park will continue into the building through its ETFE double-façade skin.

Future project: Stockholm Offices by Urban Design AB and SelgasCano. The greenery from the neighbouring park will continue into the building through its ETFE double-façade skin. Image: render Urban Design AB & SelgasCano

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Future project: Stockholm Offices. A revitalisation of a large urban space with a natural park in the centre, surrounded by housing, shopping and cultural activities.

Future project: Stockholm Offices. A revitalisation of a large urban space with a natural park in the centre, surrounded by housing, shopping and cultural activities. Image: render Urban Design AB & SelgasCano

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Could plastic be the architecture world’s most underrepresented and under appreciated material? Until recently, the design industry hasn’t seemed to view lightweight plastic polymers – in the form of ETFE and polycarbonate (PC) – as suitable for use as a primary material.

This may be about to change, however, with the more widespread understanding of the benefits of utilising plastic for a wide range of projects, alongside technological innovations that are continually expanding the potential of the material.

Eden Project, built in 2001. The lightweight ETFE panels naturally adapt to the local topography. The biomes were partially inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic designs. Image:  Hufton + Crow

Ethylene Tetra Fluoro Ethylene, otherwise known as ETFE, is a fluorine-based plastic that is both recyclable and long-lasting. Originally developed in the 1970s by DuPont as a heat-resistant film coating for the aeronautics industry, for the first ten years of its life the material was mainly used as an upgrade for the polythene sheet used in greenhouses.

Unlike plastics with an understandably bad environmental rap such as PVC, ETFE is widely accepted to be cost-effective and highly durable. Due its extremely light weight it also requires minimal energy for both transporting and installing.

ETFE first came onto the architecture scene in 2001 with its use in the Eden Project in the United Kingdom, chosen as the enveloping membrane due to its high level of solar control and ability to regulate environmental conditions – fundamentally important to the sensitive plant life inside the biomes.

In 2008, ETFE was selected for use in the Beijing Olympic Aquatics Centre, aptly nicknamed the Watercube, for its aesthetic and acoustic qualities. ETFE has since been been utilised for several large sports stadiums, as well as in transportation projects, offices, schools and installations.

Alongside ETFE, polycarbonate plastic is now being used more often as a building material. Benefits include its ability to maximise natural light, improve a building’s thermal efficiency and its high strength – PC panels are 200 times stronger than glass panels and are often used for residential projects, temporary structures and cultural buildings.

The Watercube: the Beijing National Aquatics Centre. The world’s largest structure made of ETFE film, with over 100,000 m² of ETFE pillows that are only 0.2 mm thick.

The material allows for a wide range of design possibilities. Polycarbonate can be cut into different shapes and designs, can come as textured or corrugated panels and is available in a wide range of different tints, from blue to bronze. Like ETFE, it is cost-efficient due to its light weight and is durable and easy to clean. 

Translucent polycarbonate enables diffused daylight to flood the interior without compromising the residents’ privacy. At night, when illuminated from the inside, the material creates a soft glow that gives buildings a blurred, almost ethereal quality.

The use of both polycarbonate plastic and ETFE is becoming more widely accepted in architecture. The 10 projects below and in the slideshow above illustrate how this versatile and malleable material can be successfully utilised in a wide range of typologies.

Temporary writers’ residence, UK. This mobile structure is a reference to the area’s industrial architecture and features a dysfunctional chimney stack and a set of fin-like shutters. Image:  Brotherton/Lock
Eden Project, Cornwall, UK by Grimshaw Architects. The biomes’ cladding is made of triple-layered pillows of ETFE foil. Structurally, each dome is a hex-tri-hex space frame reliant on two layers.
2015 Serpentine Gallery, London by SelgasCano. A minimal steel frame wrapped in multi-coloured ETFE sheets and webbing, the design focuses on the creation of “secret corridors”. Image:  John Offenbach
Kengo Kuma’s Meme Meadows Experimental House, Japan. The translucent cabin has a thick layer of polyester insulation made using recycled plastic bottles that allows light to pass into the house. Image:  courtesy Kengo Kuma
Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center by HOK, California. The bold design features a structural system of diamond-shaped steel arches infilled with translucent ETFE pillows. Image:  John Linden
New Zealand Maritime Museum, Auckland by Bossley Architects, 2011. In this extension, large planes of coloured polycarbonate cladding explode the traditional form of the sheds. Image:  Simon Devitt
Parasite Office, Moscow by za bor architects. Built in 2011 for the architects’ own studio. The polygonal main façade is made from light and durable cellular polycarbonate.  Image:  Peter Zaytsev
SSE Hydro Arena, Glasgow by Foster + Partners, 2014. The façades of the large arena are clad in translucent ETFE panels, onto which patterns and images can be projected at night. Image:  courtesy Foster + Partners
The Kate Edger Building walkway, Auckland University by Architectus. The innovative Kaynemaile polycarbonate mesh is striking while also offering protection from the elements. Image:  Simon Devitt
Seasonless House by Casos de Casas. Built in Spain in 2013. The home’s double walls made from cellular polycarbonate means that the house feels open and closed at the same time. Image:  José Hévia

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