SUSTAINABILITY: The Future of Building Materials

Imagine a construction jobsite without 3D printers, robots, and drones. Instead, there are simply building materials that are able to take shape on their own, helping build the jobsite of the future.

While this reality is certainly a ways off-and 3D printers, robots, and drones are becoming more common on a construction jobsite-the opportunity for new types of materials also exists and is becoming more of a reality today.

Consider new research on Photoresponsive Liquid Crystalline Epoxy Networks with Shape Memory Behavior and Dynamic Ester Bonds.

This research is identifying how materials that are photoresponsive have the ability to shift shape, undergo optical healing, and be reprocessed. Because of active response, the orientation of the liquid crystals can be adjusted to tailor the mechanical behavior.

This is simply one example of how materials are evolving-and will ultimately impact the construction jobsite of the future.

How contractors and builders use new materials via technological innovation and advances in material science will ultimately reinvent the construction industry.

Today, suppliers are reengineering the process for creating a greener footprint using more sustainable materials. What’s more, engineers, scientists, and designers are all working together in new, innovative ways to deliver materials that will help build projects in the field.

A Need Today
Perhaps one of the big reasons why sustainability is becoming such a big priority in the construction industry today is there is a greater need than ever before to build projects that are self-sustaining-and advances in building materials can help.

“Sustainable construction technologies are becoming so important today due to increasing scarcity of natural resources and growing awareness within the industry to take responsibility to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Habitat III, and COP 21 objectives,” says Sven Witthoeft, manager for the Future of Construction project at the World Economic Forum.

As the single largest global consumer of resources and raw materials, Witthoeft explains that the construction industry consumes about 50 percent of global steel production and, each year, 3 billion tonnes of raw materials are used to manufacture building products worldwide.

What’s more, roughly 40 percent of solid waste in the United States derives from construction and demolition, he says. Additionally, throughout the world, such waste involves a significant loss of valuable materials, metals, and organic materials. Thus, there is a great opportunity to create closed material loops in a circular economy.

As for energy use, buildings are responsible for 25-40 percent of the global total, thereby contributing hugely to the release of carbon dioxide, according to Witthoeft.

With all this in mind, there is a real need to identify how advanced building materials can help deliver sustainable buildings now. The materials used on projects today will ultimately determine the value the project owner receives in the long run.

As one example, Bre innovation parks in the United Kingdom, Brazil, China, and Canada are showcase neighborhoods that experimentally incorporate new cycle performance. Here an insulation material, originally developed by NASA, is used in window blinds to control heat during different seasons. This type of material can save up to 40 percent of energy costs during the operations phase, according to the report from World Economic Forum called Shaping Future of Construction-a Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology.

Being able to save that type of money throughout the lifecyle of a facility is a big value add for owners-and something that contractors can deliver on projects today. The bottomline is there is a real need today to leverage smart, sustainable building materials-both in terms of environmental responsibility and delivering costs savings to the owner.

Materials Evolve
The good news is materials are evolving at a rapid clip-and contractors can incorporate advanced materials into projects.

Matt Berk, CEO, Eco Supply Center, a provider of sustainable, high-performance building materials, says there aren’t many materials that are truly sustainable. Rather, he explains the most exacting definition is something that despite being exploited for human use in large volumes can easily sustain those rates without much net energy use or damage to the environment when extracted or processed.

To gain a competitive advantage in the market, he suggests contractors learn about recent code changes and proper technique and planning when it comes to air sealing.

Analyst firms are also predicting growth of advanced building materials. In a new report, Grand View Research predicts the global natural fiber composites market will reach $10.89 billion by 2024.

These composites are eco-friendly materials used to provide durability and strength to the physical structures used in automotive and the construction industry. The research shows that rising awareness regarding bio-based green building materials and supportive government regulations are likely to propel growth during the forecast period.

Additionally, technological advancements in manufacturing processes such as compression modeling, injection molding, and extrusion are likely to have a positive impact on growth throughout the next eight years, with North America dominating the market.

Ranging from incremental innovation such as advances on traditional materials to more radical innovations with entirely new functionality, Witthoeft of World Economic Forum adds that ABM (advanced building materials) are very important for the construction industry and a major source of innovation.

One advanced example is scientists have started shrinking sensors from millimeters or microns in size to the nanometer scale-making them small enough to mix directly into construction materials.
However, there are still challenges associated with using these type of advances on the construction jobsite today.

“The issue with ABM, as with many other innovations, is that they require a higher upfront investment and they still lack a clear track record compared to traditional building materials,” says Witthoeft. “Therefore, it is key to develop competencies on these new materials and create value proofs to convince and better advise clients.”

Addressing the value of eco-friendly building materials, Berk of EcoSupply Center says the short-term benefit is better IAQ (indoor air quality) for the components and better work performance and health outcomes, while the long-term benefits are lower energy use and less impact on the environment.

In the end, the building materials used on a project can have a long-term influence for the project owner. Smarter, more sustainable building materials are available today. Now, it is time for the construction industry to identify how to best leverage them

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