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A lot of noise about vinyl

Whenever someone comes up with an idea, someone else will set up an association...

September 3, 2009  By John Roper

It’s like déjà vu all over again.

It’s like déjà vu all over again.

I mean, nobody has had a go at vinyl for ages. It used to happen all of
the time. Greenpeace frequently made ill-informed statements about it
poisoning the environment. Then there was the whole reputation of the
“double-glazing” industry.

English Heritage hated it – still does as a matter of fact but when I
interviewed English Heritage, some years ago now, it turned out they
hated anything not made by hand by 14th-century craftsmen.


Now it is happening again. It really started with the Green Guide, a
publication put together by the Building Research Establishment (BRE).

The organization sounds like something official and indeed it used to
be a government department. Nowadays it is a private company funded by
the building industry. It sets the U.K. Building Regulations and last
year published the latest edition of the Green Guide which rates
materials A, B or C depending on their environmental impact including
life cycle, replacement frequency and recyclability. It gets more
complicated but you get the drift.

Anyway, when it came to windows nobody was happy. The aluminium guys
were up in arms because they felt that the recyclability of their
material had not been properly taken into account. The timber lobby
took ads in the newspapers attacking vinyl because it got a higher
rating than timber, but the vinyl guys were unhappy anyway. The BRE
just responded that all of the information had been provided by the
relevant trade associations and officials wouldn’t discuss the details
because the data belonged to the said associations.

So, the British Plastics Federation launched lobby group PVC Aware
(, and a private individual – Martin Randal, the
chairman of a successful window manufacturing company – started his own
campaign: Fighting back with facts (

And that is where we stood. Then a columnist in the Daily Telegraph – a
broadsheet newspaper with a somewhat conservative viewpoint – launched
yet another attack on vinyl windows, describing them as “an
abomination”, ”plastic pig flu.” Many of the recent commentaries seem
to have been promoted by comments made by Simon Thurley, the current
director of English Heritage, who was actually talking about the use of
vinyl windows in conservation areas.

More recently there was a fire in a block of flats in south London – a
tragedy, as several people were killed. The London Evening Standard
reported that plastic windows fuelled the fire and questioned how they
could be allowed in such a situation. The mind boggles at the sheer
ignorance, let alone the lack of research on the part of the reporter.
As we say in the trade: you never let the facts get in the way of a
good story.

We are absolutely mad about preserving things over here and the
obsession with windows in that respect is mind-boggling. On the one
hand the BRE keeps pushing down the U values we need to achieve in our
buildings and window makers are all onto that with energy saving
products. Then people with leaky, draughty old buildings are told that
they can’t upgrade them. Vinyl is a perfectly good, environmentally
friendly material. System extruders and window makers have put a great
deal of energy and money into the design and performance of the
product. It is good too as a general building material. And vinyl is
environmentally friendly with good recyclability.

I am not a heritage vandal but it seems to me that we are often totally
obsessive about preserving stuff. Okay, it attracts the tourists but
among our listed buildings there are some Gothic horrors. And it is not
just the buildings.

Farmers are still encouraged to take land out of agricultural
production, set-aside, it is called – they used be paid handsomely to
do this though the payments have stopped. On the other hand, you try
getting permission to build on it. In fact, we have a huge shortage of
housing. We actually have loads of land that is either preserved as
“green belt” so can’t be built on or is in private hands, ditto. It’s
fine, a lot of us are sitting on (or, more accurately, living in) a
very nice asset because of the policy. Though it does seem to drive
them crazy from time to time.

Our island is not as crowded as the establishment tells us. We have
just been sold on the idea that old is good and must be preserved. We
need lots of open space – though most people never go near any of it –
so that must be preserved too.

Frankly, if English Heritage had been around much earlier, Stonehenge would be the pattern for modern buildings.

John Roper is editor for The Installer, The Fabricator, The
Conservatory Installer and Glass Works magazine published in the U.K.

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