The Astute Architect

Nano-advances behind new architectural products

Posting in Architecture

A decade of nanotechnology advances should be revolutionizing building construction, as three new materials show. But architects and product makers have been slow to make it happen, says SmartPlanet columnist C.C. Sullivan.

The nanotechnology rage of the last decade was loads of fun. I covered a few investor conferences about the brave new world of architectural materials that would change forever how we build.

Buckminster Fuller's geodesics look like nanotech molecules. (One, the Buckminsterfullerene, is named for him.)

Architects have slowly but surely tapped into the nano-dividend, and a few building construction materials are widely used today, like the self-cleaning windows by PPG. Others, from the flexible solar panels by Konarka to wi-fi blocking paint by EM-SEC Technologies, products hailed as revolutionary just a few years ago, are simply not getting their due.

Others are still coming to market, like self-healing concrete, new materials that block ultraviolet and infrared radiation, as well as smog-eating products and paints, including the concrete mix TX Active by Italcementi. The idea of delightful light-emitting surfaces, thanks to nanomaterial research by companies like LG, have yet to debut.

While the molecules look as pretty as buckyballs, any scientists have noted that there could be health risks in using nanomaterials. Costs are high, and architects are typically loathe to experiment on their clients. So there's a downside.

A nice hotel for hypochondriacs: Walls treated with Toto's self-cleaning Hydrotect.

THREE GAME-CHANGERS

Still, here are three new products I'd champion that could be linked directly to nanotech research, though the owners are not saying enough about them. They hold serious promise.

1. Self-cleaning restrooms. The Japanese potty maker Toto has quietly unveiled a product called Hydrotect, which like the nano-infused paints and glass coatings we've seen, promises to keep itself clean. (And maybe even germ-free.) The company partnered with Alcoa last year on an aluminum exterior cladding.

A similar product, an "ultrathin, large-scale ceramic board" named Hydrocera was shown in Asia recently. It also has a hydrophyllic, photocatalytic technology that is stain- and odor-resistant -- though in the United States we can't say words like "antibacterial" or "bacteriostatic," which tend to produce lawsuits.

Catching on in in Japan and Europe, these bathroom surfaces have an active ion-oxygen layer that stays clean in the mere presence of light. It has huge potential in the current climate of life-cycle analysis of green buildings. Eliminating maintenance for a 30-year building is very good for the earth, if not for my friend Louis, a janitor. It could also help reduce the incidence of the super-bug MRSAs at hospitals.

Faster, boys! US Concrete's self-desiccating concrete is said to dry very quickly.

2. Fast-drying concrete. Here's an idea that has big implications, too, though folks who are not in the mad world of building construction just don't get it.

The mix is called Aridus, and it's produced by Houston-based U.S. Concrete. It's made with regular old Portland cement but adds a special sauce through chemistry. The result acts as a desiccant, basically: Water is used and bound internally so the concrete reaches an internal 75% RH with water loss of 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet per 24 hours in 45 days or less.

How does that translate? Instead of waiting months before you can lay down an adhered carpet or linoleum, you only need to wait weeks, saving money for the building owner.

The mix has been tested and applied by DPR, Turner and XL Construction, among others, including for a project documented on YouTube.

A new VIP: Vacuum insulation panels, by Transmaterial

3. Highly insulating vacuum facades. Look out for vacuum insulation panels, or VIPs, coming soon to a building wall near you.

Late last year, new working prototypes of VIPs made from pyrogenic silica and high-tech thin films were created at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute and the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging developed

The VIP's inner components insulate as well or better than a traditional insulated façade ten times as thick.

Currently the production methods are costly and time-consuming, but -- as oil costs rise along with tensions in Tehran -- there are good reasons to get these high-tech VIPs on the market.

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C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure