Science and Industry

on the World Today

THERE are signs that housing may be the next big field to be penetrated by the plastics industry, Ever since tourists gaped at the Vinolite house at the Chicago World’s Fair a quarter-century ago, the plastics makers have eyed this rich market. To the builder they offer lightweight but strong materials that can be turned out in any conceivable shape or size, decorative surfaces that are built-in, hard, and durable. Yet despite all that plastics offer, conservatism, cost, and technical problems have kept the plastic house largely on paper.

Now, however, with a Plasties Study Group, sponsored by the Building Research Institute, in Washington, and with an extensive research study, supported by Monsanto Chemical Company, under way at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, attention is being focused on the many actual and potential uses for plastics in homes. At the same time these projects are turning up some striking new approaches to house design that may someday catch the public fancy.

The studies make clear that there has been more use of plastics in new homes than many of us realize. Plastic surface coverings in particular — wall coverings, floor tiles, counter tops — have won acceptance for their durability and attractive colors. Plastic screening is widely used. Translucent glassfiber-reinforced plastic panels are used for nonsplintering interior partitions, skylights, luminous ceilings, porch roofs, even garage doors. But these, the plastics people hope, are only the beginning. A rundown of what is building, planned, or suggested shows an ambitious range of projects using plastics as integral parts of the house structure.

Walls, inside and out

Translucent or transparent walls and partitions. Plastic sheets have already been used for walls in Florida with striking results. Closely resembling the paper walls of Japanese houses, these plastic panels flood the house with light and provide a feeling of openness.

Translucent sandwich walls, plastic-faced columns. An alternate proposed by the M.I.T. study would make similar houses possible in climates too cool for the thin walls of plastic sheeting. Translucent plastic foam sandwiched between translucent sheets gives light and also provides insulation. These insulated panels would form walls —some fixed and some sliding. The roof would be carried by upright columns of reinforced concrete poured into large plastic pipes, which would provide a decorative and highly weather-resistant surface. The whole house would be built around a central core which would hold equipment for heating, plumbing, ventilation, refrigeration.

Expanded plastic walls. Foamed, or expanded, plastics, made by releasing a gas within a melted plastic, offer many possibilities. They are as hard or soft as the original plastic, but they are many times lighter and correspondingly cheaper per cubic foot, and are excellent insulators. The most useful of the expanded plastics is polystyrene, which is extremely light and a good insulator, has excellent water resistance, and does not rot or decay. This material, which saws and nails like wood, can be used as slabs or blocks for roofs or walls. Or it might be foamed in place in some sort of portable reaction vessel and fed like liquid concrete into a form to build a one-piece wall.

Load-bearing panels. Wood-faced panels with fillings of plastic foam or plastic-impregnated paper honeycomb have already been developed succcssfully for prefabricated houses. The next step will be the construction of panels faced with plastics — presumably hard-surfaced, weather-resistant exterior surfaces, decorative sheets for the interior. Joining the panels in some permanent weather-tight way presents a problem.

Plastic-masonry panels. Plastic insulation board — an expanded plastic — is placed in a form and concrete poured onto it, making a two-faced panel that provides a complete wall unit. A somewhat similar construction involves building a vertical wall of expanded plastic board and then spraying on liquid concrete for the outer facing.

Roofs, floors, and beams

Prefabricated roofs and floors. The prefabrication of large plastic house sections, such as roofs and floors, is another suggestion from M.I.T. Floor panels would be built in layers and contain the wearing surface, structural support, ducts for air conditioning, and a luminous ceiling for the room below, all in one unit. M.I.T. also suggests partitions made of flexible plastic membranes that could be easily moved or curved as desired, permitting complete flexibility in the internal arrangement.

Structural members. Beams and girders of plastic reinforced with glass fibers can be stronger for their weight than steel. Their light weight offers savings in labor costs, but these units have certain disadvantages. They bend too much under a load to meet building code requirements, and many of the plastics used lose strength at high temperatures. At the moment they are too expensive to compete with steel, in any case.

