Innovation in construction: Getting smart on site
From self-cleaning windows to waterless toilets, new developments are changing the way we build. Stephen Cousins looks at a few of the latest ideas, and Peter Caplehorn offers an overview.
The first live demonstration of a rope-free elevator, which uses magnetic levitation technology and rotating drives to move cabs both sideways (pictured below), took place in Spain last November.
The 1:3 scale model of the Multi lift system, developed by Germany’s ThyssenKrupp and installed at its innovation centre in Gijón, northern Spain, runs using linear motors. According to the firm, the system increases capacity by allowing several cabs to occupy a single shaft, and can increase a building’s usable area by up to 25%, as it requires smaller shafts and no counterweight.
Markus Jetter, the so-called “father” of Multi and head of the firm’s product development centre near Stuttgart, says: “Now we will be focusing on constructing and implementing the first Multi system in our test tower in Rottweil, Germany (pictured above left), which should be running at the end of 2016. There are plans to prove and certify that the elevator can meet the highest code standards and is as safe as a conventional elevator.”
Who needs it? Developers of high-rise buildings
What does it cost? Not commercially available
Solar-powered smart benches
Smart city start-up company Strawberry Energy has revealed plans to roll out up to 11 of its interactive solar-powered benches (above) across London over the next six months, through deals with various leading real estate companies. A further two are planned for projects in the south of England.
Strawberry benches can be used to charge a mobile phone, provide local info via the internet or relay sensor data on local noise and air quality to a central server, and they incorporate an emergency SOS call button. In London’s weather conditions, up to 2,000 10-minute phone charges are possible per day.
"We decided to reinvent public benches to make them responsive to the needs of modern generations."
Milos Milisavljevic, Strawberry Energy
Four benches were initially installed across Canary Wharf last summer, as part of a pilot run by the Cognicity Challenge, a smart city incubator project run by the Canary Wharf Group.
The new installations will look the same as those at Canary Wharf, but will also incorporate a set of plug-and-play connections that allow different sensors to be fitted – such as air quality sensors, or a people-counter designed to understand local foot traffic.
Milos Milisavljevic, founder of Belgrade-based Strawberry Energy, tells CM: “Public benches are the most commonplace form of street furniture that have been around for over 100 years. We decided to reinvent them to make them responsive to the needs of modern generations.”
Who needs it? Commuters running on low battery
What does it cost? Pricing info not available
Safer trench construction
A trench protection system designed for the rail sector could also simplify general groundworks or construction excavation projects while improving safety, according to its inventors at Mabey Hire.
Also known as the Hog Back Strut, due to its distinctive shape, the “high clearance strut with aluminium trench shield” system (pictured below) is designed to reduce time spent installing, moving and removing equipment. Its low weight allows work to be carried out in remote or hard-to-reach areas, says Mabey Hire.
Richard Hinckley, business development manager at Mabey Hire, says it is suitable for use in many groundwork situations: “Its all-aluminium construction makes it very compact, strong and light, perfect for installing pipework and ductwork where high clearance over large pipes or other obstacles is required.”
Who needs it? Projects digging foundations or basements
What does it cost? Price on request only
HAVS wrist monitor
HAVwear, by Reactec, aims to eliminate some of the inaccuracies associated with tool-based methods of monitoring hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) by monitoring operatives’ actual exposure via a module attached to the wrist.
A screen on the module displays the user’s personal exposure thresholds on a screen, and it vibrates and gives an audible alert when action must be taken. Data is transmitted in real time to the cloud to identify employees at risk and form an audit trail.
HAVwear (pictured right) is lower in cost and simpler to use than current tool-based devices, says Reactec CEO Jacqui McLaughlin, and takes the guesswork out of estimating risks.
She says: “HSE standards and guidelines point companies toward figuring out how much time operators have spent on a tool and then understanding what the tool physically does In contrast, HAVWear calculates what a person actually experiences on their body, in terms of the magnitude and frequency of vibration sensed at the wrist.”
Who needs it? Managers concerned about HAVS risks
What does it cost? £165 from Reactec
Anglian Water has begun trials of Cemfree, a cement-free concrete with up to 60% lower embedded carbon than traditional concrete, on a small building project in Norwich.
Cemfree entirely replaces Portland cement, which is highly energy intensive to produce, generating 913kg of C02 for every tonne of finished product, with ground blast furnace slag, a by-product from blast furnaces used in the iron industry.
Developed by David Ball Group, Cemfree has all of the structural characteristics of traditional concrete, says the firm, but is more durable, has a lower water demand and uses the same production techniques, design and installation principles as traditional concrete.
