Construction 2050: The Future Material Requirements of the Construction Sector

Construction 2050: The Future Material Requirements of the Construction Sector

Innovate UK KTN, Innovate UK and BRE arranged an online workshop and networking event on 24th March 2022 to discuss Future Materials in the context of Net Zero. A recording is available here. The session covered the ways in which the Foundation Industries – ceramics, glass, cement, metals, paper, chemicals – were rising to the challenge, and how the construction industry could take advantage of their innovations.

Andrew Dunster from BRE took people through the results of some of his research into what the construction industry needed from foundation industries. While the foundation industries focused on resource efficiency and carbon reduction, the construction industry took a shorter-term perspective, focussed on cheaper and faster construction.

The key innovations in the construction industry were:

  • Process: offsite production, “modern methods”
  • New materials: getting more performance from less, thereby reducing carbon emissions
  • Optimised design – combining different materials
  • New ways of working – digital, with more shared data
  • Circular economy – more refurbishment rather than demolition

Andrew described some examples:

  • a composite steel/concrete design that used 46% less steel
  • offsite robotic spraying concrete using a mould: 60% less embodied carbon
  • circular economy: a pop-up factory removed windows and re-installed them with new gaskets and adhesive seals
  • Multifunctionality: offsite bored piles, low-carbon cement, “smart” piles integrate energy and environmental control systems
  • Circular economy: modular bridge elements, dismantablable; database of upcoming projects
  • offsite construction using recycled steel, modular elements delivered as sub- assemblies.

He explained he expected changes in the processes of construction – new ways of working

  • Circular economy, less demolition, more refurbishment
  • Offsite manufacture and Design for Manufacture
  • Training and skills: more digital, more manufacturing; less site craft skills; up-skilling; more design skills; more choice of materials
  • Servitisation: leasing, integrators, partners, collaboration

Under the heading “Materials and performance”, Andrew suggested:

  • More careful use of materials, for lower cost and lower carbon emissions
  • Recycled materials from other industries
  • Increased longevity of buildings, with demolition becoming the exception
  • Muti-functionality to aid installation and dismantling/re-use

There are also issues around data and design

  • Verifiable lower embodied carbon
  • “Life cycle assessment on demand” to achieve sustainability goals; whole building LCA
  • Data/model/design type robustness with embedded sensors
  • More work at design stage

The discussion that followed raised issues relating to the dynamics of the industry:

  • Many low-carbon new materials are being developed (eg hempcrete, graphene in concrete) by innovative small firms; but getting the construction industry to take them up is proving to be difficult. There is an inherent conservatism (some due to safety considerations) to overcome, and a lack of confidence in the performance characteristics of new materials.
  • Offsite innovation in supply chain can put in clever bits – like auto and aero industries are based around world-class manufacturers.
  • The trend to offsite construction is likely to favour big players because of the scale of investment required; onsite craft skills will become less common and SMEs will come under pressure. This in turn could create market dominance and stifle innovation. There was some suggestion that innovator SMEs could still work in joint ventures.
  • There are lots of innovations elsewhere in the world, but forming international partnerships is proving difficult. There needs to be some general database for people to consult

The break-out sessions that followed covered many of the same issues around the introduction of new materials and the new for better performance data.  There is a need for greater collaboration along the value chain, and a better approach to use of data.

Finally a panel session discussed the opportunities in the Foundation Industries. They were very positive and saw change happening everywhere. Key factors were:

  • Material efficiency – use less materials; building cleverer, building less, re-using more
  • Smart windows, smart glass – embedded sensors, lighting, signage, Internet of Things, radio-communications
  • Net Zero ambitions
  • An interesting view that the industry should think in terms of “Products” rather than “projects”. That allows for process optimisation, a systems approach and holistic thinking, and moves away from project cycles to long-term planning.
  • Energy re-cycling – waste heat re-use – leads you to thinking of buildings as power stations.

The panel were excited by the fact that there was beginning to be an understanding that change had to be embraced if the industry was to hit Net Zero targets, and that opportunities for change had never been greater.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal 

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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