The effects of humans on the Earth are becoming more profound every day. Our energy consumption is higher than ever, and it is only getting worse. The population is also growing, which is putting a dramatic strain on basic resources like space, water, and food. Finally, the environment is rapidly changing, which has led to extreme weather that has had a tremendous effect on cities around the world.
To address some of these problems, innovative changes are being made to old construction technologies to make the future beautiful, clean, and (most importantly) livable.
10. Bamboo Cities
Most people in the West think of bamboo as a decorative material. But it is actually an incredible construction resource. Bamboo is fast growing, stronger than steel, and more resilient than cement. This is why Penda, an architecture studio in Beijing, China, wants to use bamboo as the main resource to build an entire city.
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The city would be sustainable, environmentally friendly, and inexpensive. The buildings would be constructed by putting bamboo rods together to make an X-joint and then tying them together with rope. Using this technique, Penda thinks they could build a city that would house 200,000 people by 2023.
Once a structure is completed, additions can be easily installed both horizontally and vertically. Also, a room or even an entire structure can be disassembled without much effort, and since it is just bamboo rods and rope, it can be reused.
9. Diamond Nanothreads
As far as we know, diamonds are the hardest minerals that occur naturally on Earth. In the right form, that strength makes diamonds an excellent building material.
At Penn State University, researchers have created innovative diamond nanothreads that are 20,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair. Even so, diamond nanothreads are considered the strongest material on Earth (and possibly in the universe). Besides being thin and strong, they are incredibly light.
The researchers were able to create these strings of ultrathin diamonds by applying alternating cycles of pressure to isolated benzene molecules that were in a liquid state. This created rings of carbon atoms that came together in an orderly chain.
These nanothreads may not be used in everyday construction, but they could be used in ambitious projects, such as the cable for a space elevator, which could lead to cheaper space tourism.
8. Aerogel Insulation
Aerogel isn’t a new material. In fact, it was researched in the 1920s, with findings on the material published in 1932. It is created by removing liquid from gel and replacing the liquid with gas. By doing this, the substance becomes ultralightweight because it is 90 percent air. When made into a blanket, it is great for insulation. Aerogel has been used to insulate piping in industrial areas, and it was even used on the Mars rover.
One company that wants to use aerogel technology for home insulation is Aspen Aerogels. They created a product called Spaceloft blankets that are easy to work with because they are so light and thin. Despite their light weight, the blankets have two to four times the insulation value per inch when compared to traditional insulation of fiberglass or foam.
Spaceloft blankets also allow water vapor to pass through them, and perhaps most impressive, they’re fire-resistant. Although houses wrapped in aerogel blankets won’t be fireproof as the houses in Fahrenheit 451, this type of insulation would certainly reduce the number of residential fires.
The problem is that aerogel is much more expensive than traditional insulation, although it will save money on energy bills in the long run. Also, not all houses can be easily retrofitted with the material. The blankets work best in older homes or with new homes that are specifically designed to be insulated with aerogel.
7. Road Printer
It takes a long time to pave a road. On average, a worker can pave 100 square meters (1,100 ft2) per day in the traditional manner. Looking to shorten that process are road printers like the Tiger Stone paving machine, which can “print” 300 square meters (3,200 ft2) of cobblestone road in a day.
Another is RPS’s RoadPrinter, which can do 500 square meters (5,300 ft2) per day. One to three operators feed loose bricks into the machine. Then the pusher sorts the bricks into a pattern like a carpet. At that point, gravity takes over, and the machine lays down the brick road. Afterward, a steamroller presses the bricks into place.
The printers are electrically powered and don’t have many moving parts, which makes them easy to use and maintain. Also, they don’t make much noise, especially compared to traditional methods of paving roads.
Of course, the major difference between most roads and the machine-printed ones is that the machines lay down brick instead of asphalt. However, brick roads are also better than asphalt because they filter water, expand when they are frozen, and last longer.
6. Cableless Multidirectional Elevators
A big problem with huge infrastructures is how to efficiently get around in them. Humans can only walk so fast and so far. Also, each elevator shaft has only one elevator car. If you’ve ever had to use an elevator in a large building, you know that it can often take a long time to get a car.
