Our new accelerator programme, ConstrucTech, is working with construction company Colmore Tang to engage startups to build the future of the construction industry. Colmore Tang CEO Andy Robinson talks about the need for the industry to embrace smart materials.

We have smart phones, smart TVs and even smart fridges. These technologies collaborate and adapt to their environments, operating to a large extent autonomously. We’re also seeing a rise in smart - or intelligent - buildings, which are connected and incorporate technologies such as energy efficient measures, digital infrastructure and building management systems.

But what about the materials used to create those buildings? We are entering a period of rapid change, with the development of materials and processes that are capable of changing the whole nature of construction.

Products from self-cleaning and hydrophobic windows to antimicrobial coatings that keep surfaces cleaner have been commercially available for some years, yet this is just the beginning. Globally there is considerable research being undertaken into construction materials that could completely turn around architects’ and developers’ approach to design and build.

Waste, sustainability and carbon footprint are all affected by the materials that are used in buildings. Smart materials can improve all of these aspects.

 

The most recent example of this is the development by scientists at the University of Exeter1 of nanotechnology that incorporates graphene into the production of concrete.

Described as a “game-changer”, the scientists say this newly-developed composite material is more than twice as strong and four times more water resistant than existing concretes. It also requires 50% less cement, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of conventional concrete production methods, which makes it more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

This is undoubtedly an exciting development and has the potential to be used across all large-scale building schemes.

Self-healing concrete is another developing technology that could herald significant changes - the failure of structural materials is a big problem that the sector has to address.

When concrete comes into long-term contact with water, pressure and wind, it starts to crumble. But self-healing concrete contains a dormant bacteria that can survive in high alkaline environments. It only activates when a crack opens up. When this occurs, the concrete is exposed to warm and humid air, which leads the bacteria to seek “food”, which are starch capsules that are already within the material. The bacteria also excretes calcite, enabling it to self-repair the concrete, restoring about 90% of the concrete’s strength2. Because of the properties in self-healing concrete, it could also be a cost-saving material, saving up to 50% of the lifetime cost because it eliminates the need to undertake repairs.

Research into self-healing materials also extends to coatings, which are made with polymers that react with one another if there is a crack or fracture.

Although this innovation is still in its infancy and is earmarked for marine structures such as oil rigs, the technology, which would apply to sealants, adhesives and coatings, is also being tested for the wider construction industry.

Shape-changing materials may sound like something out of science fiction but the reality is that it could have profound effects on the construction industry, particularly on large-scale projects such as skyscrapers.

Unlike conventional materials that stay bent out of shape if they warp, shape-memory alloys return to their original state because they “remember” their form. While we already have spectacle frames made from this material, it will be some time before this technology is sufficiently advanced to be used by the building and construction industry.

The key to greener, stronger and more durable buildings lies in innovation and we are looking forward to seeing every development that will enable us to consider using far more smart materials that have a physical impact on fitting and design.

Colmore Tang has joined forces with Virgin StartUp to launch ConstrucTech, a construction industry-first technology accelerator programme. The £10m innovation fund is available to companies from around the world that can successfully show how their innovation and technology could improve the sector’s productivity, sustainability and skills issues.

Find out more about ConstrucTech at virginstartup.org/constructech.