Over the last year, both prospective and current homeowners have expressed a need for healthier, safer and better integrated houses. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many of us to the dangers of living in homes with poor indoor air quality while record natural disasters reminded us of the need to move towards a more sustainable way of life. In response, technopreneurs and engineers around the world have responded, providing new innovations in design and construction. From 3D printed homes and disaster simulation software to augmented reality and solar glass, there are dozens of new products and services available. Follow below for ten examples of the latest in construction industry technology.
The first in our list of construction technology trends is 3D printing. A little over a decade ago, 3D printing emerged as a possible remedy for disaster-stricken regions around the world. From hurricanes and hundred year floods to earthquakes and wildfires, traditional homes are not only incredibly vulnerable, but are also expensive and time-consuming to rebuild post-disaster. Both in conjunction with existing prefab technologies and on its own, three dimensional printing offers a fast and potentially inexpensive way to rebuild homes from the ground up -- even in a remote construction site.
In his 2017 article “3D Printing of Disaster Relief Tools and Shelters, and R&D Tax Credits” for 3DPrint.com, Charles Goulding wrote that following the 2010 earthquake and hurricane, “the introduction of 3D printing in Haiti helped architects and engineers provide greatly needed infrastructure and clinical relief.” Seven years later, the Italian company World’s Advanced Saving Project (WASP) “created a massive 3D printer that is able to make earthen houses using eco-friendly materials such as dirt, clay and plant fibers.” Not only can such tech “efficiently provide relief in the form of shelter to those who have lost their homes in the event of a natural disaster” but it can also create structures in all sorts of shapes. Many of these 3D printers are also portable, making them perfect for “fast and environmentally friendly reconstruction efforts” and for cities in immediate need of additional housing.
Today, 3D printing could serve as one of many much-needed solutions for the housing crisis. It may also serve as a way to build sustainable, eco-friendly homes off-grid in remote locations. In the first four months of 2021, several companies have unveiled 3D architectural achievements. In her March 2021 article “ICON builds 3D-printed houses from disaster-proof concrete in Texas” for Dezeen, Jane Englefield describes a small community of 3D-printed houses in Austin, Texas made “from concrete that's designed to cope with extreme weather.” The homes -- which were designed by Logan Architecture and 3Strands and produced by ICON’s Vulcan printer -- vary in size from two to four bedrooms each. Each home took between five and seven days to build, far less than a traditional build.
In her article “3D-Printed California Community Shows The Technology’s Huge Potential For Home Construction” for Forbes, Jennifer Castenson writes about a recent collaboration between Mighty Buildings and Palari Group. She writes that together, Mighty Buildings and sustainable development company Palari Group will “use 3D-printing to build an entire community of homes in Palm Springs, California.” Each of the fifteen homes in this community will “be composed of 15 homes that all have advanced environmental and technological features.” When all is said and done, each home in this community will be “zero net energy capable.” Quoting Sam Ruben of Mighty Buildings, Castenson writes that “‘3D-printing is one of, if not the, most promising technologies on the market to...solve the housing crisis...in a way that doesn't exacerbate the climate crisis in the process.”
Prefab -- or prefabricated -- homes are those created in panels or other large sections off-site. These panels are later delivered to the building site and assembled into a home. Prefab construction can reduce build time significantly -- from months or years to days or weeks -- while limiting associated costs. Modular prefab construction has long been popular in the United States, with Sears selling more than a hundred thousand prefabricated homes through their catalogs between 1908 and 1940. Today’s prefab homes are typically high-tech and low-impact, ideal for a changing climate and growing focus on sustainability. Modern prefab home designs run the gamut. They fit nearly every niche, with some offered by luxury architecture firms and others designed for more budget-conscious consumers.
