Diversifying the materials of an interior space can greatly improve its depth and visual interest. At the same time, adding partitions or other delineations of internal space can help organize flow, circulation, and visibility. Polycarbonate, a type of lightweight, durable thermoplastic, is an excellent medium for both functions.
In its raw form, polycarbonate is completely transparent, transmitting light with nearly the same efficacy as glass. However, it is also lighter and stronger than glass and tougher than other similar plastics such as acrylic, polystyrene, ABS, or nylon, making it a good choice for designers seeking durable, impact and fire resistant materials that still transmit light. Like glass, it is a natural UV filter and can be colored or tinted for translucency, yet it is also prized for its flexibility, allowing it to be shaped into any size or shape. Finally, it is easily recyclable because it liquefies rather than burning, making it at least more environmentally friendly than other thermoset plastics. For example, recycled polycarbonate can be chemically reacted with phenol in a recycling plant to produce monomers that can be turned back into plastic.
Polycarbonate is made like most plastics – with the distillation of hydrocarbon fuels into “fractions,” which are then combined with other catalysts to produce plastics either through polymerization or polycondensation. Once the plastic itself is created, it can be shaped through a variety of processes, most typically injection molding or extrusion. In injection molding, the polycarbonate is melted between 280 and 320 degrees Celsius before being injected into a mold, as the name suggests; in extrusion, the melted polymer is passed through a cavity, where it hardens into its final shape. This latter method is used for the manufacture of sheets, profiles, and longer pipes.
Besides specifications of color, shape, translucency, and texture, there exist several materially distinct types of polycarbonate. Most are differentiated by the amount of glass fiber contained or by variance in melt flow. However, manufacturers can also inject additives that adapt standard polycarbonate to specific needs. For example, benzotriazole stabilizers help protect polycarbonate from UV degradation. Blends of different types of plastics can also produce more tailored properties: polycarbonate/ABS blends, for example, combine polycarbonate’s impact and heat resistance with the ductility of ABS.
Below, we list 8 great examples of polycarbonate use indoors, each taking advantage of polycarbonate’s unique material properties in different ways.
Clad with white surfaces, soaring skylights, and interspersed with red accents, this 2018 Beijing office distributes light throughout, even in enclosed spaces. Facilitated in part through the use of semi-transparent polycarbonate panels, this material choice afforded the privacy needed for certain spaces while still ensuring that the brightness achieved by the abundant windows and white walls did not go to waste. The use of polycarbonate panels also provided visual depth to an otherwise two-toned environment, acting simultaneously as a transmitter of light, a partition, and an advantageous aesthetic attribute.
In a similar fashion, SJK Architects’ design of Bellad & Co. Head Office utilized curved polycarbonate skylights to bring light into the office. Taking advantage of the plastic’s flexibility to fit it into this unusual shape, the architects also used translucent polycarbonate to diffuse the light into the space, optimizing daylight comfortably and reducing the need for artificial light. Even during non-summer months, the office is able to use almost no electricity throughout the day.
Two mothers and sons live with 40 cats and 2 dogs in this fun and unusual basement space. To help the owners better separate their lives from their pets while still maintaining a close symbiotic relationship, HDD delineated fluid and transformable spaces using polycarbonate hollow boards that allowed the owners and pets to see each other while still remaining in their own spaces. A translucent sliding door in the ‘cat apartment’ could temporarily disable the separation between their two worlds and just as easily reinstitute it. Because the project is located in a basement, the polycarbonate material also importantly optimized and diffused the light, making sure the apartment was amply illuminated. The material’s facilitation of visibility, and simultaneous durability, were essential to the design of this pet-centered home.
Located in Sydney, Australia, this residential home uses a polycarbonate column in an equally innovative way. The architects hoped to take advantage of the location’s strong sunlight to bring light into the home, yet needed to mitigate the heat brought along with it. The translucent polycarbonate column at the entrance, as a UV filter, blocks the heat while filling up with light. At night, it can also be illuminated artificially, marking the entrance with a glowing column of diffused light.
Similarly, the entry vessel to the lobby of The Blatz contains a narrow rectangular volume made of backlit sandblasted polycarbonate glazing wrapped with wooden slats, emanating a soft, textured glow greeting visitors to the condo. Like in OP9 House, Johnsen Schmaling Architects experiment with polycarbonate and artificial light to create unique entrances and environments.
When designing this office showroom in Lisbon, SPSS Design chose to use wood and translucent polycarbonate to facilitate consistent natural lighting. This choice isolated the showroom from the exterior while simultaneously ensuring an abundance of diffused natural light, casting the showroom in a soft glow conducive to selling the showcased furniture.
In another unique use of the material, Domino Architects recognized that their clients – a small creative agency in Tokyo – would require flexibility despite the limited available space. Designing what they called a ‘war room’ for the office, the architects segmented the space into four areas that could facilitate short, intensive discussions for four active projects at once. This segmentation was achieved through a crossed wooden base, into which the clients could insert portable polycarbonate panels that would temporarily divide the space. The translucency of the panels allowed for the users to still be aware of each other’s presence while maintaining the necessary amount of privacy to discuss separate projects. The lightness and durability of the material was useful here because of how often the panels would be removed and replaced as needed.
Next, in one of the most dramatic uses of the material, Parallect Design elected to use a combination of colored translucent polycarbonate plates, transparent acrylic furniture, white latex paint for the walls, and white epoxy flooring to simulate an underwater café in Kunming Shi, China. Using reflective, transparent, and blue-colored materials recreates the color and light-play of the deep sea, yet still feels urban and contemporary as a café in the heart of the city.
Because of polycarbonate’s many benefits as a thermoplastic, flexible, impact resistant, and lightweight material, its possible applications are similarly varied. As has been demonstrated by the eight designs above, taking advantage of these properties can have great effect, whether it is to create temporary partitions, unique lighting effects, or to facilitate visibility or privacy. For more examples of other uses of polycarbonate, such as in installations and exterior facades, check out this previous article on 17 Projects Using Polycarbonate.