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Future Foundations: New Construction Materials All Builders Should Know

Future Foundations: New Construction Materials All Builders Should Know

How 6 Materials Will Shape the Future of Construction

Self-healing, shapeshifting and smart materials. Before you jump to conclusions, no we’re not talking about a scene from the Twilight Zone, or for you modern TV watchers, Black Mirror. We’re actually describing the future of new construction materials—and this future is closer than we think.

Many of main materials we build with today will be dramatically different from the ones we build with in the next coming decades. While it’s true most of the building materials we have been using for the last 100 years have stood the test of time and are still used today—for a good reason. Nonetheless, construction material usage has been subtly evolving. For instance, materials like glass are now lighter and stronger than they were 50 years ago. Even the toxicity of products has been improving, where materials like paint, glue, adhesive and carpet, have been replaced with healthier alternatives. But the true future of construction materials is about to get exponentially more advanced.

For builders, it’s important to stay on top of trends for new construction materials, especially to keep a competitive edge. Forward-thinking owners want their projects to be built with top of the line and modern materials. From energy efficiency, structural protection and sleek and contemporary facades and designs, only the most innovative materials and tools on the market can help owners achieve their goals. Additionally, as of now, the construction sector uses more than 400 million tons of material a year, according to the U.K. Green Building Council, many of which have an adverse impact on the environment. The emergence of sustainable materials has made a big impact on how buildings are constructed and opens opportunities for construction companies to reduce their own environmental footprint. As construction professionals, it’s our duty and in our best interest to adopt environmentally friendly building techniques—and materials is a great place to start.

If builders want to stay competitive and care about reducing the environmental impact of construction, they need to keep an eye on new construction materials trends. Below, we’ll describe the up and coming materials you should know and care about in construction.

Concrete is Getting a Makeover

In general, concrete is so widely used; it’s practically impossible to get around not using it in construction. In fact, concrete is the most widely used human-made material. Just think about the building you reside in or the office you work in, chances are, concrete is a major part of it. In today’s buildings and structures, the majority of concrete used is lime-based, like Portland cement, whereas on roads, asphalt concrete is most commonly used. Nevertheless, concrete has some serious downsides. For instance, the material can be severely impacted by elements like heat and seawater, compromising the safety of the structure. The good news is, the material is slowly getting a makeover with derivatives and replacements hitting the commercial market soon.

Roman Concrete

Concrete usage has been dated back more than 2000 years—and the Romans were one of the first major civilizations to use the material. If you’ve ever visited a historical site from the Ancient Roman times like the Pantheon or Colosseum, you were most likely surprised to see how much of its structure was still in tact. Although historical site maintenance and preservation has helped, much of this has to do with the incorporation of Roman concrete. The secret to this long-lasting concrete was that it used volcanic ash, creating an added level of durability, particularly from letting cracks from spreading.

Looking towards the future of new construction materials, the building industry is now looking back at the past and Roman concrete has been peaking the interest of builders. Where seawater weakens modern concrete, it actually strengthens and reinforces Roman concrete. According to TechXplore, “these approaches have considerably less embodied energy than the commonly used Portland cement, and exhibit durability beyond the lifespan of modern infrastructure.” Extending the life cycle of our buildings is increasingly important today. With new and unexpected weather patterns and other environmental factors threatening our infrastructure and buildings, stronger materials are critical to ensuring projects can withstand the test of time.

Although Roman concrete is currently not being used on jobsites, scientists are working hard in labs to figure out a way to make it a reality soon. Whether Roman Concrete makes it to the market or not, the material opens the door for builders to think about how new construction materials can work with time, rather than against it.

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Ferrock

In addition to some major structural flaws of modern concrete, the product also has a substantial environmental impact. On average, 4 billion tons of cement is produced annually, making the cement industry one of the primary producers of carbon dioxide—creating around 5% of the world’s man-made emissions of this gas. So, is there hope for an industry so reliant on concrete to make a change to reduce their environmental impact?

Ferrock cited as “less expensive, stronger, more flexible and carbon negative concrete” may be the solution for environmentally-conscious builders. Developed by a Ph.D. student, David Stone, a company called Ironkast is currently working to commercialize the product. One key benefit of the material is that it can be produced from approximately 95% recycled materials. Ferrock has even been claimed to work as a sponge, absorbing CO2 from the air, improving our planet rather than destroying it.  

Although not ready for market yet, keep an eye out for movement on this product soon, as it holds a big key in how construction companies can start improving our environment through new construction materials.

Bioconcrete

Besides from just reducing their footprint, builders have also been exploring how construction can get closer to becoming one with our environment. The answer might lie in one of the smallest living forms—bacteria. When you hear the word bacteria, your mind might immediately go to something that’s dirty or even destructive. However, scientists are starting to explore how new construction materials can use bacteria in their favor. Bioconcrete is cited to be self-healing and more durable because it incorporates this living element. Even better, the process to make bioconcrete is similar to traditional Portland style cement, but just includes the added ingredient of biomaterial.