In her article “Modular Construction Meets Changing Needs in the Pandemic” for The New York Times, Alli McConnon writes that modular prefab construction has become increasingly popular in the home building space over the last year. She notes that “the modular method ranges from manufacturing components such as panels and walls to full units such as kitchens and bathrooms in a factory and then assembling them on location like large Lego pieces.” This construction method currently “accounts for about 5% of all new projects in both commercial and residential real estate” and is expected to grow significantly over the next decade due to its affordability and predictability.
The ability to build in a warehouse before shipping out to a client protects the project’s budget and timeline by eliminating slow-downs related to weather and other issues. Exciting companies building off-site prefab homes and kits include Avrame USA, Honomobo, and Plant Prefab. Avrame creates kit packages for a variety of designs and sizes of A-frame houses -- available in their Solo, Duo and Trio configurations. Honombo designs homes based on metal shipping containers and Plant Prefab works with clients to create fully customizable, carbon zero spaces.
In their article “The Top Twelve Green Building Trends” for Ecohome , Mike Reynolds and Bob Pierson point to carbon footprint calculators. They describe carbon footprint calculators used during design and construction of residential buildings as “one of the most exciting building tools [they]’ve found lately.” Programs like ZNE and tools like the EC3 calculator from Skanska draw from a database of available materials to calculate the embedded energy of a construction project. The embedded energy of a building is “the energy required to manufacture the building materials in the first place.” Using these tools, design-build firms “can accurately estimate how much of a specific material is needed and the carbon impact of different similar materials to make the best environmental choice.”
Rima Sabina Aouf further describes the cloud based EC3 calculator in the article “Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator launches to tackle industry emissions” for Dezeen. Aouf writes that “companies from across the architecture, engineering and construction industries have collaborated to create a free digital embodied carbon calculator that they hope will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and counter climate change.” The cloud based calculator’s database currently includes “more than 16,000 materials, including concrete, steel, wood, glass, aluminium, insulation, gypsum, carpet and ceiling tiles” commonly used around the world. Any builder or designer can use the free, open-access tool “to cut their carbon dioxide emissions.”
Those using the cloud based calculator have already slashed their emissions by up to 30% without sustaining “any significant financial impact.” For developers, designers and builders interested in using the EC3 calculator to reduce their own project emissions, we recommend leafing through the “Primer for AEC Professionals: Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) Tool.” For those living in pre-built spaces, we recommend using the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Carbon Footprint Calculator” which calculates the efficiency of daily activities.
According to the US Department of Energy, “a cool roof is one that has been designed to reflect more sunlight and absorb less heat than a standard roof.” They can be made from “a highly reflective type of paint, a sheet covering, or highly reflective tiles or shingles.” Cool roofs are becoming more popular as temperatures rise across the globe because they help limit the heat transferred from the external environment to the internal environment of the home. While cool roofing has existed for forty years -- first pioneered in the 1980s --, it has since adapted to include green roofing. Though more time-consuming -- and sometimes more costly -- to maintain, green roofs are incredibly popular because they are attractive and absorb rather than reflect heat.
Green roofs are not only popular amongst homeowners but also amongst developers and designers interested in sustainable urban and residential design. In her article “4 Reasons Green Roofs Do A Building Good” for NC State University’s Sustainability publication, Carla Davis writes that “green roofs reduce energy costs by absorbing heat instead of attracting it.” Green roofs provide effective natural insulation that keeps heat out and reduces the need for air conditioning during the summer. Green roofs also “help reduce the Urban Heat Island Effect” while removing “air particulates, producing oxygen and providing shade.” Lastly, green roofs can protect against flooding and property destruction by “reducing and slowing stormwater runoff.” Green roofs can “absorb and filter water significantly [to lower] the risk of flash flooding and sewer overflows.”
