Construction innovation: seven wonders of the world

22 July 2014

There's a big world out there, and a big world wide web to go with it. Here is a brief selection of innovative construction ideas from around the world we've come across recently.

1. California: zero energy living and commuting

Car manufacturer Honda has collaborated with the University of California, Davis, on its Honda Smart Home, enabling zero net energy living and commuting. The home produces more energy on-site from renewable sources than it consumes annually, including enough energy to power a Honda Fit EV for daily trips. 

A roof-mounted 9.5kW PV array provides all of the power to run the geothermal heat pump, ventilation, lighting, hot water, appliances and consumer loads, in addition to the transportation energy for the Honda Fit EV. The vehicle has been modified to accept DC power directly from the home’s solar panels or stationary battery, eliminating up to half of the energy that is typically lost to heat during DC-to-AC and AC-to-DC power conversion. When the solar panels are generating electricity at full capacity, the vehicle can fully recharge in approximately two hours directly from sunlight.

Honda Smart Home is expected to generate a surplus of 2.6Mwh of electricity over the course of a year, while a comparable home will consume approximately 13.3MWh. The excess energy anticipates potential future increases in energy needs, such as the addition of more occupants or electric vehicles to the home, and an increased daily commute.

The house will be used as a “living laboratory” to evaluate new technologies at the intersection of housing, transportation, energy and the environment, and joins other zero net energy demonstrator homes at the UC Davis West Village campus.

2. Japan: BioSkin

A cooling facade system based on the traditional Japanese practice of uchimizu, the sprinkling of water on gardens and streets to lower ambient temperatures and keep dust at bay. BioSkin comprises a network of porous ceramic pipes positioned on the outside of the building through which rain water, collected on the roof throughout the year, is pumped during the summer.

The water penetrates the ceramic and evaporates from the pipe surface, cooling the surface of the envelope by as much as 12 deg C and the surrounding air by around 2 deg C, also reducing the load on the CO2-producing air conditioning systems inside. When incorporated into a number of neighbouring buildings, the ambient air temperature could be significantly reduced as well as cooling loads for those without the system installed. The technology was first used on Sony’s 25-storey Osaki Home Entertainment HQ in Tokyo.

3. The Netherlands: High-rise for making friends

Cities need high-rise housing to keep up with rapid urbanisation, but dense, vertical design can be isolating as it lacks the common spaces needed for social interaction. A design for a 24-storey mixed-use scheme in Antwerp, by C F Møller Architects and Brut Architecture and Urban Design, aims to address this problem by grouping residences into mini-communities.

Similar apartment types, such as family or student housing, are clustered together, opening up onto balcony space and winter gardens, and shared inner courtyards. There is also a communal dining area, a roof terrace, and on the top floors of the building, a triple-height indoor garden.

4. The Netherlands: Bioresin panels

A small gas receiving station in the Netherlands, designed by Studio Marco Vermeulen, has redefined the boundary between building and plant in what the architect claims is the start of a transition to a “bio-based economy”. Located at a food industrial park in New Prinsenland, the one-storey, cube-shaped structure is clad in panels made from Nabasco, a composite of bioresin and hemp fibre produced by local manufacturer NPSP Composites. 

The practice says the development of plant-based materials is important for the construction industry because oil-based materials will soon become scarce. “[In the future] green materials will largely be based on organic residues from agriculture and horticulture,” said the firm on its website. “In a bio-based economy these residues (biomass) will be processed into usable raw materials.”

5. United Kingdom: Underfloor robots

A robot designed to retrofit insulation beneath timber flooring in old houses could soon gain real-world use after its inventor received funding to commercialise the idea.

The system was developed to install insulation under suspended timber floorboards, seen in the majority of the houses in the UK built before the second half of the 20th century, which are poorly insulated, but difficult to get to, causing disruption and often requiring residents to move out.

The semi-autonomous robot is able to enter the narrow space between floorboards and the ground, survey the targeted area, then spray insulation in places human workers cannot reach. According to its inventor, the firm Q-Bot, the technology could be adapted to access, survey, evaluate and apply treatments in a wide range of other industries and applications.

Ilian Iliev, CEO of EcoMachines Incubator, the seed fund that has provided Q-Bot with the funding to commercialise the concept, said: “We are at the early stages of a transformation in the building and infrastructure industries, a game-changing development that will see the use of collaborative semi-autonomous robots to assist us in a range of tasks too dangerous, time-consuming or expensive for humans alone to perform.”

6. Germany: Drone building inspectors

German researchers have developed a remote controlled flying drone that can inspect tall structures in minute detail in a fraction of the time it would take humans.

The Octocopter flies with eight rotors and utilises a high resolution camera to take thousands of photographs to detect cracks and defects. It was developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Non-Destructive Testing IZFP in Saarbrücken to quickly and cheaply survey the many buildings, factories and bridges built in the post-war years that are showing signs of ageing.

“For a 20 by 80 metre-wide facade, a site engineer requires about two to three days,” said Christian Eschmann, a researcher at the Institute. “Our Octocopter needs three to four hours.”

The drone incorporates sensors that adjust for wind gusts, helping it keep a stable altitude and avoid crashing into a building. A short 15-minute flight can result in up to 1,200 photos, which are subsequently combined to create 2D and 3D models. The Institute has been working on the drone since 2011, but only publicised the work this month.

7. Hong Kong: video glass

A Korean technology to turn any glass facade into a gigantic advertising screen is being trialled in Hong Kong.

According to the South China Morning Post, a plastic polymer film is attached to the surface of the glass. When a small electrical current stops passing through it, it frosts, allowing an overhead projector mounted just a metre away to play videos across the surface, without interference from passers-by. The glass can also be modified to become a touch screen by adding motion sensors.

The technology is being tested at a kitchen showroom, transforming a regular shop window by day becomes an advertising space by night, showing images of food and kitchen appliances. The core technology was developed in South Korea, where the plastic polymer film has been used in hotel bathrooms, allowing the glass shower door to become frosted or clear at the flick of a switch.


These innovations are exciting for future smart living and bring a wow factor to what has perhaps to some become tired technologies. The challenge is to roll the new technologies out in a reasonable time and there will no doubt be a resistance from the status quo who want to protect their investments rather than innovate. Kudos to those brave enough to take up the initative!

Norman James Leite, 22 July 2014

Leave a comment