Around the world, few materials are as strongly etched into mind when it comes to building and construction as concrete.
Indeed, while bricks are often associated with ‘strength’ in residential housing and timber is thought of as ‘natural,’ it is concrete – the second most commonly used material in the world behind water which is found in foundations, high-rise building columns and decks, walls, driveways, paving, and pipes amongst other things – and ‘concrete jungles’ that we think of when looking at entire cities, especially those with a dense concentration of high-rise buildings.
Resistant to wind, water, rodents and insects, easily moulded or cast into almost any desired shape on site, non-combustible, with a long life and relatively limited maintenance requirements, concrete has been used since before the Roman Empire and is still the default material for a large number of construction applications today.
Still, in a number of areas, the material’s dominance appears to be under challenge. Buildings such as Lend Lease’s 10-storey Forte apartment complex, Australand’s five-storey The Green apartment complex and Lend Lease’s Library at the Dock all in Melbourne demonstrate how timber and especially engineered timbers are pushing further into the multi-storey commercial and multi-residential market.
In the skyscraper sphere, steel frames with metal decking are another alternative material gaining ground: set to be completed early next year, Brisbane’s 31-level complex at 480 Queen Street will be the first steel framed building of its size in that city. A growing desire to use prefabricated materials cut on a factory floor and assembled on-site will presumably increase the attractiveness of alternatives to concrete which allow for this to be done. A push toward sustainability is creating challenges for a material which – rightly or wrongly – has not traditionally been perceived as environmentally friendly.
The challenges cannot be understated. Lend Lease, for example, makes no secret of its desire to use engineered timber rather than concrete and steel in more of its commercial and multi-residential developments. .
All this raises important questions: is concrete still the material of choice, and is the $2.58 billion industry which employs around 7,900 people across 825 enterprises growing, flat-lining or declining?
Certainly, in terms of revenue, the domestic concrete manufacturing industry is not growing, a fact industry research firm IBIS World puts down to low levels of building activity (until recently) and reductions in the concrete tile and brick content of new housing. While industry turnover is expected to grow by 2.8 per cent in 2014/15 as building activity increases, it fell by an annual average of 1.5 per cent over the past five years, IBIS says – albeit with the base year for that comparison (2009/10) representing an abnormally high year of home building activity.
In terms of its share of use on projects, meanwhile, Concrete Institute of Australia chief executive officer David Millar suggests the material is flat-lining rather than growing or declining.
“From where I sit, it has stagnated,” Millar said. “It’s certainly not expanding at any rate of knots. It’s holding its own.”
Like any building material, one of the more significant trends impacting concrete and its uses in the Australian construction sector today revolve around sustainability. This is a particular challenge in the case of concrete which because of the carbon intensive nature of the manufacturing and transport processes involved in its production and use has not traditionally been seen as being seen as particularly environmentally benevolent.
Not surprisingly, the industry has been investing heavily in order to address this. For the past 16 years, major producers from a number of countries have worked together under a worldwide initiative to improve the material’s environmental performance and standing. A key area of focus revolves around recyclability; a considerable volume of research is going into used of waste material by-products such as silica fume, fly-ash or slag as binders rather than simply a mix of cement, aggregate and water. Use of geopolymer cement, which is made from recycled materials, is considered a big part of the way forward.
Aside from that, concrete is a strong thermal insulator and its resilience will become increasingly important in an environment of more frequent instances of extreme weather events over the past five years, the industry says. With all this added up, Millar says concrete has been shown through research to be "very much a product that can be used with sustainability in mind."
Going forward, Millar says concrete will most likely hold its place within the market rather than growing or declining and will "stay roughly the same" in terms of market share. What will change, he says, will not be so much the quantity but more the way it is used and the additives used.
In terms of revenue, IBIS World expects anaemic growth rates for the industry of an annual average of 0.3 per cent per annum over the next five years.
Concrete may still be the material of choice. In terms of revenue, production and use, it seems it may be neither the material of great growth or decline.