Sun.
Apr 11
2021

Image: Mjøstårnet

Innovative construction materials are poised for a golden era of growth as climate-conscious investment and urban planning bring scale to the sector.

Both heavy or light, the move to new materials is being driven by two key factors. First, carbon reduction’s rise to the top of agendas. And second, constant improvements in factors such as cost, speed, logistics and ease of use.

At its core, the emergence of an array of new building materials marks the next step in our attempts to do the earth less harm. These new materials want to break the stranglehold of the traditional concrete and cement industry, which emits 2.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases each year.

To put it in perspective — if the concrete and cement industry were a country, it would only be surpassed by the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, the United States and China. It may seem like a long shot, yet renewables have blazed a path forward, proving that it’s possible to provide resources competitively at emission rates fractional to those produced by fossil fuels.

Here are some of the new materials:

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is the most mainstream of these new building methods. It is already being used in buildings across Europe, including the 85.4-meter high Mjøstårnet tower in Norway. In contrast to carbon-producing concrete, wood acts as a binder and stores carbon dioxide, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

This material can also go completely circular, as Russian CLT producer Segezha has shown. Deep in its never-ending Russian forests, Segezha plants a new tree for every one it uses. Despite being made of wood, this material is exceptionally strong and fully capable of supporting large skyscrapers. The environmental benefits are immediately apparent, with CLT estimated to lower the carbon footprint by 150 tonnes per story.

Another game-changing construction method is 3D printing. This technology has been used in high-school art classes for years. Now, 3D printing is rapidly scaling up. The year 2019 saw the world’s largest 3D building come to life, thanks to a state-private partnership between the Municipality of Dubai and Apis Cor. Standing 9.5 meters tall and covering 640 sqm in total, the entire building was constructed using a single 3D printer.

By collaborating with the Santa Barbara Housing Trust Fund to create the first-ever 3D printed, affordable home, Apis Cor is also aiming to show off its tech to the mass market.

In addition to their anti-pollutant credentials, new construction materials could also help address a little-known but highly-important global commodity shortage. That is, a shortage of sand. It seems endless and it gets everywhere, but just like any other commodity, sand is in finite supply.

Unbeknownst to many, sand is an essential material for the construction industry. It is the primary ingredient in the construction of roads, bridges, trains and so much more. More widespread use of newer, innovative materials can help us to protect and preserve this vital natural resource.

On top of their ecological benefits, innovative materials bring tangible economic gains. For example, CLT panels can be assembled in one off-site location before being slotted together on-site by a small team of workers. This substantially reduces labour and transportation costs, along with installation time. In fact, recent estimates put total savings for CLT usage at between 15-30% when compared to traditional materials, with construction usually completed in a third of the time.

It will obviously be a challenge to change public preferences en masse, but it is possible. As inceasingly more buildings go up over the next decade and the array of ecological and economic benefits become more apparent, expect interest in non-traditional construction materials to grow substantially.

Luke Cornforth

By Luke Cornforth

Luke Cornforth is a freelance journalist covering business and politics in emerging markets.

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