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Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Future of Concrete

posted by on February 7 at 12:13 PM


Business Week reports:

Concrete is ubiquitous in the modern world, yet most people don’t give it a passing thought. Why would they? It may be the most consumed substance on earth after water, but the stuff of pavements and parking garages is also a bit dull—or so most of us thought. In fact, innovations in the science of concrete have enabled architects and designers to achieve remarkable feats that would have been impossible in earlier years—everything from ultra-thin bridges spanning hundreds of feet to furniture made from lightweight blends.

One of the big factors behind the resurgence of concrete is the environmental movement. Scientists and architects have rediscovered concrete’s potential to save energy, since its thermal efficiency reduces the need for air conditioning and heating. But with this reawakening has come demand for more lightweight, durable, and aesthetic concrete by the designers who use it.

The world’s three largest concrete producers—Lafarge (LAFP.PA), HeidelbergCement (HEIG.DE), and Cemex (CX)—have responded with a slew of innovations that have dispelled traditional assumptions about concrete: that it has to be thick when poured, reinforced with steel, mechanically vibrated to ensure even distribution, and, of course, opaque.

Very exciting! Very sexy! Bionic concrete! How can you beat that? But it is sad to lose the thick and reinforced stuff, to lose the beauty of the pour, to the lose the resistance and moodlessness of the ultimate substance. Old concrete is honest; the new concrete is a whore.

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This is all very exciting. Imagine rebuilding the old Kingdome using the new "science of concrete." It would stand forever ...

Posted by Bub | February 7, 2008 12:34 PM

There is actually a world-wide shortage of concrete at the moment. The building boom of the last decade, particularly in China and SE Asia, has out-stripped supply. Major projects, including mass transit upgrades in Dallas, and road building and housing construction in Sri Lanka have been put on hold because of inadequate supplies. The current economic down-turn may relieve the shortage somewhat, but then there will be less money to build things with.

Posted by inkweary | February 7, 2008 12:47 PM

"One of the big factors behind the resurgence of concrete is the environmental movement."

True, but not how Business Week explains it. Concrete companies are under the gun from environmentalists concerned about that pesky global warming stuff.

Studies show cement plants emit between 7 and 10 percent of all carbon dioxide in the entire world. The research at MIT is promising, but the scientists in charge say not to hold your breath: at least five years for definitive results.

Posted by tomasyalba | February 7, 2008 1:01 PM

Anything's better than the wave of horrible CGI buildings covered with wacky metal skins (EMP) and lattices (SPL).

Posted by Fnarf | February 7, 2008 1:03 PM

@3: The problem is that the production of cement is so energy-intensive: You have to collect and purify the ingredients, then you have to mix them all up and smelt it until it hardens into clinker, then you have to grind the clinker up into powder and store it away from moisture. That takes a LOT of power.

Posted by Greg | February 7, 2008 1:44 PM

Of course, it's always great fun to support the civil engineering student's concrete canoe project. You can see it at the annual engineering open house.

Posted by Mr. Joshua | February 7, 2008 1:54 PM

"Old concrete is honest; new concrete is a whore."
Concrete has always been going through changes this is not something new. What is old concrete the stuff the Romans used or the stuff that came before that.
Concrete mainly used today was created in the 1800's so it is relatively new. Change is always happening.
So I do not get the whore reference for something improved.
The post was interesting up until the last line.

Posted by -B- | February 7, 2008 2:12 PM

Concrete is the cold and unfeeling facade of The State, a dehumanizing Other. That is why Charles hates the new. Plus, the new tech spells the end of the box and the straight line. It introduces curves, a human, natural form that is antithetical to Charles' love of the beauty of theory, the mind. Straight lines and boxes are tidy and methodical, putting humans in their place at the service of the greater idea, The State.


Posted by NaFun | February 7, 2008 2:31 PM

@8: Straight lines and boxes are also a hell of a lot easier to make.

Posted by Greg | February 7, 2008 4:01 PM

Yes, but the new concrete will be a sexy, eco-whore.

Posted by Cale | February 7, 2008 5:24 PM

Look south to Olympia, where the City has built several sidewalk and walkway projects using new permeable concrete. It costs more, but has one really cool and gigantic benefit. Any project that builds more than a certain amount of solid, impervious surface (like a parking lot or sidewalk) must comply with government stormwater treatment regulations.

This usually requires a detention pond. Those are usually concrete-lined monsters, or reed-choked mosquito hatcheries.

Permeable concrete eliminates the need to build a detention pond. Maintenance costs go down. Useable land is saved. And the newer formulations are so smooth kids can still skateboard on them.

Posted by Dr_Awesome | February 7, 2008 6:27 PM

Concrete is, was and always will be only as honest as the form imposed upon it.

Posted by MUD | February 8, 2008 12:51 AM

And here I was, beginning to suspect you worked for the Concrete lobby.

Posted by Dade | February 8, 2008 10:38 AM

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