The building materials of the future
Hemp, seaweed or demolition waste.
These are just some of the materials that architects and engineers believe could be one day be used in construction to turn the building sector – which accounts for 40 per cent of global carbon emissions – greener.
The idea was floated at this year’s Klosters Forum (TKF), a global gathering designed to tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges and accelerate positive change.
In one TKF workshop, Ditte Lysgaard Vind, a renowned Danish circular economy specialist, handed forum attendees samples of building materials made from recycled beer kegs and sea plants.
“We can design the world of tomorrow with the waste of today, while designing a world without waste,” she explained.
“As we move further into bioengineering, we can turn nature into biomaterials that are convenient to scale.”
Another building product Lysgaard Vind demonstrated was made of eelgrass, a plant species found in estuaries, bays and other shallow nearshore areas.
Eelgrass absorbs three times more greenhouse gas than trees, and has the added benefits of being fireproof, rot resistant and a good insulator.
It can also be thatched – using a traditional Viking method -- and prefabricated into convenient panels that install easily onto roofs and façades.
Algae is also a potentially attractive biomaterial that could be used in construction, TKF attendees were told.
It is recognised as one of the world’s most effective carbon sequestration materials, and can tolerate and adapt to a variety of extreme environmental conditions.
Research shows that microalgae can trap carbon dioxide 50 times more efficiently than plants, with a pond with a pond with a volume of 4000 m3 absorbing about 2200 tons of CO2 a year.1
Algae's high photosynthetic efficiencies are also complemented by high biomass yields, making it an effective energy source.
Architects and scientists are experimenting with innovative projects to incorporating algae in the building design, for example by covering a building façade with algae curtain that captures CO2 and pollutants, reduces heat and produces oxygen.
Going for "brown" gold
Recycled building waste is another possible solution to the construction industry's carbon problem.
Dr Gnanli Landrou, co-founder of Swiss-based Oxara, used the forum to showcase the cement-free admixture technology that his start-up has developed.
Oxara’s patented method mixes clay-based excavation waste with a mineral additive, which hardens after 24 hours, ready to be used in building floors and non-load-bearing walls.
Oxara’s earth concrete has all the processing advantages of the conventional counterpart but emits 20 times less embodied carbon and is cheaper, which means it can help build affordable housing. That could be crucial. Data from EU shows construction and demolition waste is the bloc’s single largest waste stream by mass – 15 per cent of which goes directly to landfill.2
“There’s plenty of waste that can be recycled. It’s also a financial issue for a company -- if you don’t recycle you have to deal with it,” said Dr Landrou.
“What was considered as waste yesterday is now a resource. In the circular economy there’s no waste. Demolition waste in construction, in the future I hope, will be brown gold. We need to change the construction industry one building at a time.”
Stranded asset risk
While alternative building materials are promising, their commercialisation has been slow in an industry that is typically resistant to technological change.
However, Lysgaard Vind believes changing business dynamics between developers and climate-conscious investors could prove transformative.
Developers – both big and small - have no choice but to incorporate sustainability to avoid the risk of their buildings becoming a stranded asset, Lysgaard Vind added.
“The built environment has become such an asset class that it is servicing the financial industry by offering investment opportunities,” she says.
“With investors being the key decision makers, demand for sustainability and transparency is a positive driver now.”
- The real estate industry, under pressure to reduce its outsized environmental footprint, is increasingly turning to modular construction -- or a method of constructing a building offsite. A modular approach can reduce waste generated during construction and demolition phase to near zero by building in a controlled plant conditions. Modular sites generate up to 70 per cent less traffic relative to traditional ones.
- Environmentally-friendly buildings make for better real estate investments. Research already shows that buildings with stronger environmental credentials generate higher rents, lower rates of obsolescence, improved tenant satisfaction, lower voids and lower tenant incentives.
- Technological advances are allowing wood to be used more widely in buildings. Among the pioneering engineered wood products is cross-laminated timber (CLT) – a building panel made of sawn, glued and layered wood which allows architects to build wooden skyscrapers. The market for CLT is expected to grow to a USD2.5 billion globally by 2027 from the current USD1.1 billion, an annual increase of some 15 per cent.
About The Klosters Forum (TKF)
What is The Klosters Forum?
The Klosters Forum is a not-for-profit organisation, offering a neutral platform for disruptive and inspirational minds to tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Its mission is to accelerate positive environmental change by developing and nurturing a growing community of leading thinkers and doers and by fostering cross-disciplinary exchange and collaborations.
Every year, the Forum hosts an environmental annual event connecting high-profile participants from the fields of science, business, politics and industry, as well as NGOs, creative minds and sustainability experts in a neutral and discreet environment. This year, the annual forum took place on 28-30 June 2022 with the theme “The future of the built environment.”
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Pictet’s partnership with The Klosters Forum
The Pictet Group is pleased to partner with The Klosters Forum to draw attention to the impact of real estate on our environment and to contribute to the conversation about this important issue.