Ubitquitous... Sort of

Ubitquitous… Sort of

One of the reasons this blog exists is because composites are not yet commonly used in architecture. Fiber reinforced polymers (FRP) are still somewhat mysterious and exotic to many architects and specifiers.

This is surprising when you consider how many common fiberglass-based materials are available and in widespread use. For example, you could build an utterly conventional frame house almost entirely out of glass fiber composite. Foundation to roof. You could find the materials in about half an hour with Google. (A few sample links are included, but there are many more sources.)

Really? you say. Even a fiberglass foundation? Doesn’t a foundation have to be concrete, or stone?

Actually, no. You could have a fiberglass piling foundation. (for example: Pearson Pilings)  The pilings are driven into the ground, then main beams and floor framing are strung across the tops of the piles.

You could span across the tops of the piles with glass fiber pultruded I-beams, and fill in the floor substrate with fiberglass decking planks. There are pultrusion profiles for most of the framing of the house, as well.   (for example: Strongwell.com)

For interior finishes, vinyl fiberglass sheet flooring is offered by the big floor covering manufacturers. (for example: Armstrong) The fiberglass is in the backing layer, and is said to have distinct advantages over felt-backed vinyl floor, such as being more dimensionally stable and eliminating edge curling. Fiberglass wall panels are also available from many sources. (for example: Marlite), although these are being marketed for commercial applications, there’s no reason they couldn’t be installed in our FRP house.) Fiberglass ceiling tiles and panels are easy to find, too. (for example: Certainteed) Complete fiberglass bathtub and shower enclosures are very common, and offers a terrific option for fast renovations. (for example: Florestone)

Fiberglass doors?  Sure.  Jeld-Wen (for example) advertises “all the beauty of wood,… without the wood.”  Need a fire-rated fiberglass door?  Absolutely, 1-hour or 2-hour? (Curries, for example)

Ironically, one of the best-known uses of fiberglass in construction is not a composite: as insulation in walls and ceilings.  Fiberglass whether in flexible batts or rigid boards, is still probably the most widespread thermal insulator for building construction.  But it’s not a polymer composite.

Fiberglass roofing and siding panels are available, although they may have a bit of an industrial look. (for example: Enduro Composites) Fiberglass roof tiles, on the other hand, may be hard to distinguish from concrete tile or even clay tile at first glance. (for example Quarrix).

You want skylights, translucent, panels, a nice dome?  All are available.

So, you may ask, if glass fiber composite is already so widely used in construction, what does this blog exist?

Because, I would answer, the way it is used in these products does not begin to live up to the architectural potential of the material. The thing that most of the above-mentioned products have in common is that they use FRP to mimic some other material. The FRP versions are often lighter in weight, less expensive, less labor-intensive to install, and more durable than the original… in other words, they take good advantage of the physical properties of the material.

But by mimicking other materials, they take no advantage of the aesthetic possibilities of FRP. To understand the architectural possibilities… I refer you to the rest of the blog.