Fionn Boyle, innovation technologist at Anglian Water, comments: “We’re starting small, but this new material has big potential. We will be vigorously testing it with involvement and technical expertise from our design and construction partners to ensure it meets our standards, and in the future we will be looking at ways we can use it to replace traditional concrete.”
Who needs it? Anyone building in concrete, thought to account for around 5-8% of global carbon emissions
What does it cost? TBC
Smart self-cleaning windows
Researchers at University College London have developed an efficient form of self-cleaning glass that repels water using microscopic cone-shaped structures etched into the surface, mimicking natural structures on butterfly wings, rose petals and moth’s eyes.
The smart glass is coated with a 5 to 10 nanometre-thick film of vanadium dioxide (1 million nanometres = 1mm), a highly reflective thermochromic coating designed to prevent heat from escaping buildings in cold weather, or entering, as solar gain, on sunnier days.
"Current windows with chemical treatments are effective, up to a point, but they can degrade over time and don’t have our super hydrophobic self-cleaning effect, which removes dirt as soon as it touches the window."
Alaric Taylor, PhD student
The team worked with glazing manufacturer Pilkington and nanotechnology specialist Biolin Scientific to produce prototype samples of the glass. They say that a commercial product could be on the market within three to five years.
The cone-shaped nanostructures cause rain hitting the outside to form into spherical droplets that pick up dirt, dust and other contaminants and carry them away. A cushion of air separates the droplets from the surface of the glass to prevent streaking.
Alaric Taylor, a PhD student who is leading the research, tells CM: “Current windows with chemical treatments [that act as a photocatalyst to break down dirt and grime] are effective, up to a point, but they can degrade over time and don’t have our super hydrophobic self-cleaning effect, which removes dirt as soon as it touches the window – meaning much faster cleaning cycles.”
Who needs it? Building owners with high window-cleaning costs and energy bills
What does it cost? Not yet commercially available
Thermally modified British hardwood
The first ever thermally modified British hardwoods – suitable for external applications such as cladding, decking and joinery – will be officially launched at this month’s EcoBuild in London.
The poplar, sycamore and ash products, which are sold under the Brimstone brand by Vastern Timber, are sourced exclusively from English and Welsh woodlands.
Heating timber to temperatures of between 160 and 210 degrees improves the performance of wood that would normally rot outside – achieving class 2 durability (equivalent to 30 years) and in some cases class 1 (50 years). This provides a viable and more sustainable home-grown alternative to importing either tropical hardwoods, or using thermally modified products from suppliers in Finland or France.
"Thermal modification is an ideal method of bringing them into the market by turning a non-durable wood into something durable."
Tom Barnes, Vastern Timber
Tom Barnes, managing director at Vastern Timber, says: “Hardwood species make up a large proportion of our woodlands but most are relatively unloved. Thermal modification is an ideal method of bringing them into the market by turning a non-durable wood into something durable. Our hardwoods are very uniform and attractive in appearance, with relatively few knots.”
Brimstone is the result of a collaboration between Grown In Britain, the BRE, Timber Strategies, Tyler Hardwoods and Vastern Timber, which was set up to identify ways to bring UK timber to market and stimulate domestic demand.
Brimstone timber is currently sent to France to undergo thermal modification, before being processed and moulded to customer requirements in Vastern’s UK sawmill, but the plan is to build up enough demand to attract funding to build a thermal modification plant in the UK.
“BRE has produced a feasibility study for setting up a plant over here and is about to start specific testing of the Brimstone range for durability, stability, hardness and glue bonding etc,” says Barnes.
Who needs it? Anyone looking to source sustainably from the UK
What does it cost? Prices are roughly on a par with ipe or balau hardwood products
Power generating pavement
UK tech start-up Pavegen is ploughing the £2.1m of crowdfunding it attracted last year into upscaling the manufacture of its footfall energy-harvesting tile to bring costs down, into line with regular street paving.
The UK firm, run by founder and entrepreneur Laurence Kemball-Cook, makes tiles that capture energy from footsteps through a combination of electromagnetic induction and flywheel energy storage technologies. The current system produces up to 7W of electricity from one person walking across a short space.
Kemball-Cook says: “We are on the brink of releasing a new product, in the next couple of quarters, that will be a lot more efficient and really change the way we have even looked at the issue of energy – completely flipping it on its head. This required significant investment in research and manufacturing.”
He adds: “One square metre of granite floor at King's Cross station currently costs around £1,000 – we aim to have our product retailing for under £600 per sq m. Subsequently, prices will come down substantially to reach our final objective of sub-$50 (£35) per sq m.”
