Translucent concrete, like this arch in Hungary, sheds new light on traditional limitations.
Chicago's "Aqua" is an example of how design is reshaping traditional materials.

Concrete—that gray, monolithic building material—is getting a face-lift. Inventors are reshaping it to do more, last longer and show off. A new kind of “translucent” concrete uses fiber optics to carry light and shadow. New light-sensitive terrazzo flooring can reflect a rainbow of colors. And high-strength concrete placed inside buildings and bridges can flex like hard rubber to dampen earthquake shocks.  The possibilities seem endless.

Innovation is infusing other traditional building blocks, such as steel, glass and wood, with renewal, while nanotechnology and “green” building has brought a host of hybrid materials. A heightened interest in building smart, clean and fast is driving this rapid research across the material world.

"We live in a time in which all material frontiers are being explored."
—   Blaine Brownell, architect, NBBJ

Blaine Brownell, an architect and researcher at Seattle-based NBBJ, says he sees a “fascination with dynamically transforming, responsive materials, due to designer-led desires to enliven spaces and make them more intelligent.”

Finding thousands of examples is easy, thanks to new resources. Bringing these products to market is another story, inventors say.

The ongoing quest for innovation has put some wild, new products on the designer’s palette. Reflect for a moment on glass: It protects people from the elements, provides modest insulation and offers a nice view. But now it can do so much more. One type can clean itself using a catalytic film that uses sunlight and rain to break down and wash away dirt particles and smudges. U.K.-based Pilkington Group Ltd. is one vendor offering this product worldwide. Other suppliers are starting to experiment with similar substrates that help concrete buildings, bridges and highway barriers take pollutants out of the air. Even paint can clean itself. “We live in a time in which all material frontiers are being explored,” Brownell says.

Steven Kosmatka, vice president of research for Skokie, Ill.-based Portland Cement Association, agrees, adding that designers wishing to use radically new concretes, “are sort of waiting for the critical mass.” New materials are a tough sell. Some offer a long-term cost benefit at a short-term price premium; others sim-ply have architectural appeal controlled by the whimsy of consumers. “The thing that baffles me are concrete countertops,” Kosmatka says. “It’s not something that [we] promoted. People just took a liking to it.”

Fast computers, aeronautic inventions and environmental sensibilities have contributed to these recent material developments. The playing field is broad. If these innovative products have one thing in common, it is their ability to transcend expectations, often confusing the mind and engaging the eye.

One of the most striking examples is a new type of translucent concrete called “Litracon,” developed by Åron Losonczi, a Hungarian architect. Inside Litracon’s precast blocks and panels are glass fibers, arranged in parallel like millions of tiny windows. They transmit light from one side of the concrete to the other. Tight manufacturing tolerances make production of this material a challenge, not to mention complicating on-site casting.

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  • The end result, however, is illuminating. On his website, the inventor says he has inked agreements with “leading manufacturers” and hopes to offer it soon worldwide. Designers are fascinated because “by adding the glass fibers you’re completely changing the whole way architects think about concrete,” says Andrew Dent, vice president of Material ConneXion, a New York City-based library of 3,000 innovative materials. Its clients include architects, builders and large retailers. Memberships start at $200. It also offers private consulting that costs tens of thousands of dollars (view related story).

    Kinetic and Mimetic

    Innovative materials are finding new ways to interact within the natural world and reflect its beauty, both architecturally and structurally. A promising new technology is ultra-high-performance concrete, such as Lafarge’s “Ductal” product. Introduced several years ago, it casts like concrete and feels like concrete. Once cured, it behaves more like a metal, using carbon fibers, polyvinyl-alcohol fibers and other embedded materials that bring compressive capacities up to 30,000 psi and flexural strengths to 6,000 psi (ENR 12/9/99 p. 24). Available in custom precast shapes, it costs somewhere “between” traditional concrete and steel, says the French producer. It is the featured material on a highway bridge completed this past spring in Wapello County, Iowa.

    Photo: University of Michigan

    Concrete that bends is a material under development at the University of Michigan.

    “Bendable” concrete is another material emerging in the fast-growing UHPC segment. It is similar to Ductal, resisting cracking 500 times more than traditional concrete, weighing 40% less and reducing the need for reinforcements and joints, especially in seismic zones. Under development at the University of Michigan, the combination of high strength and elasticity comes from synthetic fibers placed in the mix using traditional construction equipment and techniques.

