No relationship is more complex than sustainability and the construction industry. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the built environment consists of man-made or modified structures that provide people with working, living, and recreational spaces. It includes distribution and transportation systems that deliver water, electricity, and finished goods. Constructing the built environment consumes significant amounts of natural and manufactured materials.
Construction sustainability encompasses the lifecycle of a project from the design phase through completion to ongoing operation and maintenance. Each step in the process brings challenges that add to the complexity of balancing cost and the environment. Using innovative building materials is one way to improve the sustainability of the built environment.
What Are Innovative Building Materials?
Innovation in building materials focuses on new ways to create more sustainable materials. Whether improving existing or creating new materials, the goal is to reduce dependence on fossil-fuel-based materials and other natural resources. It’s easy to see how new construction can incorporate new materials into the built environment, but legacy construction can contribute to sustainability, too. As legacy buildings require maintenance or renovation, the construction industry can look to new materials to lessen their environmental impact.
Why Use Innovative Building Materials?
Although many in the industry see sustainability as a critical factor for business growth, few have action plans to ensure their use. Companies are unsure how to best integrate sustainability goals, balance increased government regulations, and control costs.
- Government Regulations. The Paris Agreement outlines an ambitious goal for construction sustainability. Energy intensity is the amount of energy required to produce a given level of output. In a commercial building, it is calculated by dividing the total energy consumed by the building in one year by the total floor area. According to the Paris Agreement, energy intensity per square meter in buildings must be 30% or less than 2020 levels in eight years. These targets push the construction industry to design and build facilities using more circular solutions.
- Environmental Awareness. More people, especially groups under the age of 40, are looking at the environmental impact of the brands they use. They are also making investment decisions based on a company’s ESG position.
- Cost Control. Raw materials continue to rise, forcing the industry to look for cost-effective products and materials. Although sustainable materials often cost more, their expense should be weighed against the long-term savings in energy consumption and maintenance costs.
Construction executives need to become more proactive in their approach to sustainability. It is quickly becoming a business imperative that will change the paradigm of how a business thrives.
Emerging Innovative Materials
While still in the development and early implementation stages, many products are beginning to arise from the design table. A common thread for more than a few is the functionality of these products. They have an intended use, but with additional sustainable features making them even more attractive to design professionals. Once these products gain momentum and stand the test of time, they promise to bring about interesting benefits. The following list provides a sampling of what awaits designers in the future.
Light-generating cement absorbs light during the day and emits light at night. Although most applications focus on roads, architects used light-generating concrete to construct a mosque in Abu Dhabi. During the day, the cement absorbs light so at night Arabic letters display on the exterior wall, eliminating the need for exterior lighting.
Cement consists of silica, sand, industrial waste, alkali, and water. Light-generating cement undergoes a polycondensation process that creates a chemical reaction among the raw elements. During manufacturing, additives are introduced that alter the microstructure to take on optical properties. The innovative building material could be used in public restrooms, swimming pools, or parking areas.
Concrete cracks. As the water in concrete evaporates, it places stress on the cement. When the stress exceeds the concrete’s strength, cracks appear. If not repaired, the cracks increase in size, jeopardizing its integrity. Developing concrete that could repair cracks independent of human intervention not only reduces costs associated with road and building repair but also extends the life of the building or road.
To date, three types of self-healing concrete are being developed.
- Bacterial. The Bacillus bacteria thrive in alkaline conditions such as those found in concrete. The bacteria produce spores that can survive for up to four years without food or oxygen. Combining the bacteria with calcium lactate during manufacturing creates a mixture that feeds the bacillus so limestone can be created to fill cracks as they appear.
- Fungal. Spores from the Trichoderma reesei fungus are introduced during manufacturing. The spores become active when a crack appears and fill the areas with concrete.
- Chemical. A micro-encapsulated sodium silicate is used as the healing agent. When cracks form, these capsules release sodium silicate which reacts with the calcium hydroxide in the concrete to produce a gel that repairs the cracks.
Self-healing concrete is still in the early stages, but its applications are limitless. If concrete can repair cracks as they occur, construction life cycles could increase and the cost of repairs could be minimized.
Graphene is a nanomaterial measuring less than 100 nm. This specialized material has thermal, electrical, and optical properties. It has been used in composites and coatings. With advances in 3D printing, graphene can be compressed under high pressure and heat. The results are structures such as cylinders that have 5% the density of steel, making it a lightweight material. However, graphene has ten times the strength of steel, with a potential capacity to support skyscrapers.
3D graphene’s unique properties enable increased battery and supercapacitor performance. The battery’s density and surface area impact the speed it takes to charge and its runtime. Because of its high conductivity properties, 3D graphene can produce an equivalent charge in a limited surface area, making for more cost-effective solutions.
Solar panels have been deployed on residential rooftops and on large farms in sun-drenched locations for years. With power-generating glass, windows can become solar panels. While glass absorbs sunlight, power-generating glass deflects light and converts the wavelengths to energy. With this innovative building material, windows can reduce energy costs instead of contributing to them.
Air injected into molten aluminum creates an aluminum foam that can be formed into panels of various shapes and densities. The panels can come in interesting patterns and multiple layers of texture, transparency, and brilliance. Aluminum foam panels are sound-absorbing, making them perfect soundproofing materials. They are also fire-resistant and durable, with breathing pores that resemble sponges.
Color can be introduced during the process to create panels, ranging from subtle blues to bright magenta. Patterns can also be incorporated to add texture to the panels. Foam panels were used on the exterior of The Hut, located high in the Swiss Alps, because of their light weight and durability.
Sustainability of Innovative Building Materials
The innovative technologies that focus on improved sustainability continue to grow as more of the world becomes aware of the environmental impact of the built environment. However, incorporating the resulting materials depends on the construction industry and the architects and engineers who design the buildings and transportation systems of the future. Without the commitment from the entire construction supply, it will be impossible to achieve the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement. FreeAxez, creator of the Gridd® Adaptive Cabling Distribution System,® is committed to promoting sustainability within the built environment.