The Globe Newswire article “Global Smart and Advanced Materials Building Applications and Markets Report 2021: Glass, Insulation, Construction, Vibration Dampening, Coatings, HVAC, Energy, Smart Sensors, Lighting” reviews recent home building technologies. The Markets Report identifies smart glass as one of the top technologies of 2021, focusing on its applications in sustainable building design. For those unfamiliar with electrochromic windows, the DesignScene editorial team explains in their article “The Future is Smart: How Do Electrochromic Windows Work?” According to the article, electrochromic windows are made of glass or plastic coated with a thin metal oxide layer, as opposed to normal windows which are made from “layers of clear glass.” When an electrical current is applied to this metal oxide layer, the glass changes colors and transforms from opaque to transparent -- and vice versa. Because the electrodes in this process “are simply being passed back and forth...there’s no power needed to maintain smart glass windows,” saving money and energy output.
In their article “Smart glass has a bright future: Light modulation via optical MEMS microshutter and micromirror arrays could provide huge energy savings,” the ScienceDaily team reviews a recent study that found smart glazing could significantly reduce emissions while saving consumers money. The article notes that today, “buildings are responsible for 40 percent of primary energy consumption and 36 percent of total CO2 emissions.” By subbing in smart glazing, builders can “decrease energy consumption for lighting and temperature control.” Though smart glass has been around since the 1990s, emerging companies have developed new methods and technologies. To learn more about technopreneurs changing the smart glass industry, read this article from Tracxn.
The LetsBuild.com article “10 futuristic technologies that are changing construction” identifies self-healing concrete as one of the most exciting home building technologies of 2021. LetsBuild explains that every year, “millions of pounds are invested in maintaining, fixing and restoring roads, buildings, tunnels and bridges” in the UK alone. This is because most concrete is brittle, vulnerable to changes in weather, equipped with poor vibration resistance and “eventually cracks and needs to be restored.” Self-healing concrete could “add years to a building’s life and be an enormous help timewise and financially” to residential home and urban community developers. Self-healing concrete works by using water to reactivate bacteria “that was mixed in [to the concrete] during the mixing process.” When activated, this bacteria “calcite which then heals the crack.”
Alexander Zverev explains the potential of self-healing concrete in his news release “Self-healing concrete for regions with high moisture and seismic activity” for EurekaAlert! -- a publication funded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Quoting engineer Roman Fediuk, Zverev writes that “‘concrete remains the world's number one construction material because it is cheap, durable, and versatile.’” Unfortunately, concrete cracks “‘over time because of various external factors, including moisture and repetitive freezing/thawing cycles.’”
Self-healing concrete grew out of a “pressing demand” for innovative materials that can diagnose and repair traditional materials like concrete, metal and wood. Zverev writes that self-healing concrete offers an inexpensive way to quickly and effectively repair infrastructure, particularly after a disaster. According to Averev and Fediuk, “self-healing concrete is most relevant for construction in seismically risky areas, where small fissures appear in buildings after earthquakes of a modest magnitude, and in areas with high humidity and high rainfall where a lot of oblique rain falls on the vertical surfaces of buildings.”
Nathaniel Gronewold points out the need for technological advances in his article “Climate change is making major disasters more frequent” for Scientific American. Referencing data released in 2020 by the International Federation of Red Cross, Gronewold writes that “major disasters are increasingly happening in succession,” often displacing humans and wildlife from their homes and habitats. According to the IRFC’s survey, “‘the number of such disasters triggered by extreme weather- and climate-related events has been increasing since the 1960s, and has risen almost 35% since the 1990s.’” Not only do “governments need to do far more on climate mitigation and adaptation,” developers and architects also need to disaster-proof the buildings they design and build.
In her article “What Japan’s Disaster-Proofing Strategies Can Teach the World” for Bloomberg CityLab, Marika Katanuma offers a few solutions from across the globe in Asia. Architects and builders in Japan have begun using pioneering vibration-control systems and disaster simulation software to protect against disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Artificial intelligence appears poised to lead construction tech over the next few years, explains engineer Hideyuki Tanaka whose company is developing disaster simulation software. Tanaka and Katanuma reference emerging typhoon simulation software, which can “predict wind loads and speeds in two to three days, a process that may currently require months of data collection and wind-tunnel tests.” Tanaka’s software will allow architects to factor “data into design elements such as a building’s shape and the thickness of window glass” to create safe structures.
