Opinion Piece by Martin Hurn
09 April 2021
Revealing the industry’s game changers
The products and technologies that will influence the future of construction
Can you imagine living everyday life without your smartphone, central heating, or lightbulbs? We didn’t know how much we needed these products until they were invented — now we can’t live without them. The construction industry is now looking for the next game changing innovations to help combat climate change and improve living standards. Here Martin Hurn, event director at built environment event Futurebuild, speaks to specifiers about some of the sustainable products and technologies that will influence the future of construction.
Around half of the non-renewable resources, we consume globally are used in construction. We know that the industry is one of the largest contributors to material use, waste generation and carbon emissions — we also know that this must change.
The Government plans to end the UK’s contribution to global warming and bring all greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2050. 85 per cent of the buildings that exist in 2050 will be built by 2030, so the industry only has a few years to transform the built environment. As a result, architects, specifiers, manufacturers, contractors, and others in the supply chain are developing or investing in products, processes, and technologies to deliver sustainable, high quality, and long-lasting infrastructure.
Heating of homes, businesses, and industry is responsible for a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Insulating homes efficiently can stop heat escaping, reducing emissions as well as energy bills for residents.
Home insulation is far from a new concept, but traditional, synthetic materials can contain toxic components that pose a risk to our health. Now, specifiers are looking to natural insulators to improve house insulation. Materials such as hemp and mycelium, thin root-like fibres from fungi, are popular alternatives. These durable and non-toxic materials are naturally resistant to water, mould and fire and have a high thermal mass to retain heat and regulate temperature.
“Hemp insulation’s eco credentials stem from the plant’s high rate of growth, versatility, biodegradability and non-toxicity”, explained Liv Andersson, sustainability engineer at Buro Happold. “Able to grow in diverse conditions, hemp needs minimal amounts of water and does not rely on artificial irrigation. Adding to its appeal, the plant is a natural weed deterrent due to its rate of growth and can be grown without the use of any chemical pesticides or herbicides.”
These materials are also a great way to reduce both our reliance on non-renewable materials and the need for excessive land to grow them. Once these materials come to the end of their useful life, they can be composted and builders can simply grow more.
“Mycelium can grow in a small space in any location,” explained Duncan Baker-Brown, co-founder of BBM Sustainable Design Limited. “This offers a benefit over sustainable materials like timber and straw, which require excessive land to grow. Instead of finding fields, forests or other large spaces to sustainably grow materials, construction teams can grow mycelium in a shipping container or in any building on or near the site.”
Homeowners are becoming more aware of their environmental impact and are taking action. More than one million homes in the UK have invested in renewable energy and installed solar panels. The introduction of the Government’s Green Homes Grant in summer 2020 may cause this number to rapidly increase in the near future.
Architects may also want to integrate solar energy into their designs but may be wary of how traditional panels interfere with the aesthetics of the building. Some architects overcome this barrier with glass mounted photovoltaic (PV) panels. Unlike conventional solar panels, the glass is layered with a thin PV film. This means that windows could generate the solar power needed to generate a percentage of the electricity of homes.
We may also see architects use these glass panels as part of a building’s design. Glass mono building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), a panel that has monocrystalline solar electric silicon wafers laminated between two sheets of glass with three millimetre gaps that transmit daylight, has been an influential technology for architects.
“BIPVs are game changing technologies because you can seamlessly integrate solar power generating products into the design of a building,” explained Bill Dunster OBE, architect and founder of ZEDfactory. “It’s also becoming more affordable. So, for the same price as a terracotta rainscreen, you can cover almost any building in a translucent energy harvesting skin. A design team can use this material to ensure the final building generates more renewable electricity every year than it consumes — generating enough carbon credits from fossil powered grid avoidance to repay their embodied CO2 debt over their lifetime.”
Businesses across different sectors are investing in digital technologies to transform their industries and achieve Industry 4.0 — the built environment industry is no different. The industry is more aware of the value of creating, gathering and analysing data to make more informed decisions about designs.
Building information modelling (BIM) framework has been influential in the building design process for many years. A digital representation of physical assets allows stakeholders, architects and contractors to collaborate on a central 3D model so that they can create the optimal design before construction begins. Architects can take this further and use technology that helps them make better decisions about materials and processes when improving energy efficiency and sustainability of a new or existing building.
“We use thermal energy modeling software on all of our projects to help design both cost-efficient and low carbon buildings,” continued Baker-Brown. “The software allows us to insert all the relevant data about an existing or future building, such as its location, current utility bills, the level of insulation and its orientation, as well as how exposed it is to the elements, in order to understand the energy performance of a building.
“Once we know the performance based on its exact location, we can start to run different scenarios to understand how to improve the building’s energy efficiency. Instead of suggesting ideas that generally improve energy efficiency, the model will come out with a bespoke solution that works best for that building and its users. For example, we could suggest that we install underfloor heating to reduce heating bills elsewhere and the model may suggest that it would be more cost and energy efficient to only install it in certain rooms. The model also has cost benefit analysis capabilities so that we can choose the best combination of design and materials for a low carbon building that also meets the budget.”
Future game changers
Speaking to specifiers has shown us that a lot of the innovative products we need to improve sustainability and reduce emissions already exist. But there are always opportunities to develop more products to improve the industry to develop high-quality, healthy homes and buildings.
“As humans, we spend nearly all our time indoors,” explains Chaline Church, interiors architect and founder of Freespace Design. “In the near future, I’d like to see a range of circular products be brought to market to create healthy interiors. For example, healthy bonding agents could replace bad glues and resins in furniture to reduce toxicity, which could boost our comfort and immune systems.”
Futurebuild is a platform for the industry to come together and for future innovators to showcase their game changing products in front of specifiers. According to the 2020 post event report, 75 per cent of Futurebuild’s audience attend to find new innovations and 64 per cent come to see new product launches. Futurebuild is also launching a digital offering to allow the industry to connect virtually. Game Changers Live connects innovative brands with forward thinking specifiers to cover trends such as digital twins, clean energy and circular materials.
The invention of the smartphone transformed how we communicate with each other, how we relate to technology and how we consume information. Similarly, sustainable materials and digital technologies can transform how we design, build and retrofit. By encouraging the widespread adoption of these technologies and using materials more responsibly, the industry can reduce its contribution to material use, waste and emissions, helping us achieve our net zero goals.
Find out more about game changing products that are influencing specifiers and to enquire about how to demonstrate yours at Futurebuild’s digital event, Game Changers LIVE visit www.futurebuild.co.uk/game-changers.