Five cutting-edge building materials to watch Five cutting-edge building materials to watch
Share this on WhatsAppBY Roznah Abdul Jabbar The term cutting-edge does not necessarily just refer to flying cars and self-drying jackets, it can be... Five cutting-edge building materials to watch

BY Roznah Abdul Jabbar

The term cutting-edge does not necessarily just refer to flying cars and self-drying jackets, it can be something that makes our life simpler… but innovatively significant.

According to, advances in building material technology can completely reshape the way we approach construction in the near future. This year, five building material technologies have made noteworthy headway towards becoming a common feature on our landscape, and the best part is these products are inspired by our natural world.

Although none of these commercially available as yet, some are expected to be launched as early as this year and others are making great strides towards commercial viability.

This motley collection of innovations, which spans from fabric generated from synthesized spider threads and products bio-engineered from discarded shrimp shells to a bridge built entirely by robots, represents the culmination of years—sometimes decades—of research.

Listed below, in the anticipated chronological order of realisation, are ground-breaking advancements that we could see unfolded in the coming year.
Solar-thermal cladding

The Solar Activated Façade, a cladding system that combines wood louvers and back-vented glazing, is designed as a thermal storage device for use in colder climates.

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The façade’s heat-sink functionality is said to be particularly appealing and the system consists of prefabricated panels that can be installed onsite via an aluminium cladding mounting system.

The wood slats are angled to deflect the summer sun while inviting the winter sun’s radiant energy into an interior cavity, storing diurnal winter heat long into the night to reduce heat loss from interior spaces.

Depending on the type of insulated backing used, the Solar Activated Façade can lead to R-values ranging from 65 to 150. The system was originally developed by Switzerland-based architect Giuseppe Fent and it has been commercially available in that country for approximately 15 years as “Lucido Solar AG”. It is expected to be marketed in the United States by the end of the year.


Synthetic Spider Thread

Qmonos, made by the Japanese company Spiber, is one of the most captivating arguments in Janine Benyus’ celebrated book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (HarperCollins, 1997), which focuses on her aspiration for modern industry to create materials as strong, elegant, and versatile as spider silk.


Four years earlier, Jeffrey Turner and Paul Ballard founded Nexia Biotechnologies, in rural Quebec, Canada, to produce BioSteel, a high-performance silk-like fibre made by cultivating recombinant proteins in the milk of transgenic goats. Turner said that a single gene was taken from a golden orb-weaving spider and was combined with goat’s egg to form a goat which secretes spider silk into its milk (yes, you read that right).

Although Nexia went bankrupt in 2009, Spiber has since taken the reins in creating a synthetic spider thread it calls Qmonos (based on kumonosu, the Japanese term for a spider web). The fibroin protein that imparts Qmonos with its dragline, silk-like quality is not made from goats’ milk, but rather bio-engineered bacteria and recombinant DNA.

What’s more, Spiber has developed a scalable production method and has already collaborated with apparel brand The North Face to produce the Moon Parka, an insulating jacket designed for extreme polar expeditions with a shell made entirely of Qmonos fiber. The parka, currently on an exhibition tour across Japan, is expected to be available to consumers in 2016.
Structural 3D Printing

Originally scheduled to start construction late last year, the Dutch designer Joris Laarman’s MX3D Bridge should begin taking shape this year.


As the world’s first 3D-printed bridge, the highly anticipated steel structure will be built using the Netherlands–based MX3D’s multi-axis metal-printing technology. This process is driven by industrial robots fitted with welding machines that can print lines of various metals in mid-air, starting from an anchored surface – similar to drawing a structure in space – by incrementally fusing molten metal in short lengths and allowing it to cool.

Working in collaboration with design programmer Autodesk and European construction company Heijmans,Laarman, MX3D has long been developing plans for the autonomously-constructed 26.2ft long pedestrian bridge, which will span the Amsterdam’s Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal.


Self-Healing Concrete

Also undergoing testing is a collection of self-healing concrete technologies. Through a project called Materials for Life (M4L), researchers from the School of Engineering at the University of Cardiff, in Wales, are conducting the first major trial of these materials in the United Kingdom.


The team, which also includes scientists from the University of Bath and the University of Cambridge, will evaluate the viability of three types of self-healing concrete: one with shape-memory polymers activated by electrical current; one with healing agents made from organic and inorganic compounds; and one with capsules containing bacteria and healing agents.

M4L’s goal is autonomous infrastructure – roads, tunnels, bridges, and buildings – that can repair themselves without human intervention. The aims to “create sustainable and resilient systems that continually monitor, regulate, adapt, and repair themselves without the need for human intervention,” said Cardiff professor and M4L principal investigator Bob Lark.

This is especially important given the billions spent on the annual concrete-intensive maintenance and repair of structures the world over.



Ongoing research continues to bring us closer to the plastic products of tomorrow. Scientists at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed a new bioplastic made from discarded shrimp shells.


Using the remarkably tough yet flexible natural chitin, or insect cuticle, Wyss founding director Don Ingber and postdoctoral fellow Javier Fernandez have created thin films with the same structure and composition as chitin.

Made by using the processed derivative chitosan from shrimp shells, the new plastic matches aluminum in strength at only half the weight. It is also biocompatible, biodegradable, inexpensive, and may be molded to a variety of 3D shapes.

Researchers are optimistic about the material’s ability to replace fossil fuel–based plastics in consumer and medical applications. This is critical given the proliferation of non-biodegradable plastic waste discarded every year, much of which is polluting the world’s oceans.


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