Claire Ackerman

Opinion Piece by Claire Ackerman, The Concrete Centre

15 April 2021

Futurebuild’s Game Changers campaign has recently inspired me to think back through the key innovations in concrete design that have truly changed the face of the built environment. Concrete is undoubtedly a game changing material.  Throughout history it has helped to support our economy, our society and way of life. 

Picking out just a few concrete game changing milestones has been no easy task – first and foremost we need to acknowledge that the material has existed in some form for thousands of years. So I’ve decided to fast forward through the early civilisations and even skip past the Romans’ use of hydraulic, cement-based concrete to start just 150 years ago and the invention of reinforced concrete.

A gardener and the growth of reinforced concrete

This initial game changer can be attributed to a French gardener, Joseph Monier, who decided to add iron mesh to concrete – and so reinforced concrete was born. Patented in 1867, its importance was immense: combining the two materials for the first time offered both tensile and compressive strength. It was this performance, together with the local availability of the materials needed to make it, that has resulted in concrete becoming the most used human-made material on earth.

In the early twentieth century, particularly from the end of the first world war and through the second, concrete became a critical material for defensive structures. Concrete not only provided shelter, but also played an important strategic role through the construction of infrastructure including floating harbours, motorways, bridges and tunnels.

The Bauhaus generation

At the same time, leading architects and engineers – such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Frank Lloyd Wright and Pier Luigi Nervi – were turning to concrete to enhance civilian life, designing mass housing, offices and factories. It was also during this era that the periodical Concrete Quarterly was first published showcasing the very best of concrete innovation and design – another definite game changer for the material. The Concrete Centre is now the proud custodian of the magazine and its full archive dating back to 1947 is available online.

Since that time the fundamental attributes of concrete have remained largely unchanged, although the material has constantly been enhanced, evolved and improved.  Society has continued to take advantage of its key characteristics including its durability, resistance to fire and flood, energy efficiency, flexibility of form and function.

Jumping forward to 2008, my next game changer is hugely important publication of The Strategy for Sustainable Construction – a joint effort by industry and government recognising need to deliver radical change in the sustainability of the construction industry. 

Our sector proactively responded with its own initiative, the Concrete Industry Sustainable Construction Strategy. This strategy saw the adoption of BRE BES 6001 as its responsible sourcing scheme and, as of 2019, 95% of UK concrete production is now certified to this standard.  A revised strategy with targets to 2030 is in development and will reflect the UK concrete and cement industry’s ‘Roadmap to Beyond Net Zero’, which is clear about this commitment and building on the significant decarbonisation that has already been achieved in the UK.

London 2012 – a sustainable construction legacy

Bringing many of these issues together was the London 2012 Olympics and its associated learning legacy, undeniably a game changing milestone for UK sustainable construction. The Games’ infrastructure relied on cutting-edge concrete construction – from the stadium to the velodrome.

In this era of design, thermal mass, post-tensioned concrete, self-compacting concretes, and visual concrete were becoming more widely used for their sustainability benefits. The Stirling Prize back catalogue is similarly a testament to some of the iconic projects that have used the aesthetic qualities of visual concrete, as well as benefitting from whole-life material and energy efficiency credentials – AHMM’s Burntwood School, Haworth Tompkins’ Everyman Theatre, Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Laboratory, Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy and MAXXI Centre.

Concrete for a net zero world

So to today, and concrete continues to adapt and evolve to meet the challenges of modern society. With climate change and a biodiversity crisis climbing towards the top of the global agenda, there has never been a more urgent need to plan for a more resilient and net zero built environment.

The UK concrete industry has a clear commitment to delivering net zero and has already taken considerable steps to reduce carbon emissions. Due to investment in fuel switching, changes in product formulation, and energy efficiency, direct and indirect emissions are 53% lower than 1990. This has helped the sector to decarbonise faster than the UK economy as a whole.

Our role at The Concrete Centre is to help architects, designers and specifiers get the very best from concrete.  This includes making sure we are utilising the low carbon concretes already available now, as well as exploring the changing role of thermal mass to reduce peak electricity demand and providing a wealth of resources to enable and educate on best practice for concrete design and construction.

For me, it is this educational aspect that is often under-estimated and can help to drive more informed, evidence-based and intelligent conversations about the materials we use across the built environment.  As a construction industry we need to ensure that we base critical decisions on comparable and robust data. Whether we are looking to measure carbon, natural capital or social capital, the terminology and methodologies need to be understood and applied effectively.

From the invention of reinforced concrete to today’s cutting-edge materials and those in development that will further contribute to achieving our net zero goals, concrete will continue to evolve to meet the needs of society. 

Continue the conversation, join me at Game Changers LIVE – Low Carbon Concrete edition on 22 April from 11.30am. Register today.

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