Featured in Property Australia: Material change in the wind

Improvements in technology and the pressure to build responsibly are pushing the construction industry to develop better materials and techniques.

Australia hasn’t always been a world leader in innovative and sustainable construction materials and techniques, but that is changing. According to Caroline Pidcock, director of Pidcock – Architecture + Sustainability, the local construction industry has traditionally been reluctant to follow the sustainability trends in Europe and the US that has led to buildings like The Bullitt Centre in Seattle and Birdport House in London.

The former, completed in 2012 with the use of glulams (gluelaminated wood), has been described as the greenest commercial building in the world. Meanwhile, Birdport House was completed in 2011 and was, at the time, the largest timberbuilt apartment block in the world.

However, experts such as Michael Argyrou, the joint managing director of Hickory Group, say big changes are around the corner. They see the winds of change starting to stir things up here and expect to see radical change in building techniques and materials in the very near future.

In the local wood Engineered timber is environmental to a tee; it’s renewable, has a zero waste production process, the potential to be carbon negative and its thermal performance means lower carbon footprints for buildings and lower energy costs.

As it is manufactured and cut in the factory, noise on the building site is reduced, which has a positive impact on local communities. Factory construction also means fewer people are needed on-site to put it in place. To pile benefit upon benefit, it is much safer to build with as it is put together in a controlled factory setting.

Lend Lease’s Forté apartments is the world’s tallest timber building and the first in Australia to be made with cross-laminated timber (CLT). Docklands Library and Community Centre, which also uses CLT, will be completed early in 2014.

“Forté was set up to pilot new and innovative materials … [be they] new to the region or to the [apartment sector],” Lend Lease Development’s sustainability manager, Kate Pearsall, says. “Then we will really try to roll them out across our portfolio and mandate their usage on each project.”

Along with CLT, Lend Lease is also trialling low-carbon concrete and recycled steel and reducing toxin-containing materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in its apartments.

Pearsall says Lend Lease is increasingly focusing on material supply. “We recognise the importance of where material is coming from and what their embodied carbon and embodied water footprint is,” she says.

Matthew Wallace, the head of Lend Lease’s apartments business, says, “we are increasingly seeing a trend towards the use of natural, rapidly renewable and locally sourced materials as more people realise the ongoing benefits.”

Unfortunately, CLT must be imported, which Wallace says introduces complexities, such as lead times, foreign exchange risk and logistics.

Pidcock, though, says the use of CLT should be more widespread. “I absolutely believe we need to be investing in at least one factory in Australia that can do really good laminated timber construction.”

It’s how you make it

“Off -site or prefabricated building has required a quantum leap in materials,” Argyrou says. The group owns Unitised Building (UB) Australia, which makes custom transportable units in the factory for use on highrise residential and hotel construction projects.

Concrete structures are replaced by a lightweight steel structural system. Externally, UB aims for lighter, better-performing, more sustainable materials.

“We are working those materials really hard to get the best engineered performance out of them—structurally, thermally and acoustically,” says Argyrou.

Modular prefabrication has a long list of benefits as a construction technique. Waste output is about one-thirtieth of that in conventional construction. Quality is improved because of the precision, intricate design and control that factory work allows. And construction is faster as there is very little of the reworking or waiting around experienced in conventional construction.

“We have time to design and engineer [things] … in the factory environment, so we can implement materials that you wouldn’t think of doing on a building site. Building sites are very reactive; there’s no time to think about alternatives,” says Argyrou.

For example, UB uses constrained layer damping to reduce noise and vibration. This technique, common in the rail and aviation industries, had not been used in construction.

It also started using Multipanel for exterior wall and interior wet area linings. Not commonly used in construction, this lightweight, waterproof building panel has many energy-efficient and ecofriendly properties, as well as a superior fire rating.

The logistics of transporting the modules can create challenges, says Argyrou, as road closures and out-of-hours permits need to be negotiated with authorities.

This adds time and complexity to projects but is worth it, as he claims that modular building actually reduces the transport needed by more than half compared with conventional construction.

However, Argyrou expects many more engineered products in the near future, including engineered timbers and engineered aluminium and metal products; they simply perform better both structurally and thermally. He says he also expects more new products using nanotechnology: “We will see lots more … using the sophisticated science and engineering technology that’s available to us today.”

He hopes that the industrialised manufacturing process will facilitate the removal of concrete as the core ingredient of most building construction, which would cut the world’s carbon emissions significantly.

“We are firmly convinced this is the future of construction. It will replace much in situ construction, certainly within 5–10 years.”

Other new materials

The changes on the horizon are more fundamental than developing better materials.

“We do need to change the way we build,” says Pidcock. “We need to help all those people who build in the current way, into the future, with good support and training.”

The brick industry, for example, has been under pressure to change its products because time is a critical component in commercial high-rise construction and bricks take time to make and lay.

Austral Bricks has just released the Q Block, which has been developed to target this market. The Q Block can be laid three to five times faster than traditional bricks and also produces less mess than traditional bricks.

Harnessing solar energy is also high on the agenda. Pidcock says materials to more effectively heat buildings are being explored for commercial applications. For example, BlueScope Steel is developing two new roof products with integrated photovoltaics. The roof design will redirect heated air from beneath the PV panels and duct it into the house. Channelling air under the PV panels helps cool the PVs, which improves their efficiency.

The company has also invested $100 million and 20 years of research into its Next Generation Zincalume steel. The new product boasts a long-lasting metallic coating that is more resistant to corrosion. The longer lifespan and use of fewer metal resources means it also has less environmental impact.

Industry insiders say these changes are just the tip of the iceberg for materials and construction techniques and that we are on the edge of major change.

“I’m hoping we will see a quantum leap in the type of materials we are using for buildings and we will finally change the way we are constructing buildings,” says Argyrou.

Published: 28 Jan 2014   Author: Jackie Nevill   Source:  Property Australia

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