The markets: Construction (2019)

Composites materials advance construction projects globally, including combinations of wood and carbon fiber, foldable composites and more.

In the 21st century, one of the more compelling human stories is the growing need for resources to house Earth’s expanding population, and the growing awareness that those resources are finite and, in many cases, increasingly scarce. One case in which that contrast is acute is residential housing. The United Nations foresees a deepening global housing crisis — more than 440 million urban households will be in need of affordable accommodation by 2025. But conservationists warn that the sustainability of Earth’s forests, the source of the lumber to build those accommodations, is at serious risk. This conflict has done much to pique interest in fast-build construction technologies based on fiber-reinforced composites. As the new century’s second decade nears its end, composite manufacturers’ efforts in the housing arena are picking up speed. CW reported, for example, on the recent international growth of MVC Plásticos’ (Sao Jose dos Pinhais, Brazil) locally grown MVC Wall System in 2016. But many such solutions must enter the market if the construction industry is to make inroads into residential construction and homebuilders are to appreciate the value that lightweight, energy-efficient composite technologies can offer.

Of course, composites use in construction is not limited to fast-build residential applications. Architects around the world are applying composites in a variety of ways now, ranging from curtain wall panels to roofing systems. Notable cases of these include the Apple store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, IL, US, located on North Michigan Ave. at the Chicago River. The store, mostly subterranean, features a massive carbon fiber composite roof supported by four interior pillars. It tops an enclosure formed by a 32-ft ground-to-ceiling, all-glass façade. The roof, which measures 111 ft by 98 ft, was manufactured by notable composites manufacturer Premier Composite Technologies (PCT, Dubai, UAE). And in San Francisco, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) features a white, glass fiber composite, fire-resistant, highly contoured external cladding system developed by Kreysler & Assoc. (American Canyon, CA, US) that gives the museum its modern, flowing appearance. 

Also being explored further in construction applications is the use of composites reinforcement in wood beam structures. One exemplar of this concept is a library design competition in Varna, Bulgaria, that featured a submission which included a 46m, tree-like wood/carbon composite structural façade, undertaken in cooperation with Archicoplex (Tokyo, Japan) and that firm’s architect Daisuke Hirose. The design features a laminate made up of stacked, high-quality, straight, fine-grain wood veneers, kiln-dried for moisture control. These are then glue-laminated into preformed shapes, based on the position they occupy in the façade. Multiple unidirectional carbon fabrics would then be adhered to this wood laminate core, forming a sandwich structure to impart structural strength for bearing loads and preventing delamination. 

And in the US, at Clemson University, assistant professor of architecture Joseph Choma is working on foldable composite structures for construction applications. The concept of foldable composites is simple: Take a dry fiber reinforcement fabric, mask off seams to create fold points, infuse the unmasked fabric with resin, and cure the resin. The result is a composite laminate with uncured, soft seams that allow the entire structure to be folded for easy transport and installation on site. And after the entire laminate is installed, the dry seams can be infused with resin to solidify the entire structure. Choma and his students have already developed several structures in public walking areas on the Clemson campus so that students can see the material up close. Choma hopes to migrate the material and technology into a commercial application.

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CW Talks explores foldable composites with Joseph Choma

Clemson University professor Joseph Choma talks with CW about his work with foldable composites, and where they might find application. Hint: Choma teaches architecture. Video included!