From 3D printing to toothbrushes, innovative and sometimes offbeat building materials are changing the face of construction. Stephen Cousins has Raconteur’s top five
THIN-FILM SOLAR CELLS
This innovation could one day replace traditional solar panels, providing a near-transparent alternative that can be applied to glazing or other building materials. University of Oxford offshoot company Oxford Photovoltaics has developed the thin-film solar cells using the mineral crystal perovskite, a semi-transparent material, which when applied in an ultra-thin layer to surfaces is able to generate power from the sun’s rays. The firm’s scientists are currently able to achieve a 15 per cent power conversion rate using a scaled-down version of the technology, but this is expected to rise to over 20 per cent in the near future, more efficient than regular silicon-based solar panels.
The first prototype building incorporating a bioreactive facade filled with algae was opened in Hamburg last year. Designed by Austria’s Splitterwerk Architects and structural engineer Arup, the four-storey residential block incorporates 64 “double-glazed” panels filled with a mixture of water and unicellular algae, which grow in response to direct sunlight. The algae is harvested and processed to produce methane gas that is either stored locally or used to help fuel the building. The system also provides a clever source of shading, as sunlight speeds up the rate of algae growth the glass becomes cloudy, blocking direct sunlight from entering the building.
Installing partition walls in large buildings can be complex and time consuming. Tradesmen erect half the structure, then electrical engineers install and test their kit, and finally walls are closed up taped, joined and decorated. The SmartWall intelligent walling system, developed by contracting group Laing O’Rourke, is manufactured in a factory and delivered to site in a finished state, incorporating cables and ductwork plus external plasterboard, then simply dropped into position by crane, simultaneous with the superstructure. The system is pre-treated for weathering, and also avoids the large amount of noise, dust and waste that can be generated when cutting plasterboard.
Additive manufacturing or 3D printing found its first application on a live construction project last September. When installing a polymer ETFE roof over a garden at the 6 Bevis Marks office project in the City of London, main contractor Skanska drafted in industrial 3D printing firm Quickparts to produce cladding for eight complex interfaces at the tops of steel columns supporting the roof. Quickparts used a selective laser sintering machine that fuses layers of powdered Nylon PA 12, to build up the complex shapes based on the architect’s original computer-aided design file. The process was faster and cheaper than alternative spliced steel-plate options.
Brick walls filled with unconventional insulation materials, including more than 2,000 toothbrushes, video cassettes, floppy disks, CD cases and old denim jeans form part of an innovative Waste House currently on-site in Brighton. The two-storey building, designed by architects BBM and built by Mears Group in collaboration with the University of Brighton, is being built entirely out of unwanted waste, including carpet tiles, car-tyre rubber, and nuts and bolts and timber decking from an old promenade. It aims to demonstrate how buildings can avoid the carbon emissions associated with the manufacture and delivery of conventional products.