Innovation unleashed

16 May 2023

The level of innovation under way in concrete right now is unlike anything I’ve experienced during my career as an architect. There has always been research and development, but what feels different is the appetite to take it to the next level, from early stage work in universities right through to real-world projects.

This is being driven by an absolute recognition of the urgency of the climate challenge, and the pressing need for both mitigation and adaptation. It’s about many things coming together: the UK government’s legally binding net-zero target, the ESG commitments made by businesses, burgeoning market demand, and perhaps also the knowledge-sharing that digital technology has driven.

All of this has not only increased the funding available to help decarbonise an essential building material, it is also focusing minds and creating more opportunities for bringing people together, so that promising research no longer languishes in silos.

Carbon capture is a major focus, as a key part of the UK’s 2030 decarbonisation strategy – the sheer number of pilot projects aimed at extracting process emissions at source is really impressive. There have also been considerable advances on alternative cementitious materials. Heidelberg Materials’ recycled concrete paste on page 6 is a very promising development on both counts.

Research is also ongoing into using concrete more efficiently, and into the associated innovations that will enable new types of mix to be deployed – such as digital sensors that measure curing temperatures. Innovation is the subject of the Fresh Concrete series of online talks that we’re curating this summer, in partnership with The Building Centre, now in its second year.

Showcasing new ideas can be a double-edged sword – I love the enthusiasm they generate, but it is often accompanied by a frustration among specifiers that they can’t always make use of them on projects now. This is a perennial tension. The construction industry has sometimes been perceived as stymying innovation, and wanting to stick to established processes, but it is reliant on the development of robust
standards and performance specifications. Fortunately, there is also a concerted effort to speed up the rigorous behind-the-scenes testing that is less eye-catching but no less necessary to ensure new technologies can be
deployed appropriately and safely. There is already a variety of cementitious materials with a different chemistry which can be trialled on non-critical structures, under the PAS 2080 guidance, while we assess their full potential. Work is also under way on a BSI Flex Standard to allow specification by performance, which should provide a framework for the design of future concretes.

Right now, research and development is taking place on many scales and at every stage in the manufacturing and construction process. Some of these innovations may result in dramatic, wholesale change, with us for the long term. Others may be stepping stones while more permanent technologies are proven. There are many possibilities, but perhaps the only certainty is that we won’t know where they lead unless we all work together to develop them.

By Elaine Toogood, Director, Architecture and Sustainable Design, The Concrete Centre