    Victor Li, a Michigan professor who invented the product, says it could soon bring roads and bridges that have no joints. “So far it works very well,” he says, adding that it costs about three times more than typical concrete but can lower the cost of seismic engineering.

    Not everyone is sold on the idea of super-performing concrete. Li says he is in talks with several companies to mass-produce it and is working with industry groups to develop design and testing criteria. So far, the material has appeared on a bridge in Michigan and two high-rise buildings in Tokyo, but little elsewhere.

    Engineers also are experimenting with fiber-reinforced-polymer composites, such as glass-epoxy wraps, that can be applied to existing buildings and infrastructure to extend their life. “The greatest aspect of this material is the high strength-to-weight ratio,” says Nicolas Saenz, a structural engineer in the Las Vegas office of Walter P. Moore.

    Photo:Walter P. Moore
    Epoxy-coated materials help shore up old structures.

    Connecting Ideas

    The construction industry prides itself in innovation, yet inventors like Li cite major problems in bringing new building materials and systems to market. Building codes that do not yet address new technology and risk-averse owners are partly to blame. “My theory on this [is that] the building industry lacks very much vertical integration,” says Bob Simmons, an inventor in Hayward, Calif.

    Brownell is one of many who are trying to help. His new book, Transmaterial (Princeton Architectural Press), attempts to explain the recent boom in material science and show off more than 200 far-out examples. His ongoing search has landed him in Japan, where he is studying materials under a Fulbright fellowship. Several other books have cropped up in the last year, as well, including Material World 2 (Birkhauser),  and Material Architecture (Elsevier).

    The conservation movement also has helped bring along some “green” materials, such as a new product called “Kirei Board.” Made from sorghum and starting at $7 per sq ft, it behaves like plywood but is friendlier to the environment, the manufacturer claims.

    Nearly 90% of the products catalogued in Brownell’s 237-page book are being used in the field but few have “widespread deployment,” he says. The construction process brings its own practical challenges. “Just because something is innovative…doesn’t mean it is easy to produce on a work site,” says Dent, who is the co-author of Material ConneXion (Wiley), another new book on materials.

    Simmons is doing for steel what others are doing for concrete. The design-build contractor invented a moment-resisting space frame, called “ConXtech,” that arrives on site and within minutes snaps together like a model airplane. But the building system is no toy, having solid roots in a seismic region and capable of rising to heights of up to 100 ft in about half the time of traditional frames. His patented “boltless” connectors, which robotic welding machines affix to the ends of 12-in.-deep beams, mate with dovetails welded on faces of hollow columns. The beams lock into the tubular columns, measuring between 4 in. and 8 in. square, using gravity. With the help of a mobile crane, the contractor can stand the frame without bolts. “We erect it from the top down,” explains Simmons, “then we deck from the bottom up.” Crews install bolts at each floor before pouring concrete slabs.

    Photo:ConxTech Inc.
    New moment-resisting space frame (above) slides together quickly (belowt). Bolts are then added as trades rise through the building.

    In the past two years, Simmons has designed, fabricated and built 12 buildings using this system and expects revenue this year to exceed $40 million. Getting his idea off the ground was no snap. On an early project, Simmons had to prove to permitting officials that the frame could satisfy seismic codes. “We just had to do a lot of arithmetic,” he says.

    Owners have also had their hangups, the inventor adds. “As entrepreneurial and risk-taking as the development community wants to see itself, there is inherent conservatism in not wanting to take on new, unknown risk,” he says. Eventually, a “trusting customer base” helped ConXtech materialize.

    Amid the innovation, traditional materials still have their place, and can look just as cool. In Chicago, an 82-story rectangular, mixed-use tower called “Aqua,” which begins construction this month, will have concrete balconies that cantilever as far out as 12 ft. Each slab has a unique shape in plan, with random undulation that will make the building appear to “ripple” from bottom to top. Underneath, the 10-in.-thick slabs and the core-and-outrigger structure couldn’t be more typical.

    Ron Klemencic, president of the $300-million tower’s structural engineer, Seattle-based Magnusson Klemencic Associates, says Aqua’s innovation is not so much about materials. Rather, the “daring” cantilevers are now possible using advanced design and construction tools, such as 3-D software and flying formwork. Jeanne Gang, Aqua’s design architect, says her Chicago-based firm, STUDIO/GANG, can make advances “using some fairly standard materials that are now simply able to do more.”