Building innovations: from glass bricks to robotics

Construction sites are changing fast as the latest technology and smarter materials make their debut.

There’s never been a more exciting time to work in the construction industry: innovative new materials are making our buildings h3er, safer and more stylish while computer systems and autonomous machines are boosting productivity and smoothing workflow. Here are some of the most impressive new developments.

Concrete redefined

It’s the most widely used product in commercial construction and has also been embraced by the residential sector in recent decades. Now, scientists in Australia and Europe are looking at ways to make concrete even h3er. Dutch microbiologist Hendrik Jonkers has created bio-concrete which contains a bacterium that produces limestone when the concrete cracks and comes into contact with water (the idea is to extend the lifespan of the concrete by helping it heal itself). Meanwhile, at Deakin University in Geelong, Dr Riyadh Al-Ameri is adding high-quality shredded plastic to concrete to reduce its water absorption by up to 30 percent without weakening the concrete.

Next-generation bricks

Three radically different brick innovations demonstrate just how versatile this key building block can be. At the University of Cape Town, researchers have created bio-bricks that don’t need to be fired and therefore do not produce carbon emissions. The secret? Human urine is combined with loose sand and bacteria in a brick-shaped mould, triggering microbial carbonate precipitation (a similar process to how seashells are formed). Meanwhile, a scientist in California has created the pollution-busting Breathe Brick: a brick with a self-powering cyclone filter at its core that sucks in outdoor air like a vacuum cleaner, filters it and expels it indoors. And in Australia, Austral Bricks offers Venetian Glass, a stylish yet sturdy glass brick that famously adorns the façade of fashion house Chanel’s Amsterdam boutique.

Robots and drones

Intelligent machines are increasingly being deployed to improve accuracy and efficiency on construction sites. The use of drones to conduct site surveys and photograph construction progress is skyrocketing, replacing riskier activities (such as climbing scaffolding) and automatically providing calculations (such as the volume of earth to be moved) that previously would have taken hours. Robotics is also advancing, with automated rovers increasingly being deployed for job-site monitoring and driverless bulldozers and dump trucks gaining popularity.

Advanced software and virtual reality

Perhaps the most noticeable technological advancement in the building sector recently has been the widespread adoption of sophisticated Building Information Modelling (BIM) software at all stages of the development process. In simple terms, BIM is a successor to CAD (computer-aided design), but instead of simply providing 2D or basic 3D articulations of building projects, BIM models comprise multiple components (also called layers or objects) that are intelligent, have geometry and store data. In other words, BIM can store all the information relevant to a building project – both design and data – in one place.

Another big software-based development is virtual and augmented reality. The use of VR headsets on construction sites means workers can ‘overlay’ virtual images on views of the real world. This enables workers to visualise exactly how projects will look once complete and gain a more detailed understanding of what they are about to construct.

It will be interesting to see how these technologies change the building and construction industry in the next few years to come.

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