Whether it’s building information modelling, offsite fabrication or even the use of robots or drones on construction sites, much has been said of late about the potential for technology to change the way in which we build in Australia.

One area which should not be forgotten, however, is the products themselves, and the question of how innovation with regard to actual building materials could impact upon the way in which we build going forward. Monash University, for example, is partnering with 28 other institutions including the CSIRO to look at how areas such as nanotechnology, cement chemistry and concrete technology can drive innovation in terms of lighter, stronger and more flexible building materials.

So where are the emerging technologies, and how will they deliver better materials on site?

One interesting area, according to Dr Kwesi Sagoe-Crentsil, leader of the construction materials team at the CSIRO, revolves around cement binders and a new generation of cement systems that are coming on board which have a much lower carbon footprint when compared with traditional Portland cement. A particular area of interest in this regard is geopolymer concrete, which is made by reacting aluminate and silicate bearing materials with a caustic activator – commonly waste materials such as fly-ash or slag from iron or metal production. As well as being longer lasting and needing little repair (thus involving lower maintenance costs), geopolymer concrete is generally more environmentally friendly as the waste material is encapsulated in the concrete and does not have to be disposed of whilst it does not require heat to make and does not release vast quantities of carbon dioxide.

Second, there is the use of microfibers, such as carbon nanotubes and graphene – a one-atom think sheet of carbon which is about six times lighter than steel but 100 times stronger and is extremely elastic and stretchable. These materials will make concrete stronger and more flexible, Sagoe-Crentsil says, which will not only enhance their ability to withstand wind and other types of load but also reduce the amount of reinforcement needed to hold the concrete in place. This will enable thinner members to be used and thus will facilitate more flexible solutions in terms of structural design. In the case of apartments, for example, the technology could enable use of thinner walls and thus more floor space.

Finally, Sagoe-Crentsil says, there is a push not just for offsite manufacturing of building parts as we know it now but for the manufacturing of entire building systems and the shipping of these directly onto site. Construction, Sagoe-Crentsil says, will increasingly be seen as a manufacturing process involving much less physical assembly on site.

Martin Loosemore, a professor of construction management at the University of New South Wales, agrees about microfibers and graphene. In addition, he says, there are a number of other areas where interesting developments are happening. Flexible organic solar cell technology being developed in Australia is allowing solar cells to be sprayed using ink jet printers into irregular surfaces and many types of materials, meanwhile, allowing us to ‘bring the dream of buildings being the energy stations of the future closer to reality.’

Advances in 3D printing, moreover, mean we can now print with materials such as steel, glass, concrete, polymers, ceramics and even biological materials. Finally, floor tiles are being used to generate power when walked upon.

Monash University associate professor Wenhui Duan, meanwhile, says an exciting research trend relates not so much to individual products or breakthroughs but a breakdown in silos in terms of research areas which impact the construction sector. He says traditionally, there are four areas of research when it comes to buildings and building materials, including the basic molecular level of research, the materials levels where individual elements are bound together, the construction level involving matters such as structural columns and beams and the system level, which involves entire building systems, such as a roofing system. In past times, he says, researchers had largely focused upon one individual level and shown little interest in other areas.

“The integration of four levels in together is the next critical step,” he says. “Previously scientists and researchers have worked in different levels in a separate mode. If I was working on materials, I would have no interest in structures. On the other hand, someone who is working in structures has not been interested in materials.

“That (integration of the four areas) will be the next exciting area.”

Finally, in terms of whether or not Australia was ahead or behind the game, Sagoe-Crentsil said a number of companies were pushing hard in terms of manufacturing whole systems but that we remained  well behind China in this area. In terms of materials, he says Australia is doing well but needs to do more to raise industry awareness about what kind of new materials are out there.

With the international market for building materials operating increasingly on a global scale, he says Australia has a significant export opportunity in some of these areas.

Australia has a significant opportunity to use advances in material technology to deliver better results on site.

Should we take advantage of this, we could also be onto much greater opportunities in export markets.