Experimental prefabs

Cantilevered-unit house. This entire structure, which M.I.T. plans to build experimentally, will be hung on a central core, 16 feet square. To this will be attached plastic-sandwich wing units, each prefabricated into a single U-shaped structure. These, cantilevered out 20 or 30 inches off the ground, provide roof, end wall, and floor of a wing of the house. The open sides of the unit will be filled in with non-load-bearing panels. M.I.T.’s Department of Architecture, which designed the house as part of the Monsanto project, has developed a variety of plans using these U-units, which can even be adapted to attached row housing.

Domes. Plastics lend themselves to dome construction, particularly the Geodesic dome invented by R. Buckminster Fuller. These have been proposed for a variety of structures. One would include trees and grass under a huge reinforced plastic dome, with free-standing rooms scattered around. These would be made of laminated plastic panels on light frames which could easily be rearranged at will. Climate inside the dome would be completely controlled.

Underground houses. One possible application of plastics would be in houses built wholly or partially below the surface. Such a house offers great advantages in insulation and in durability, and here the ability of plastic films to keep out water and vapor might be utilized to advantage — assuming that the householder could be educated to a troglodytic life.

Stabilized-earth houses. Rammedcarth houses are among the oldest and most durable forms of building. With plastic stabilizers added to the earth, they might be made on a mass scale for low-cost, highly insulated housing.

Two major obstacles block any rapid expansion of plastics in housing. One is cost: plastics range from 10 to 50 cents a pound, steel from 6 to 10 cents a pound. Light-transmitting panels cost ten times as much as window glass. The other obstacle is their newness. With many necessary performance figures still unknown, builders and building code administrators hesitate to accept materials that have not been tested by long use. Accelerated endurance tests to provide this information may be one important result of current research.

Housing has resisted the march of technology far more than most aspects of our lives. It is estimated that a similar lag in automobile manufacturing methods would have brought the price of an average car today up to $60,000. Perhaps plastics will be the means of bringing modern technology to bear on housing costs.

Space station

While Project Vanguard engineers struggle to design and build the first artificial satellite in time for the International Geophysical Year, some of their fellow scientists are already planning the next step: the inhabited earth satellite. One of the most interesting projects is the space equivalent of a frontier post, proposed by Darrel C. Romick of the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation in a paper presented to the American Rocket Society. Built at the “site,” of materials that would in effect transport themselves from the earth, this structure would serve as a base, or at least a transfer point, for expeditions out beyond.

Anyone planning a space trip in general terms of a summer in Europe had better dig deeper in his pocket : Mr. Romick figures a one-way ticket out at $40,000. A return will cost only $15,000; a round trip (much the most popular ticket, one would imagine) will cost $50,000. Mail will be 75 cents an ounce outward bound, and only 15 cents for the reply to earthbound relatives. Express will be $20 out and $5 in per pound; freight $16,000 and $4000 a ton. Fuel and building supplies will cost slightly more — $20,000 a ton — while fragile or bulky equipment will be $25,000 to $30,000 a ton.

These figures also give some idea of the cost of building Mr. Romick’s space station. At an intermediate stage the station requires 250 tons of material and 750 more tons of equipment. This adds up to a rough transportation cost of $20 million based on 1000 tons at $20,000 a ton, and is in addition to the original cost of equipment and the cost of assembling the material on the site.

The Romick satellite

The Romick satellite will be habitable from the first week that construction begins. The basic building units, at least at the beginning, are the hulls of the rocket ships that bring up men and materials from earth. The rocket propulsion units of these ferry craft swing away from the stern, so the hulls can be butted end to end, with connecting passages.

