Ultra-modern building materials are changing the way construction is done. Today’s materials are environmentally friendly, reliable and durable, while airy and light-weight. Find out more in our list of 15+ innovative construction materials.
Modern materials science has advanced noticeably in recent years. Today, there are truly revolutionary new building materials on the market. Innovative synthetic materials are being created — building materials that are lighter, stronger, and more environmentally friendly than traditional materials. These advances stimulate new architecture, totally different from what we are used to and more environmentally friendly.
Innovative materials: solving past problems
When cement cracks, it is a much more serious problem than many people think. It’s not just about aesthetics, although that is certainly important. No, this problem is structural: water will get into the crack and begin to undermine the integrity of the concrete. In an environment with unstable temperatures, this problem is exacerbated by the effect of freezing and unfreezing. The water in the crack expands during freezing winters, pushing each side of the crack a little further apart. And then, when the ice unfreezes in spring, the water will seep deeper into the cement, deepening the crack and undermining the structural integrity of the building.
But what if concrete could heal itself? Or asphalt, or even metal? It would be possible to save billions of pounds on repairs and restoration work alone, not to mention reducing harm to the environment that comes from replacing damaged materials.
Some modern building materials will find their place, perhaps, in small niches, but a number of innovative construction materials have the potential to become widely used. Buildings with traditional brick and concrete structures will gradually become a thing of the past because humanity’s requirements are obvious: we need eco-friendly, energy-efficient, durable, and lightweight buildings that will look nice and be highly functional at the same time.
The most innovative construction materials
We have collected the most interesting and innovative materials in construction that are already in use and some that are promising concepts being tested within pilot projects. A number of building materials are not necessarily brand new ones — that is, the technology was developed and tested a long time ago, but it is still used selectively and isn’t widespread. New building materials are used both for decorative finishes and as core materials in building structures.
So, here are the top 15+ innovative materials for construction:
- Transparent Wood
- Carbon Fiber
- Self-healing concrete
- Liquid granite
- Bending, flexible concrete
- Concrete Canvas
- Transparent Aluminum
- Solid Wood
- Ultra-White Paint
- Bio-Coal Lining
- Hemp Reinforcement
The invention of the newest eco-friendly material — transparent wood — was announced back in 2016. However, it was only in 2020, that the scientist who invented a method to make wood transparent in collaboration with a team from the University of Maryland at College Park, stated that the tests were completed and that they had achieved a stable result. Transparent wood is at least 5 times stronger and lighter than glass, as well as being more thermally efficient. It is these characteristics that make it an interesting potential replacement for plastic or glass windows. Other advantages: the raw material is renewable and eco-friendly. The balsa tree grows quickly, with a tree growing to adulthood in just 5 years. Production costs are also much lower than in glass production, where there is a noticeable carbon footprint due to the high temperatures required and electricity used in the process.
Transparent wood is quite flexible, as it contains natural cellulose. In order to achieve transparency, balsa wood is soaked in a special solution and then epoxy resin is added to the structure. Transparent wood or wooden glass can be used instead of traditional glass units or other elements in building structures that have to be transparent, but also durable, eco-friendly, and energy-efficient.
Carbon fibre, is truly a material of the future – albeit one that has long been used in different sports! However, this innovative material has been more and more frequently used in construction, an industry that often demands a combination of strength and lightness. Carbon fiber is 75% lighter than iron and 30% lighter than aluminium. It is used to reinforce traditional building materials to improve their strength — bricks, reinforced concrete blocks, wooden structures — as well as to reduce the thickness of panels and, accordingly, lower their weight. Carbon fibre reinforcement for concrete also provides excellent thermal insulation. The only disadvantage that restricts its widespread application is the high cost of the material.