Although mixing a living material into our structures may seem unnaturally advanced, it’s actually a very organic process. “It is combining nature with construction materials. Nature is supplying us a lot of functionality for free—in this case, limestone-producing bacteria,” says creator Henk Jonkers.

Bioconcrete is just one step for our building materials to become closer to nature. Although not completely ready for commercial construction projects at this time, it’s predicted that in another two years this material will take the industry by storm.

Sustainable Materials for the Win

As one of the ten largest industries in the US, construction has the opportunity to make a real environmental change in our world. Although construction benefits our populations and cities in so many ways, the tax on our environment is high. To put it in perspective, construction activities consume “half of all the resources” extracted from nature, and account for one-sixth of global freshwater consumption, one-quarter of wood consumption, and one-quarter of global waste.” With numbers like these, it’s obvious that the industry needs to commit to making a change if they want to improve our world. In general, the industry needs to adopt more sustainable building strategies, starting with new construction materials.

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Pollutant Absorbing Bricks

Pollution, aside from destroying our ozone and contributing to issues like global climate change, also has an impact on people. Shockingly, outdoor pollution causes more than 3 million deaths around the world each year. Primarily, pollution affects developing nations, also places where construction is beginning to flourish. In addition to using products that are produced more efficiently, new construction materials also can be used to improve the air we breathe.

Pollutant absorbing bricks are some of the latest innovations in the building industry that can enhance our atmosphere. Developed by a group of MIT students, these bricks are also cheaper than traditional bricks. So how do these pollution absorbing building materials work? Similar to a vacuum cleaner, these bricks pull and cycle pollutants from the air, making the air cleaner and more breathable than before.

Currently, these absorbing bricks are not widely available on the market, but they are being tested in India—a country suffering from heavy pollution—to study their long-term impact. However, the potential for the construction industry to shift from a major pollution contributor to a pollutant reducer, could be a game changer in the future of new construction materials.

Building-Integrated Bioreactors

In addition to bacteria, another living material might be highly beneficial in sustainable construction. Algae, specifically algae fuel, has been long-promised as an alternative to liquid fossil fuels. Although the reality of using algae for fuel still has a long way to go, the reality of powering our buildings with algae is here. Building-integrated bioreactors include algae incorporated into flat panels. These flat panels are used in the building facade, which is pumped with water, CO2 and nutrients. When it’s sunny outside, the algae undergoes photosynthesis, which converts into relatively low-cost energy. In turn, the process helps to create a building that is energy-independent and highly efficient.

If successfully implemented, building-integrated bioreactors will reduce energy consumption and provide additional thermal regulation for our buildings. The material hasn’t made it to large-scale commercial construction projects yet, but it has been used in some groundbreaking projects like a five-story building in Germany. One thing is for certain, future of using algae in new construction materials is green.

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Laminated Timber

Similar to concrete, timber is another major material used in construction, but its usage has been declining in the last several decades. Even 50 years ago, timber was used much more commonly on large construction projects, but in large, wood has primarily been replaced by steel and concrete due to its durability. However, new engineering feats have made timber stronger than ever, even capable of supporting a skyscraper.

Laminated timber, also known as glulam, is bonded to create a more water resistant and durable option than traditional wood. In addition to being a cost-effective material, the main benefit of using laminated timber in projects is that it reduces overall wood usage. According to one estimate, a 20-story wood building would reduce about 3,000 tons of carbon which is equivalent to a yearly impact of around 600 cars.

Glulam by no means is a new material, as it’s been around since the late 1800’s. Nonetheless, the use of laminated timber in modern construction is just starting to take off. From the roof of the Richmond Olympic Oval in Vancouver to the Keystone Wye bridge in South Dakota, laminated wood is becoming a popular and sustainable material. Surely, laminated timer will be used on more large projects and megaprojects in the coming years.

Stay on Trend with New Construction Materials

Your projects might not include the latest and greatest in new construction materials now but they might in 10 or 20 years. Who knows, by using an upcoming material like laminated timber or recycled concrete, you could save some serious time and money on your next project. Furthermore, staying on top of building materials trends could not only help you stay ahead of your competitors and make improvements to your bottom line, but it could also help you be a leader in environmental practices for the industry. Join the movement of conscious construction professionals and look towards the future of new materials today.

Grace Ellis

As a Content Marketing Manager at PlanGrid, Grace is the managing editor for the PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog. With over eight years of experience in marketing, communications and PR for technology companies, she is specialized in high-quality content creation across both traditional and digital media platforms.

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