As each rocket ship delivers its load of men or supplies, it is added on to this pencil-like core, which will be several hundred feet long after a couple of weeks. Erection crews housed in this structure will build a network of girders out from it — such work is of course immensely simplified by the lack of gravity at the site— to form a larger tube-like structure containing stationary docks.

The eventual structure is a tube 1000 feet in diameter and 3000 feet long. At one end is a wheel which contains the living quarters. This wheel revolves slowly so that centrifugal force provides the equivalent of gravity—at least in part—for the residents. Mr. Romick estimates that it will take about three and a half years to build the colony, with its 3 billion cubic feet of space, on the basis of two rocket ferry trips a day.

Room with a view

Some of Mr. Romick’s details have a fascination for the earth-bound. The view from the living room of each suite in the wheel would be magnificent, with the entire universe, including the earth below, swinging majestically past the windows once or twice a minute.

Gyms are provided to tone up muscles slackened by not having to pull against full gravity. Located at varying distances from the center of the turning wheel, they offer varying amounts of gravity so that your workout can be either strenuous or mild, according to whether you do pushups in the quarter-gravity gym (where you weigh 45 pounds) or the halfgravity level (where you weigh twice as much).

Mr. Romick suggests that sunlight be used to produce vegetation by photosynthesis. The plants would absorb carbon dioxide from the internal atmosphere and release oxygen for human lungs — while at the same time serving as a vegetable food supply.

An elaborate alarm system reports at once any drop in internal pressure caused by leaks, and a series of airtight floors seals off any damaged section. Emergency pressure shelters are available for personnel trapped in a leaking section, with pressure suits posted at key points. Presumably the only leaks could result from someone’s carelessly leaving an outer door open, or from the station’s being hit by a meteor too big to be stopped by the meteor bumper. Mr. Romick estimates the frequency of the latter emergency as roughly equivalent to lightning striking any ordinary spot on the surface of the earth.

One thing Mr. Romick cautiously avoids is an estimate as to when his space station might be built. A recent estimate was made by Rear Admiral Lloyd V. Berkner, Ret., a physicist, who predicted that man will become a space traveler “within a generation or so.”Even more optimistically, predictions were made at the International Aeronautical Congress that pioneer space flights would be made by 1970.

In the meantime, for those who want to start planning now, a firm of consultants is available. According to the magazine Aero Digest, a company called General Astronautics has been established at Glen Cove, Long Island, and stands ready to provide information and advice.

Corn seed unlimited

The genetic future of corn appears secure, thanks to a highly unusual international bank. With the development of improved varieties and corn hybrids, diversified local varieties have been in danger of extinction. While not commercially desirable, these strains contain genetic components that may be valuable to future corn breeders.

Now, however, the Corn Germ Plasm Bank, set up in 1950 by the Committee on the Preservation of Indigenous Strains of Maize, under National Research Council auspices and with Rockefeller Foundation assistance, has the situation well in hand. Combined with a previously established Mexican preservation program, the Bank now includes cold storage centers in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and the United States.

It is not a museum project. More than 10,000 varieties of corn under desiccation in these centers are available to qualified scientists for use in agricultural and genetic research. When a strain is depleted, it is planted and new seed obtained.

Elastic cable

A new electric cable imported from Germany stretches to 2¼ times its original length without loss of electrical conductivity or physical strength. It is a braid of 21 strands of tinned copper. Cord, conductor, and outer insulation all stretch together. Suggestions for its use include telephone cord, microphone lead-ins, mobile radios, and heated suspenders for Arctic wear.

Drugs for the seasick

The older you get, the less likely you are to get seasick. But if you got off to a bad start in your youth, you will probably continue to be susceptible. If your cabin is at either end of the ship you are more likely to be seasick than if amidships, but what you do while on board makes little difference. These conclusions were reached by the armed services in a study that included 17,000 service men and 26 anti-motion-sickness drugs. The study also found that the most helpful drugs were Bonamine, Phenergan, and Marezine taken three times a day, with the effect of Bonamine lasting longest.