German elevator company ThyssenKrupp is looking to remedy those problems. Instead of using cables, their proposed elevator would use magnetic levitation technology. This would allow their cars to travel both vertically and horizontally. It would also allow more than one car per shaft, which would cut down on wait times. So there would be less need for multiple elevator doors.
Finally, the magnetic elevators would use much less energy, making them better for the environment. In 2016, ThyssenKrupp plans on testing the new elevator system in a building on their research campus.
5. Solar Paint
One of the biggest complaints about solar panels is that they are large, clunky eyesores that aren’t powerful enough. To change that, a few researchers are producing solar cells that are so small and flexible that they can be painted onto surfaces. In fact, a team of researchers at the University of Alberta has created a spray-on solar cell with nanoparticles of zinc and phosphorus.
If every homeowner painted his roof with this type of solar paint, it could generate more than enough energy for the house and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. No retrofitting would be needed, which would minimize construction work. Also, solar paint is much less expensive to produce than traditional solar panels. The solar cells used in the paint are not efficient yet, but the researchers are working to fix that problem.
4. Vertical Cities
According to projections from the United Nations, there will be over 9.6 billion people on Earth by 2050. That’s 2.3 billion more people than we have today. Also, it is estimated that 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, compounding our problems with the lack of space in our cities.
One way to overcome that problem is to construct vertical cities. There are already a few proposed vertical cities to be built in the Sahara, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and China.
These vertical cities would be giant buildings that would provide residences, workplaces, and shopping. For example, Italian firm Luca Curci Architects is going construct a building in the UAE that has 189 levels. It will house 25,000 people, along with shops and businesses. Since people wouldn’t need to leave the building, this would solve the space problem and reduce the residents’ carbon footprints.
The megastructures would be self-sustaining and green. Since they are so large, solar panels could be placed throughout the buildings. They would also use geothermal energy and have rainwater collection.
3. Smart Concrete
When an area starts to flood, there aren’t enough places for the water to drain. This becomes worse in urban areas because there is less soil to absorb the water. To reduce flooding, UK company Tarmac has created an asphalt product called Topmix Permeable.
Most concrete allows some water to soak into the ground, but only about 300 millimeters (1 ft) of water gets through per hour. Topmix can allow 36,000 millimeters (118 ft) of water through per hour, which is about 3,300 liters (880 gal) per minute.
Instead of using sand like most concrete, Topmix makes its product with pieces of crushed granite that are packed together. Water drains through these pieces of granite, where it can be absorbed into the ground, routed to a sewer system, or collected in a water reserve. Besides reducing the chances of flooding, Topmix keeps the streets drier, which makes them safer. Also, the water can be routed to a reservoir for reuse in any number of ways.
The problem with permeable concrete is that it can only be used in areas where it doesn’t get too cold. Cold weather would make the concrete expand, which would destroy it. It is also much more expensive to install than traditional concrete, but cities may save money in the long run if the product reduces flooding.
2. Smart Bricks
Just by looking at the Smart Bricks developed by Kite Bricks, you can see that they were inspired by Lego. These building blocks have knobs on the top, and they connect exactly like Lego pieces do. Smart Bricks are held in place using rebar, with pieces of different shapes layered in the design.
Instead of using cement, the bricks are held together with a strong, double-sided adhesive. On the inside of the building, interchangeable panels with patterns can be attached to the bricks. These panels would remove the need for drywall and painting. There are also pieces to build floors and ceilings. The centers of the blocks are empty, leaving room for insulation, plumbing pipes, and electrical wires.
The bricks would lead to better thermal energy control, greater versatility in construction, and lower construction costs of about 50 percent.
1. Robot Swarm Construction
To develop innovative methods in the construction world, Harvard researchers turned to nature for inspiration, specifically termites. Termites can build large structures despite having no central supervision. To do this, termites bring a piece of dirt to the first construction site. If that spot is taken, they simply move to the next spot.
The TERMES Project uses the same idea of swarm construction, but they use small robots. These simple, inexpensive drones build structures by following an initial design and putting a block in the next available space until the structure is finished. This means that the swarm needs little intervention from humans after the initial design.
The swarms would be ideal for building structures in dangerous places, such as those in space or underwater. They could also do menial work that would be a waste of human time. As they are self-guided, they can build structures more efficiently and effectively than humans.
This feature is written by Robert Grimminck and originally appeared in Listverse.