Pavegen aims to have millions of tiles deployed in every major city in the world within the next five years. The first installation of the new product will launch at “one of the busiest retail sites in London” in June, ahead of an installation outside the White House in Washington DC, and other projects in Singapore, South Korea and Australia.
Who needs it? Smart city authorities
What does it cost? Under £600 per sq m
Waterless 'super loo'
Researchers at the University of Cranfield are lab-testing a waterless toilet that uses nanotechnology to treat human waste, producing clean water, electricity and agricultural fertiliser.
The Nano Membrane Toilet (pictured right) provides a practical solution for use in remote locations, such as construction sites, and could improve sanitation for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who currently lack access to safe, hygienic toilets.
"The Gates Foundation are funding this for use in the developing world, but they are keen for us to make it a sustainable business that generates economies of scale through use in places like construction sites, on board yachts, mining or military installations."
Jake Larsson, PhD student
The prototype was developed using grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and uses a rotation mechanism to pass faeces and urine from the bowl to a holding tank, where water vapour is separated through a nano-membrane filter system. The vapour is then condensed into pure, clean water, while the solid waste is drawn up using a battery-powered Archimedes screw mechanism, de-odorised, and collected for burning in a gasification plant.
The ash left behind is nutrient rich and can be used in farming, while the water can be used for plants or people.
Creating a commercial product for widespread use will help roll the system out to developing countries, says Jake Larsson, a doctoral student working on the project: “The Gates Foundation are funding this for use in the developing world, but they are keen for us to make it a sustainable business that generates economies of scale through use in places like construction sites, onboard yachts, mining or military installations, which will make it cheaper for people who really need it, in Africa or elsewhere.”
Who needs it? Remote construction sites, countries without sanitation
What does it cost? Under a rental model in developing countries, a few pence per day
EndoTherm can be added to the water in radiators to make them more efficient, which reduces fuel consumption.
The product apparently works by breaking down hydrogen bonds in the water, inhibiting the formation of air bubbles that tend to form where there are micro-cracks in the inner surface of pipes or radiators. This improves the thermal capabilities of the water, allowing it and the heating system to heat up quicker.
"We have installed EndoTherm into many thousands of buildings, with energy savings of up to 15%."
Ben Sallon, Endo Enterprises
For most wet heating systems this will reduce gas consumption by around 10-15%, a figure cited in independent tests from various research programmes in universities in the UK and abroad. More details are on the company’s website. The product also has approval from all the major boiler manufacturers.
Since winning the Big Innovation Pitch at Ecobuild last year, the product has apparently experienced high demand.
Ben Sallon, managing director at Endo Enterprises, tells Construction Manager: “EndoTherm has become a well-respected new technology in an environment where FM companies are looking for energy savings without large capital expenditure, for their clients’ properties. Since Ecobuild we have installed EndoTherm into many thousands of buildings, with consistent energy savings of up to 15%.”
Who needs it? Anyone who wants to reduce their heating bills
What does it cost? £36 for 500 ml
Changing the world we live in
In the popular imagination, innovation manifests itself in obvious, even dramatic ways. Yet often it will not be apparent to the untrained eye, writes Peter Caplehorn. In the construction products industry, there are rarely any headline-making, ground-breaking advances.
But the construction products sector is not asleep on the job. Far from it. In every corner of the sector we can point to new and potentially game-changing advances in either the products themselves or the processes bringing them from R&D stages to the market.
These advances often go unseen, however, because they mainly consist of small steps on the road to improved performance, greater durability, increased life or the use of less energy to make and install.
Over the past decade we can see the giant leaps that have been made in insulation, doors and windows, paints, masonry – the list goes on.
But concerns have been voiced about the length of time that elapses between a manufacturer having an idea, to launching research with a university lab, testing it, scaling up production, and then the approval and certification process to gain a BBA certificate or perhaps a CE marking.
Manufacturers want to be comfortable that the performance they’re advertising is delivered on site, but the process means there’s a looming gap between the initial idea and the industry being comfortable enough to adopt a new innovation.
The CPA is undertaking research to see whether its members think they’re getting value for money from the certification process, and whether it could be made quicker or more efficient.
Perhaps the real story is about continuous improvement – not earth-shattering, innovative jumps. Yet in the time that “brick” phones have evolved to smart phones, the expected character and performance of construction products has changed beyond all recognition. So much so, in fact, that we rely on and almost expect the next iteration to be so much better. And there is every prospect it will.
Peter Caplehorn is deputy chief executive of the Construction Products Association