On the heels of the February 2021 Texas Power Crisis, homeowners and builders across the country have turned towards ways to safely and effectively store power in their homes. Though interest in solar power has only gained momentum over the last several decades, the Texas Power Crisis compounded this interest nationwide. As such, developers, real estate agents and tech experts cite solar power storage as one of the top home construction and renovation trends for 2021. In her article “The energy storage market is blowing up in the United States: 2021 Trends in Solar” for Solar Power World, Kelly Pickerel writes that “one product that saw a significant boost in sales during the pandemic was the energy storage system.”
In light of the many natural disasters that occurred last year -- alongside shelter-at-home and self-quarantine orders during the COVID-19 pandemic -- “homeowners really felt they needed to be prepared for anything to have a stable home base.” To create a safe and reliable home no matter which natural disaster or public health crisis emerged, homeowners have identified “solar + storage...as the best possible option.” Pickerel notes that “the residential storage market has been growing steadily every quarter since early 2019” and pretty soon, “all new solar installations [will] include a storage component.”
As mentioned above, cooling technologies continue to dominate design-build technology. Alongside cool roofs and smart glass, nanoparticle thermal reflective paints have emerged as major players. In his article “Whitest-ever paint could help cool heating Earth, study shows” for The Guardian, Damian Carrington writes about a newly developed paint that formulators hope will cool buildings while “tackling the climate crisis.” The paint in question -- a barium sulfate formula -- “reflects 98% of sunlight as well as radiating infrared heat through the atmosphere into space.” This is an 8 to 18% increase compared to traditional reflective white house paints. Carrington highlights three separate factors that “are responsible for the paint’s cooling performance.”
First of all, rather than opting for traditional calcium carbonate or titanium dioxide, the inorganic chemical compound barium sulphate was chosen as the paint’s pigment. Unlike titanium dioxide, barium sulfate reflects rather than absorbs UV light. Secondly, the manufacturers of this paint used a much higher concentration than is typical and thirdly, “the pigment particles were of varied size.” By varying the size of pigment particles, the paint was better able to scatter light from the sun. Because “the ultra-white paint uses a standard acrylic solvent and could be manufactured like conventional paint,” researchers expect the paint to be affordable for consumers when it hits the market fairly soon. The only aspect that could affect affordability of the paint is the high pigment concentration. Either way, this thermal reflective paint could revolutionize the house paint market.
The COVID-19 pandemic opened the eyes of homeowners around the country -- and across the world -- to the importance of healthy homes. Over the last several years, startling surveys and studies have emerged detailing the number of dangerously off-gassing materials within our homes. From flooring and insulation to paint and furniture, many older homes are burdened by chemical instability and unexpected toxicity. As such, the final emerging construction technology on this list is VOC-free paints and building materials.
Dozens of companies across the globe have developed low-emissions building materials and finishings over the last several years -- with more poised to join in coming months. For instance, ECOS Paints offers a series of “zero VOC” and “nontoxic” paints for exterior and interior walls. American RockWool provides natural wool insulation free from toxic flame retardants. Flooring manufacturers boasting high-quality natural hardwood flooring have reentered the public consciousness, turning consumers away from linoleum, pergo and vinyl tile.
The state of California has long been a leader in sustainability, innovative architecture and home tech. Given this, it should come as no surprise that California design-build company Element Homes has harnessed some of the state’s best integration software for use in its practice. Element Homes offers clients live project tracking through their project management software. As the housing market shifts towards environmental responsibility and home health, consumer choice will grow ever more important to homeowners. Element Homes offers consumers the ability to make all their materials selections, review progress photos and track their build’s schedule and budget remotely.
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