Innovations in Building Materials (and Alternatives to the Classics)
16 / 06 / 2021
Timber, concrete and steel have been the driving force of modern construction for at least a century with each individual material dating back even further. But with global natural resources being exhausted, the modern building must evolve to leverage alternative materials. Our Quantity surveyors in Sydney have assembled this article to help paint a clearer picture of the current building material landscape — where it is heading and what some current alternatives to timber, concrete and steel are that you can use in your projects.
Timber — framing the modern home
It is said that the first home built from timber dates back some 10,000 years ago. What is used in the construction industry today is timber — specially treated timber made specifically for construction. Timber is for a variety of applications but one of the predominant applications is the frames for small buildings such as hospitality venues or residential dwellings. Whilst it is a strong, tried and true material, it is prone to warping due to moisture and extreme conditions, as well as rot from vermin and similar insects.
Unfortunately, timber is a finite material and will eventually be exhausted. One alternative that is similar to timber is ply timber — which is a composite that still utilises timber, though not as much as pure timber. Plytimber is essentially thin slices of timber veneer glued together. Plytimber has a fantastic strength to weight ratio and is an incredibly stable material — not to mention more resistant to rot and moisture than natural timber. Plytimber is used in what is commonly referred to as lightweight framing.
Concrete — the foundations for high-rises
Concrete has been used in construction as early as 6500 B.C in one form or another. The fascinating thing about concrete is that there have been countless material combinations that have gone into forming it over the years. Of course, the modern concrete we know today is created by combining Portland cement (which was created in the 1820s) with water and sand/aggregates.
Though it may surprise you, one of the key ingredients used to create modern concrete — sand — is running out. Cortex Composites is an example of a concrete alternative that can be summed up as being “concrete in a roll” — in other words, it is a GCM (Geosynthetic Cementitious Composite Mat). Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite satisfy the demand for concrete in high-rises. This is where steel-concrete composites come into their own, calling for less concrete whilst leveraging steel’s impressive properties.
Specialised concrete solutions such as self-compacting concrete (which requires less labour and makes it easier to form shapes thanks to higher fluidity) and high-performance concrete (which is generally more durable and stronger) are great for high-rises; SCC is especially advantageous for when curves are required to be formed. However, these still utilise sand, and in some cases require more than standard concrete. In terms of sand replacements, researchers at Deakin have been able to prove that recycled glass can be used to successfully replace sand in polymer concrete, which is a step in the right direction and a preview of what may be possible in the future for standard concrete.
Steel — the height of construction
Steel began being used on a large scale in construction in the late-1800s and is a highly desirable material. It is 100% recyclable, durable and impervious to moisture and rodents (unlike timber); it is by all accounts a sustainable and reliable material — so what is there to innovate? Strength, durability, cost-efficiency — these are all issues that are constantly being tackled in the search for a better alternative — and, thanks to innovations like 3D printing, CNC and composite materials, a lot of these elements have either been satisfied or are showing promising results.
A 3D printing company in Amsterdam has printed a 12 m long stainless-steel bridge that goes beyond just being a lifeless structure. Whilst still a while away from being used in large-scale construction projects, it is a promising look at things to come. High-strength steel (also known as quenched and tempered steel) is another example of steel innovation that offers a cost-effective alternative to regular steel; it is much lighter in comparison to regular steel, featuring an impressive strength to weight ratio, and is ideal for structural applications where greater load-carrying capacities are required over substantial areas.
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