15 Futuristic Building Materials that Are Changing Construction

December 30, 2020
building materials changing construction

How Builders Can Improve Quality and Cost By Adopting New Materials

Quarried stone. Concrete. Stainless steel. Plexiglass. These everyday construction items were invented long ago, but in their time they revolutionized the construction industry. In fact, these materials made such a huge difference that we often don't consider other options when undertaking a construction project these days. That attitude is likely to change as cutting-edge building materials continue to enter the supply chain. Some may just be temporary trends, but others are so innovative they’re bound to stand the test of time. Here's a quick review of 15 new materials setting the standard for the future of the construction industry.

1. Self-Healing Concrete

By now it’s almost a law in the construction industry that concrete will inevitably crack, which is why expansion joints are cut into concrete to control where those cracks happen. But what if the concrete could heal unintended cracks, drastically reducing your maintenance and repairs? Self-healing concrete includes a water-activated bacteria, which coats the cracks with calcite to seal them.

2. Ultra-Lightweight Carbon Compounds

Steel forms a lot of the structure we use in construction, but in some situations, it's just too heavy to be easily supported. However, some ultra-light carbon compounds such as graphene can deliver ten times the strength of steel with some compounds being as much as 75 times lighter than styrofoam. These aspects make it perfect for reducing foundation sizes and impacts, which allows for construction on more delicate soil structures.

3. Modular Bamboo Structures

Bamboo has become a very popular construction material over the past decade or two as it has outgrown its Southeast Asian roots. But part of the reason why it's been used around the Ring of Fire for centuries is because of its resistance to earthquakes, durability, and stability. Recent advances are allowing modular structures to be designed from this dynamic material which can be two to three times stronger than steel and grows up to four feet per day.

4. Translucent Lumber

Lumber has been one of the primary building materials for millennia, being found in antiquities dig sites time and again. However, a relatively recent process introduces a dynamic new process that renders this typically opaque material translucent, almost transparent. Lignin in the wood is removed through a chemical process, and then the spaces left are filled with a transparent polymer, rendering the material virtually transparent.

5. Synthetic Spider Silk

Steel cables have been used for well over a century to strengthen a wide range of structures, despise adding a great deal of weight in the process. With advances in genetic engineering, artificial spider silk has been developed using bacteria for production that has the tensile strength of steel, but is a more flexible, lighter-weight material. A four-millimeter bundle of strands is strong enough to hold the weight of a full-grown man.

6. Transparent Aluminum

In Star Trek IV, Scottie thought that transparent aluminum would be developed around 2130, but digital transformation has sped up the process, giving us that product more than a century early. Resistant to oxidation, corrosion, and radiation, this blend of aluminum, oxygen, and nitrogen is 85% stronger than sapphire. Tesla is incorporating the material into its semi-trucks, but it also works well with high-abrasion areas, such as beaches and deserts, along with underwater and outer space environments.

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7. Aluminum Foam Panels

Aluminum metal panels have been used to generate architectural and design interest in modern buildings for decades, but it's only recently that this lightweight material has been made even lighter and more versatile in the production of aluminum foam, a process that includes pushing air through molten aluminum to develop a range of different unique finishes. Though there are still some kinks being worked out in large-scale production, these panels show great promise for future construction use.

8. Light-Reflecting Concrete

Concrete has been around since the time of the Romans in one form or another, but only in an opaque form. The introduction of a wide range of materials has changed the properties of this building material, but none have changed this specific aspect until the introduction of glass into the media. The addition of tiny beads of glass or fiber optic strands allows the introduction of light into the otherwise-opaque material, creating a great option for lighting up signs, marking streets, and sidewalks, or creating other unique architectural details.

9. Nanocrystalline Smart Windows

Window films, coatings, and similar adaptations have been in use for over half a century, but the introduction of smart windows with crystalline nanostructures has taken these adaptations to a whole new level. The introduction of energy to these specially-designed smart windows will enable a switch between levels of opacity, improving thermal resistance to heat or cold while maintaining the privacy of those inside.

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10. Wool-and-Cellulose Bricks

Standard clay bricks have been produced for centuries to create solid, strong structures, walls, and pathways, but typically at a somewhat larger cost of production due to the temperatures required to bake the bricks. Recent research into new ways to remake these traditional materials has lead to a smart combination of wool and seaweed to create a lighter, stronger brick that uses less energy to complete.

11. Hydroceramic Membranes

Though air conditioning has been around for decades, the expense of cooling interior spaces has led to a constant search for more efficient methods of cooling the air around us. One option that has recently been developed is hydroceramic membranes, which incorporate hydrogels, ceramic, and fabric. This material uses evaporation and the material's adaptation to the surrounding environment to handle temperature and humidity within the structure.

12. Pollution-Clearing Bricks

Brick has been used throughout the years, especially during the Industrial Revolution when the power of steam was first harnessed -- and the first serious air pollution threat began in the form of coal smoke. But the Breathe Brick has been developed to help take care of this issue by filtering the outside air through the bricks, depositing any pollutants at the interior base of the wall structure while delivering clean air to the inside of the structure.

13. Transparent Photovoltaic Cells

People love the idea of renewable solar energy but may not want or be able to mount solar panels reasonably on their property. With the addition of large spans of glass in many modern homes and businesses, some researchers have developed a way to gain more window space while producing energy at the same time by incorporating transparent photovoltaic cells into windows, allowing the window space to generate power at the same time.

14. Thermal-Regulating Biomass Panels

We discussed how hydroceramic membranes help cool buildings, but what if you're in an area with moderate temperatures that require heating as well as cooling? One up-and-coming option is to use biomass panels that promote thermal regulation. Incorporating algae, they use a gel that responds to outside temperatures to self-regulate the inside temperature of the wall system, heating up when it's cold and cooling when it's hot.

15. Ultra-lightweight Composite Materials

Contractors have always found a ton of different options to save on the cost of materials, from very good to very odd. However, with today's push for recycling as many materials as possible and cutting waste, there are many new options that are being tried. One of the more creative options that has come to light lately has been a combination of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and chicken feather quills, which are high in keratin, improving the mechanical and thermal stability properties of the combination for strong, lightweight composites.

Forward-Thinking Construction FTW

The materials we’ve listed here have the ability to redefine so many aspects of construction today. From lightweight to smart, and even ultra-strong, these innovations are needed, whether they appear on shelves in another ten years or not. If these materials are available in your area, your construction business could lead change, while saving energy and money along the way. Companies that are operating at the cusp of innovation are among those that are advancing to the top of the industry as we go through digital transformation. Every construction leader needs to embrace change as we build the future. If you need help navigating these changes on your next project, consider using a construction estimating service where a professional cost estimator can help you make the right decisions.

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