SENSITILES — DECORATIVE ACRYLIC TILE
Innovative building materials are not always materials with innovative physical properties like strength or safety. These can also be materials which integrate technology to deliver spectacular decoration and the implementation of the most extravagant design ideas. A new type of finishing building material is a sensitive tile with acrylic fiber which reacts to your movements, touch, or light sources. The optical fiber transmits light and reacts: the tile can twinkle, light up, catch and scatter neighboring colours on its surface. Decorating with this material provides new opportunities in architecture and interior design.
The term “self-healing concrete” sounds more than a little fantastical. Back in 2015, inventor Henk Jonkers from Delft University of Technology showed an innovative method to repair cracks in concrete using bacteria. The principle of the technology is simple: capsules containing specific bacteria and nutrients for them were added to the concrete: the bacteria were activated as soon as water hit. Cracked concrete was rebuilt with moisture, filled with limestone produced by the bacteria.
In addition to this bio-technology, there is another alternative from Korean researchers in which capsules of a certain polymer are added to concrete. Under the influence of moisture and sunlight, it also begins to react, swelling and filling the crack.
Traditional concrete is a very reliable and well-established building material, but it loses its properties when cracked. Many materials science specialists around the world are working on giving the base material a modern upgrade.
Recently, American scientists from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have also presented evidence that they have developed bio-concrete. In this case, an enzyme is added to react with CO2-releasing calcium carbonate crystals — their properties are similar to concrete. As a result, all the cracks are filled, and the strength of the concrete strength improves. This method can restore a 1 mm crack in one day.
Another development by scientists from the University of Colorado is based on the photosynthesis of bacteria. T Bioconcrete is made up of a mixture of cyanobacteria – photosynthesising bacteria – gelatin and sand. They react to water and increase in size to fill any cavities.
The hardest and the lightest material in the world is made of 99.8% air!
This synthetic porous ultralight material is derived from a gel in which the liquid component of the gel is replaced by a gas. The result is a very solid body with extremely low density and low thermal conductivity. To the touch, it resembles brittle polystyrene foam. Aerogels can be made of a variety of chemical compounds. It was first produced in 1931 as the brainchild of Samuel Stephens Kistler. He argued that he could replace liquid with gas without shrinking the structure. The first aerogels were made of silica gels. Kistler’s later work concerned aerogels based on aluminium oxide, chromium oxide and tin dioxide. Carbon aerogels were first developed in the late 1980s. A special feature of aerogels is that they can have a lower thermal conductivity than that of the gas they contain. This material is an excellent thermal insulator, so it is widely used for environmentally friendly and efficient thermal insulation on an industrial scale. Due to the high and fine porosity of the structure, aerogels can be used as a collecting matrix for the smallest dust particles.
Richlite is a durable paper composite material. It is made of waste paper which is pressed into hard, smooth panels that can be processed. Properly-sourced paper is far more environmentally friendly than many of the most common materials used in construction, and this is one of Richlite’s main advantages. However, technology turns it into an amazing raw material which is so necessary for eco-construction.
Unlike stone or other hard surfaces, Richlite works the same way as dense hardwood, and it can be easily milled, sanded, and joined. Richlite is also a water-resistant and hygienic material that has low moisture absorption, high heat resistance and fire resistance. It doesn’t hurt that it looks good, with a natural finish. As a result, it is used in many industries, from construction to furniture design. It’s even used to produce musical instruments, replacing expensive ebony while providing high sound quality. Richlite has turned out to be a well-known material, loved by many architects as a finish for furniture, interior elements and creative structures.
Artificial “liquid” stone is a special liquid construction mixture (made of 70% marble chips and 30% special additives and decorative filler) that is sprayed onto surfaces including concrete, brickwork, stone and asphalt. Due to its composition, the liquid congeals to form a tight seal, providing the surface with durability and an attractive appearance. Liquid granite is an eco-friendly material since it includes safe resins, natural marble chips, and mineral fillers. This composite material is often used in finishing works, for the manufacture or coating of individual structures or interior elements.
