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Building Materials—Industry Trends

The building materials sector is extremely diverse and constitutes a sizable chunk of the industrial base of developed countries. It includes a highly diverse range of suppliers, from cement manufacturers (an area that is under tremendous pressure to both innovate and to “green up”) to specialty glass and steel manufacturers, as well as providing a large market for white goods manufacturers, furniture manufacturers, paint and wiring manufacturers, and a host of other related industries.

One of the biggest boosts for the building materials sector is the seemingly endless raising of the bar by various national planning departments on “green” building. According a report on, which cites a research report from Navigant Research, the worldwide market for green construction materials will grow from US$116 billion in 2013 to in excess of US$254 billion by 2020. Europe, with its emphasis on reducing emissions, will probably be the largest regional market, accounting for around 50% of global demand for green building products by 2020. TechNavio produced a report, “Global green building material market 2012–2016,” in which it forecast demand growth globally to be around 17.9% compound annual growth rate.

According to one of the leading green building and sustainability consultants, Jerry Yudelson, who publishes an annual “Top 10 megatrends” for the global green building industry, 2014 will see green building growing strongly in the United States. “Green building is the tsunami of the future that will inundate the entire real estate industry,” he says. More and more commercial buildings will be aiming to be zero net energy buildings, and Yudelson expects to see a sharp pickup in the trend to retrofit green design into existing buildings.

Another growth area is concrete production from recycled materials, such as power station ash, according to a report by the Freedonia Group. Wood from proven, sustainable forests is another area that is set to boom, as are water-efficient plumbing fixtures and energy-efficient lighting fixtures, both of which should see double-digit growth, according to a Green Building Materials report by market analysts, the Freedonia Group.

In the residential homes sector, construction companies are often pulled and pushed in two opposing directions simultaneously by regulations when it comes to innovations in building materials. On the one hand, anything that helps to “green” a home by improving its thermal efficiency, or lowering its energy consumption, is regarded as good. On the other hand, local planning offices tend to be very prescriptive on the kinds of materials that are regarded as suitable, and it can be an uphill struggle for new materials to gain acceptance.

There are ways around this. Australia, for example, has a Building Products Innovation Council, whose job it is to promote the most efficient and innovative use of building products across the sector, while seeing to it that construction companies adhere to a consistent regulatory framework for building. The council includes senior representation from across the spectrum of the building materials and products side of the building industry, which ensures that the council stays abreast of new product innovations.

The construction sector is, in many ways, both an ideal test bed for scientific innovation and a powerful economic driver of innovation; successful products can be taken up in enormous quantities on a worldwide scale. The range of innovation opportunities is as broad as the designer’s imagination. One company that specializes in building product innovation, DuPont, has products on offer that range from new materials to construct “storm rooms” to keep families safe in high-risk tornado and hurricane areas, to kitchen countertops, such as its Zodiaq range, which incorporates quartz crystal to create an exceptionally durable and scratch-resistant surface. Many innovations address thermal loss from homes to make them more energy-efficient. Phase-change materials, for example, release or absorb large quantities of heat when changing state from one phase to the other. Companies such as BASF and Ciba, which specialize in surface coatings, have come up with microencapsulation waxes that enable glass manufacturers to incorporate phase-change materials into window construction (see, for example, esBITS from PCM Innovations).

Innovation need not be limited to new building materials; it can also be innovation in the way standard materials are used. The German Passivhaus standard (see is a low-energy house built around a set of principles applied to building design. There are some 15,000 Passivhaus builds in the world, and the design principle is promoted by the Passivhaus Institute in Germany. The core is a super-insulated, airtight envelope boosted by the use of glass to promote solar gain, and the result cuts heating requirements by up to 85%.

Home and buildings designers and planners have to think about both materials and the building regulations that are likely to appear in a world dominated by calls for action to cut carbon emissions. Current building requirements are likely to be amended further, almost year on year, to minimize the impact of the built environment on the planet, which means cutting emissions and energy usage. We are at the dawn of “smart” buildings, which react both to energy usage and to the needs of occupants, but many leading architects and designers are already thinking about zero-emissions buildings, or massively taller buildings, or buildings that are themselves virtual “cities”—all concepts that will provide fertile ground for innovation in building materials.

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