“Plastics Make is Possible,” A Tiny House Story

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Photo by Alexandria Stryker
The tiny house, made mostly out of plastics, is on display at the Carnegie Science Center until September 11.

By Alexandria Stryker

When it comes to sustainability and environmental consciousness,  the smallest effort can make a big difference – even if that effort is only 170 square feet large.

A highly energy-efficient tiny home mostly constructed from plastics has taken up residence at the Carnegie Science Center. The lightweight, traveling project, which is mobile thanks to four wheels and a trailer hitch, is a prototype home built as part of the American Chemistry Council’s “Plastics Make it Possible” campaign, which focuses on using plastics as sustainable materials. According to the project’s website, the initiative is designed to help “improve our lives, solve big problems and help us design a safer, more promising future” through plastics use.

The house was built in Boulder, Co., by Zach Giffin, a co-host on FYI’s “Tiny House Nation.” The show follows Giffin and his co-star John Weisbarth as they travel the country designing and constructing tiny homes for various clients as well as giving tours of completed houses. Also sponsoring the house are Covestro, Lanxess and Nova Chemicals, plastics suppliers and chemical manufacturers.

Justin Koscher, director of polyurethanes markets for the American Chemistry Council, says that the house’s primary goal is to “raise awareness about energy efficiency” in the general public. According to him, 40 percent of the energy consumed by homes and buildings is used for heating and cooling, and much of this energy is lost through leaks — therefore, a reduction in the need for temperature regulation in buildings could “make a large impact.”

Maintaining more stable temperatures requires “sealing the building envelope,” Koscher said, or, in this case, reducing energy leaks through the use of carefully designed plastic construction. The tiny house’s walls are extensively layered with plastic vinyl siding, plastic exterior foam sheathing insulation, plastic house wrap, wood sheathing, plastic spray foam insulation and drywall, all intended to maintain moderate temperatures inside the structure. The front door is made of polyurethane and fiberglass to prevent leaks, and special polyethylene pipes are used to retain heat in the home’s hot water lines. All of this provides a “blend of protection for your house,” Koscher said. The tiny house is also completely off the grid, powered by a small generator and solar shingles, and a skylight, made of polycarbonate, allows natural sunlight into the home to reduce energy usage on lighting. The home’s small footprint naturally reduces energy consumption as well.

As for durability, the home’s siding “looks like it was built yesterday” despite the house being towed from Boulder, Co., to Los Angeles and then to Pittsburgh, according to Koscher. The recycled plastic composite decking is decay and infestation-resistant unlike wood, and the vinyl plastic windows, in addition to having a high resistance to heat and cold, happen to be bulletproof.

However, the use of these sustainable, alternative materials doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing the look of a traditional home. According to Kimberly McDonald, head of sustainable development in North America at Covestro, the materials actually provide “design freedom” to customize a “rustic or more modern feel” depending on the homeowner’s preferences. The door and deck, for example, exhibit a realistic wood grain pattern and color despite its plastic construction. Such materials are also lower-maintenance than compared to their counterparts in traditional homes — the door and deck don’t require sealing, and the siding and trim don’t require painting. The energy sources, too, play an aesthetic role. Solar shingles, Koscher said, don’t “disrupt the look like AC or electric” units do in a traditional home.

This pint-sized house marks a change in the construction industry to approaching materials and addressing energy concerns in newer homes and buildings. According to Nova Chemicals’ Robert Stoffa, EPS North American sales leader, the primary barrier to commonplace use of these techniques is simply a “learning curve” on new strategies and a gradual widespread acceptance of such ideas. These building strategies aren’t new, he said, but they are gradually becoming more common. The building industry is “historic,” according to Stoffa, standing in contrast to “millennials [who] are more open, more innovative,” but this tiny house marks a compromise and a new way of thinking about the place we call home.

This mold-breaking plastic tiny house is open from 10 a.m. to 5 a.m. daily, weather permitting. It is free to visit but will live outside the Science Center’s Riverview Cafe only until Sept. 11, so catch a glimpse before this sustainable rolling home moves onto its next adventure.

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Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
Photo by Alexandria Stryker
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