BENDING, FLEXIBLE CONCRETE
Research to improve the quality of concrete is one of the most popular pursuits in materials science, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
These days, almost all construction is based on concrete. We already mentioned that one of the problems of concrete is its fragility if it chips and cracks. Additionally, while concrete is extremely strong, it is limited in the load it can bear. Back in 2014, Singaporeans were able to not only improve the strength and reduce the weight of concrete by eliminating reinforcement in concrete structures, but they also added flexibility, which is not a characteristic property of traditional concrete.
Due to a unique additive, the new concrete ConFlexPave has gained flexibility and strength that is up to 3 times higher than that of traditional concrete. The thinnest polymer microfibres are mixed into the solution, distributing loads across an entire slab of concrete. This helps it to become as strong as metal and twice as strong as regular concrete when it is subjected to bending.
However, there is no limit to perfection, and other scientists continue to pursue flexible concrete. For example, specialists from Swinburne University have created concrete without using cement, but with the same outstanding characteristics in terms of flexibility and loads. This new kind of concrete is also eco-friendly as it incorporates fly ash and geopolymer composites — typical waste emissions from coal power plants. It also solidifies at room temperature which means there is no need for unsustainably high production costs. But most importantly, the new concrete is 400 times more flexible than traditional concrete, while maintaining the same level of strength. Geopolymers not only add to the flexural coefficient, but also improve the resistance to possible micro-fractures. The polymer fibres hold the structure under load even with cracks, so the new material can be used in earthquake-prone areas as the risk of collapse of buildings made of such concrete is minimised.
This revolutionary material is a concrete fabric in a roll. It’s flexibility offers limitless design possibilities for architects and poses new challenges for construction.
The patented Concrete Canvas® solution is used for a wide range of construction tasks and more. It allows concrete structures to be built with minimal installation and specialist training. Installation is usually ten times faster: just unfold a prepared roll and add water.
This is an ancillary material that facilitates a number of pre-construction works and is also used in the preparation of infrastructure facilities: canals, repairing and protecting surfaces and slopes and strengthening reservoirs and pipes.
This material of the future is a physical reality. In simple terms, it is a transparent ceramic based on aluminium oxynitride (AlON). The main features of this material are scratch resistance and durability. Transparent aluminium is much more durable than aluminosilicate glass (quartz) and it’s also 85% harder than sapphire. In addition, it can withstand heat up to 2,100⁰C. It is resistant to radiation, acids, alkalis and water. Naturally, the material was immediately adopted by the military and optics industries. But in construction, it is used for impact-resistant windows, domes and other elements that require transparency and strength.
This is an innovative material that uses wood in all its elements. The wood is pressed into panels and laminated, making it into a solid block which is much stronger than ordinary wood.
Within this category you’ll find sub-types such as cross-laminated timber and laminated wood. Laminated wood consists of several pieces of lumber glued together which are used to create strong beams. Cross-laminated timber is made of pieces of wood laid in alternating directions to create large panels that can withstand heavy loads. Both types of wood are extremely fire-resistant. The outer layers, when burning, create charring which helps to insulate the rest of the wood. During fire resistance tests, they demonstrated the ability to maintain their structural integrity. Using solid wood facilitates carbon capture while the trees are growing and while the wood is in use in the buildings. According to one study published in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry, if sustainable forestry is used, 14 to 31% of global emissions can be prevented by replacing materials used in buildings and bridges with wood.
HYDROCERAMICs (PASSIVE COOLING)
This is a composite facade material made of clay and hydrogel which is capable of cooling the interiors of buildings by up to 6 °C. Hydroceramics use the hydrogel’s ability to absorb 500 times more water than its own weight to create a building system that “becomes a living being as part of nature, not beyond it.” The technology was developed by Spanish students at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia back in 2014. Since that time, this innovative material that enables self-cooling systems are in great demand in the construction industry and among architects. It is especially popular for eco-construction as it can save up to 28% of the total energy consumption of traditional cooling devices.
