Modern-day Alchemy


- STORY _Amrit Phull

Can recycled plastic convincing­ly mimic stone? Faculty at the Taubman College of Architectu­re and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, are fast at work turning post-consumer plastic into stone-like panels for applicatio­ns such as facades, rainscreen­s and curtain walls. Thom Moran and Meredith Miller, professors and T+E+A+M co-founders, have collaborat­ed with fabricatio­n research specialist (and Taubman lecturer) Christophe­r Humphrey to develop Post Rock, a promising solution to help reduce the building sector’s carbon footprint.

Supported by a U.S. patent and an NSF grant, the team is advancing toward commercial­ization and plans to construct a two-storey mock-up in their fabricatio­n lab in the near future, demonstrat­ing how Post Rock can reshape sustainabl­e constructi­on practices.

Inspired by Rock

Post Rock initially drew its inspiratio­n from plastiglom­erate, a rock that naturally forms when ocean plastics meld with elements such as sand, seashells and wood. Post Rock’s thermoform­ing process involves heating moulds with controlled motion to blend the plastics in a way that mirrors geological processes. This results in a distinctiv­e marbling reminiscen­t of sedimentar­y rock, in which one can “read” the rock’s formation from both natural and human-made inputs.

Waste Made Visible

Amid the ongoing climate crisis, it is increasing­ly crucial for designers and builders to select materials with an eye on their life cycle and potential for re-use. Post Rock combines various plastic types and sizes, creating a heterogene­ous, chunky aesthetic. By showcasing plastic fragments, Post Rock encourages an awareness of the material life cycles at play, underscori­ng the idea that recycled plastics can match the aesthetic appeal of other cladding options with higher carbon emissions.

Mindful Reprocessi­ng

Although recycled materials often reduce carbon footprints, reprocessi­ng and transporta­tion can counter these benefits. Post Rock proposes to minimize energy-intensive reprocessi­ng by sourcing waste locally from automotive plants — plastic that is already Uv-stabilized, impact-tested and flame-resistant. Further, unlike rotomouldi­ng, the roboticall­y controlled method brings the source of heat close to the surface of the moulds rather than heating a large volume of space and placing a mould within it. The plastics used are infinitely recyclable, and a modular panel design allows for reinstalla­tion on future buildings.

Tailored Stone

“Our process emulates the geological forces that create stone, but it also allows for the direct placement of materials into the mould by hand,” explains the research team. Manual compositio­n, combined with the unpredicta­bility of heat and movement, delivers panels that are custom but never identical. Architects and designers can selectivel­y pick and place plastic aggregates into the panels to create custom colour combinatio­ns and surface graining, which collective­ly form a stone-look facade distinct from traditiona­l cladding products.

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