Could PVC panels be the answer to post-Covid bathroom design?

Why PVC wall coverings may be the hygienic and functional answer to future bathroom design

Charlie Fleet, Reco Surfaces MD

Charlie Fleet, managing director at wall covering specialists, Reco Surfaces, reflects on the use of alternative materials in kitchens and bathrooms.

Charlie Fleet, Reco Surfaces MD

Creating kitchens and bathrooms that are fit for the future is no easy task. Not only are home occupiers demanding products that meet high standards of design, hygiene and functionality, but developers also need to build faster, higher and, ideally, cheaper than ever before in order to meet the demand for housing that the country is currently facing.

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This combination of factors means that specifiers and designers need to think outside of the box when it comes to the building materials they choose and the way that they operate. If the sector sticks with the status quo then it is never going to be able to create the large numbers of homes required to meet the government’s ambitious targets, without compromising on price or quality.

In kitchen and bathroom environments specifically, tiles and laminate wood panels have long been a common route. However, the growing trend for acrylic and PVC panels is rapidly becoming a huge disruptor to the space as, in many cases, the benefits of these for today’s construction sector outweigh those of their traditional predecessors.

New ideas and new materials

In many cases, PVC panels – which look identical to traditional tiles – are ideal for overcoming the recurring problems associated with tiles and traditional laminate wood panels. In many cases, this type of material is paving the way in modernising and future-proofing the world of wall finishes, as well as offering advantages and benefits in both material costs and fitting time.

Unlike traditional tiles, which can be expensive and slow to install, alternative materials like PVC panels can be used to speed up installation without sacrificing on style, hygiene or functionality. From an efficiency standpoint, fitting time is around 75% quicker than tiles, and they don’t require expensive tilers or specialist tools to install them.

The panels can fit to any wall surface and no wall preparation, profiles or joining strips are required, making them much more convenient than traditional options which often require lots of time-consuming preparation. From a design standpoint, PVC panels also join seamlessly.

For the end user, the fact that they don’t require grout is probably one of the most appealing factors. Grout is porous, meaning not only does it have lots of hiding spots for dirt and debris, often harbouring mould and making it difficult to clean, but also means tiles will eventually fail and lead to a leak.

Sustainability considerations

A building material’s impact on the environment is not only important for the sector’s future, but it’s also becoming an increasingly important part of the consumer decision-making process. Increasing the use of plastics in the built environment might appear to be incongruous with the need to build more sustainably, but by producing these solutions in a controlled environment it’s much easier to monitor the quantity of material used while also optimising its ability to be recycled. For example, we operate a closed loop process in our factory, meaning we produce zero product waste, as all offcuts go into making new panels.

UK manufactured PVC panels are available that are 20% more energy efficient than tiles – due to them being an insulator rather than a conductor – and 100% recyclable. Using products that are made in the UK also significantly reduces the environmental impact of transporting products from overseas manufacturers.

Battling COVID-19 and increasing efficiencies with offsite pod manufacturing

With many kitchens and bathrooms – particularly for large-scale or high-rise developments – now often being produced offsite in specialist factories, PVC panels are proving a popular choice, as they can be easily tailored to meet specific requirements. We’ve worked with a number of kitchen and bathroom pod manufacturers who are increasingly receptive to using PVC panels in pods as they can be quickly and simply altered to the design, size, form and aesthetic required. Plus, they aren’t as restricted by the typical constraints of ceramic tiles, where extensive customisation can be difficult or cost prohibitive. Most recently, we provided splashback panels to help Vision Modular complete 321 kitchens in its latest student accommodation development – panels were cut to exact sizing for each individual kitchen, which helped speed up installation in its factory.

The offsite manufacturing process is also helpful in combating the impact of COVID-19, so we expect to see more of it in coming months. The ability to quickly manufacture kitchens and bathrooms offsite and to precise measurements and designs has enabled the industry to bounce back faster and meet demand, while allowing contractors and fitters to significantly cut the amount of time they’re spending on-site. There are also significant health and safety benefits to limiting the number of people on a busy building project. This is particularly important currently, with modular building techniques being inherently better suited to social distancing thanks to the fact that factories can be partitioned and controlled far more easily than building sites can be.

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The built environment sector faces a tough year as it works to construct a backlog of homes. For those working specifically in the kitchens and bathrooms realm, considering alternative materials which speed up construction without sacrificing on hygiene, functionality or design will be a key factor in not only achieving the environments that homeowners want to live in, but those that the industry needs to evolve, too.