CABKOMA — HYDROCARBON THREADS, STRING SUPPORT
For earthquake-prone regions like Japan, materials that can withstand earthquakes are very important. That’s why Komatsu Seiten Fabric’s laboratory has developed a thermoplastic carbon fibre composite called CABKOMA Strand Rod.
The composite is coated with inorganic and synthetic fibers, with a thermoplastic resin finish, giving rise to the world’s lightest seismic reinforcement system. The innovative strands are almost five times lighter than metal wire of the same strength and are even quite beautiful in design. They’re also effective, helping buildings to meet the requirements for seismic reinforcement. Of course, like all carbon fibre-based materials, the downside of CABKOMA is that it isn’t cheap.
Flexicomb is inspired by nature – as you might guess from the name, the structure of this material is inspired by honeycombs. This very simple idea has turned out to be amazingly flexible and functional. The idea first appeared at Yale University where researchers studied the honeycomb structure. By combining drinking straws into one array, it is easy to create a structure resembling a honeycomb. It also offers the opportunity to recycle or upcycle a common plastic nuisance – the drinking straw.
In Flexicomb, thousands of polypropylene tubes are tightly connected into a flexible matrix, which can be given different shapes. These structures are translucent, so they are often used for the manufacture of decorative lighting elements.
FOR PASSIVE COOLING
Everyone knows that white is extremely good at reflecting light. But it turns out that it’s possible to create the “whitest paint in the world” that can serve as an air conditioner to cool rooms.Researchers at Purdue University have created a white paint that reflects 98.1% of sunlight. The secret of the paint is its composition which contains barium sulfate.
This provides a perfectly pure white with a reflective effect. According to the test results, the implementation of the paint leads to incredible results: painting a 90 m2 roof delivers a cooling capacity of 10 kW. This figure is higher than the typical power of home air conditioners.
Aside from its use in cooling buildings, the new paint can also prevent the overheating of outdoor electricity systems.
Berlin-based startup Made of Air has developed a special non-toxic bioplastic made of biochar from forest and agricultural waste. It captures carbon and can be used for everything from building facades, furniture, interiors, transport and urban infrastructure.
The recycled material consists of 90% carbon and is able to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, and is itself a carbon-negative material.
The porous, carbon-rich material retains carbon very effectively. Unlike decomposing biomass, which quickly releases its carbon back into the atmosphere, biochar remains stable for hundreds or even thousands of years. Made of Air’s biochar plastic is cheaper than conventional bioplastics, but still more expensive than petroleum-based materials.
Hexagonal panels called HexChar were first installed as cladding material at an Audi dealership center in Munich in 2021; it was the first time the product has been used in a building. A lifecycle analysis has shown that the dealership’s cladding will store 14 tonnes of carbon.
Researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the USA have invented a hemp alternative to steel reinforcement, which they claim avoids the problem of corrosion and reduces carbon emissions during construction.
Hemp reinforcement can be used to support concrete structures in the same way as steel and other reinforcement is used today, but with less environmental impact due to both the composition of the material and its durability.
Currently, the rusting of steel reinforcement is the main reason for the premature demolition of structures such as bridges, roads, dams and buildings. Innovative hemp reinforcement will provide three times the durability and protection against corrosion. Moreover, unlike glass fibre reinforcement in structures that are particularly susceptible to corrosion, hemp reinforcement does not require so much energy consumption to produce and install, which makes it an environmentally friendlier solution.
This list is a just a small fraction of the developments that are already in use in the construction industry. Each of the materials is being improved every year, or one solution is replaced by another, even better option. Construction is an area where technologically advanced materials and innovative digital solutions can revolutionise the way projects are run and create truly futuristic objects.
If you don’t use innovative building materials and methods in your projects yet, then you can start by digitising your business right now by trying PlanRadar for free for 30 days.
You’ll be able to ensure that your project management and monitoring is as easy and efficient as possible – and you’ll waste fewer materials.