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Editorial: The Building Science of Tomorrow


Architects’ thirst for new and innovative building aesthetics will always feed the need for new products. However, new materials come and go, and rarely are game-changing. More often than not, new materials boost wide ranging applications, come with a price tag that few projects can afford, and are limited to the elite projects.

Recent articles about tomorrow’s building materials are meeting with both acclaim and skepticism. Concrete reinforced by integrating renewable textile materials into steel, 3D-printed cement paste that claims higher strength when it cracks, and “memory steel” polymers are just a few of today’s . These materials are being lauded as applications for building enclosures in particular, due to their ability to reinforce, self-repair, or utilize sustainable materials.

Materials that have the ability to change performance characteristics (e.g. electro chromatic glass and smart membranes) are very valuable and gaining traction in the enclosure industry but still have the limitation of a hefty cost. Hence, they get used on institutional projects and people like me write papers about them, but they have little impact on how we build or what materials we use. At the end of the day, I can’t think of any material that was invented in the last 10 years that has had an appreciable change in how we design our building enclosures today. But we do design and build differently so what drives that?

The U.S. construction industry has a low adoption of technology. A McKinsey & Co. survey in 2015 ranked the construction industry’s technology adoption just above the agriculture and hunting sectors. Things are slowly changing but, realistically, new materials don’t change construction —codes do. Our biggest changes have occurred from our biggest failures (e.g., Hurricane Andrew, Loma Prieta Earthquake, Grenfell Fire in U.K). We will see changes to our codes from these disasters that affect how we build. However, because the code cycles occur every 3 years, it will take awhile.

I predict that there will be a strong push for more resilient buildings in the wake of the 2018 hurricanes and fires — it only takes a few photos of the building that’s still standing for others to demand the same type of performance. As we wait for the codes to change the industry, the ones that can afford “Code-Plus” building will drive tomorrow’s state of the art.

Although 3-D printed “buildings” are springing up around the globe from China to Denmark and Dubai (which announced at the World Economic Forum that 25% of its new buildings will be made using 3D printers by 2025), only certain portions of building enclosures can be appropriately constructed with this construction technique. There is always value in construction techniques or project delivery methods that enable faster building. Although new materials are not likely to solve this challenge, technology such as modular construction and even 3-D printing should continue to gain momentum.

Consumer demand will also drive changes in the way we build. Carpet has all but disappeared in today’s multifamily building as it’s being replaced with tiles and hardwood. Hence, new challenges (such as not hearing your neighbor above) need to be solved through advanced acoustical design and construction.

When predicting changes in the way we design and build, our focus should be on the changes in consumer expectations, the resiliency of buildings to natural disasters and new techniques that allow us to build faster.  With change comes a new set of challenges, and tomorrow’s Building Science must solve these challenges.

By John Runkle, P.E.
Vice President, Building Science Solutions
Building & Construction
Intertek

Editorials are meant to influence opinion and promote critical thinking essentially, an opinionated news story. We added this section to The Checklist to allow for articles that reflect our market, and provoke thought or action. If selected, your article may either contain a byline or be anonymous.

The BCxA will host John Runkle for a live BCxA Webinar entitled, “The Past, Present and Future of Building Science” on June 10, 2019. Watch for more details and sign up to attend!

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