Unpacking uPVC: Is it a Sustainable Construction Material?
One of the most pressing concerns of the Australian construction industry right now is improving the sustainability of materials, in a cost-effective way.
A material that’s been sparking conversation is uPVC. With a longer life cycle than traditional materials thanks to its strength, many architects and builders are asking – is uPVC truly sustainable and how can it be used?
We recently broke down the benefits of uPVC on our podcast ThermoTalk. Let’s look at what it is, where it is used, plus how it improves the overall sustainability score of a property.
Firstly, what exactly is PVC?
Understanding uPVC first requires an understanding of ‘Plasticised’ PVC. Polyvinyl chloride is widely used in the construction industry as it has excellent weathering resistance, electrical insulation, and surface properties. It is self-extinguishing, flexible and often used in wire covering.
The chloride in polyvinyl chloride is 57% salt. However, it is also 43% ethylene, a by-product of oil. That means buildings constructed with PVC depend heavily on the oil industry.
As a fossil fuel, oil is comprised mainly of hydrocarbons. Its extraction, transportation and combustion contribute hugely to emissions of carbon dioxide, the most dangerous of the greenhouse gases. The changes caused to the earth’s atmospheric layer by greenhouse gases are a significant cause of Climate Change.
Thus the future of sustainable construction depends on finding affordable alternatives to petroleum, or innovative ways of recycling old products.
How does uPVC differ?
The clue is in the ‘U’! uPVC stands for Unplasticised Polyvinyl Chloride. It’s the rigid, hard and durable version of the more flexible PVC. Its strength makes it particularly useful for windows and doors.
‘Unplasticised’ means no chemical plasticisers are necessary to make it. uPVC consists of strong impact modifiers and fillers that make it a tough material often used for pipes and gutters.
How is uPVC made and why is it so strong?
As uPVC’s surface hardness is equal to aluminium, it’s an ideal material for construction.
Its strength is to do with the molecular structure of the plastic itself, plus how it mixes with other ingredients that make up the finished product.
uPVC has long spaghetti-like strands called polymers. These strands twist around each other during manufacture to strengthen the material. Other ingredients called impact modifiers are added, that bind the strands together well. This means that anything made from uPVC – such as window and door frames – has extra resistance to bumps and knocks.
The impact modifiers bond more to the polymer strands and strengthen the plastic. With consistency, uPVC is up to 6% stronger when it’s recycled the first time. The next four or five times it’s recycled, it will still get stronger but by a smaller amount each time.
How much stronger are recycled uPVC frames?
Often people don’t realise that ‘recycled’ doesn’t mean inferior to new. Recycled products can in fact be better and stronger.
Windows and doors can last up to 35 years before they’re replaced. So, if the material is recycled, they could be getting stronger and stronger for over 300 years.
Using Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to determine sustainability
Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a meaningful way to measure the footprint on the planet from human activity and is used by scientists to determine the sustainability of a material.
LCA quantifies the inputs and outputs of a product, process or activity. It also compares a material’s environmental impact and the availability of alternatives. This includes a ‘cradle-to-grave’ or ‘cradle-to-cradle’ assessment of product systems. No single material takes the trophy of being 100% sustainable from cradle to cradle.
How does LCA measure the sustainability of building materials?
Nowadays, LCA is a tool to compare building designs. At first, LCA focused on environmental effects. This included risk of acid rains, or harmful chemicals run-off from the land into our lakes. But nowadays it also assesses greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon footprint.
The materials used in window frames are so important when it comes to sustainability.
Considering the life cycle and embodied energy of windows is key.
Window performance relates to embodied energy over the product’s life cycle. Its thermal performance and structural performance are also significant.
Embodied energy is the total amount of energy consumed for the construction of a window or door. The total energy required to mine, harvest, manufacture, transport and install a window.
LCA first assesses the durability of the material, as it’s important that windows aren’t sent to landfill every ten years. Then, there is a calculation and comparison of U values and thermal performance. Carbon footprint is the last step in the analysis. All this determines the total sustainability of window materials.
So, is uPVC a sustainable material according to its LCA? On the balance sheet, it has a much better carbon footprint than aluminium and a great thermal performance than wood.
How can we improve the sustainability score of uPVC?
It is possible to continue improving the sustainability score of uPVC with closed-loop recycling. This means not using new energy to produce new windows and making recycling existing ones into new windows the focus. This will improve the construction industry’s overall sustainability.
In effect, reaching a critical mass of uPVC will have a highly positive impact on the environment. The more recycled uPVC there is in circulation, the less the construction industry needs to rely on oil as raw material. Simultaneously, less plastic will go into landfill or incineration.
Thermotek windows and doors put sustainability first
Thermotek windows and doors are engineered in Germany and manufactured locally in Australia, crafted for outstanding thermal performance and energy efficiency. The design focuses on heat insulation, statics, and sealing.
The uPVC used in Thermotek products has high thermal insulation properties, while the IGUs (insulated glass units) use standard Low-E glazing with argon gas.
Thermotek windows and doors make the house airtight against air, wind, and rain, with an innovative locking mechanism and high-quality sealing with no brushes. The window-door systems also require reduced maintenance due to their stable, concealed hardware.
Thermotek makes energy efficiency affordable
It is possible – and obviously highly desirable – to reach energy efficiency standards while staying within the project’s budget. Thermotek windows and door systems are an affordable solution when it comes to constructing sustainable property projects. The systems are produced from the global German design and engineered 3-chamber uPVC profiles.
It’s also versatile. The streamlined 60mm profile is fully insulated with a dual seal frame that caters for a wide range of opening configurations.
It is more cost-effective than thermally broken aluminium, allowing architects and builders to install sustainable window and door systems within budget.
Leading the market in sustainability
Thermotek has become a market leader when it comes to sustainable and low-waste manufacturing.
All our products are 100% recyclable and manufactured in an ecological and responsible way. They are lead-free and made from a calcium-organic chemical compound.
Our uPVC supplier Aluplast is involved with VINYL 2010, a worldwide initiative of the PVC industry that reduces resource consumption and sets ongoing targets to promote the use of recycled materials. This allows us to manufacture and recycle window systems in an eco-friendly, managed way.
Sustainability runs through the heart of Thermotek, as can be seen in our program the Thermotree of Life. We believe trees are integral to a better planet, as they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it back into oxygen and water through photosynthesis.
With every order, Thermotek Windows plant a tree on our clients’ behalf. All clients receive a certificate of their personalised Thermotree.
Talk to us today about how our innovative window and door systems can help improve your building’s overall sustainability score.
If you’re fascinated by sustainable construction, tune into the Thermotek podcast! ThermoTalk is bursting with ideas about smart, sustainable living and is available for download on Soundcloud.