Back To The Future - A Look At Research Projects Impacting Building And Construction

By Scott Kriner, Green Metal Consulting

On October 21 we celebrated “Back to the Future” Day to remember the famous 1985 movie and its depiction of our future. Even though the prediction from the movie to see the Chicago Cubs win the World Series in 2015 was wrong (thank you Mets), it was fun to think about items like hover boards, flying cars, and cars that ran on food scraps. Let’s not forget that the movie did correctly predict hands-free video games and wearable technologies. This is a good time to take a look at the future of the building construction industry as well.

Visits to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and to the Fraunhofer  Institute in recent weeks allowed me to see some incredible research and development of materials and systems that will likely end up in our homes and buildings in the future. Most of these developments are aimed at improving energy efficiency, improving the environmental footprint, and improving health and safety.

Here’s a list of some of the research, development and material science going on to make the future even better for all of us.

What homeowner wouldn’t love a clothes dryer that does not require heat? ORNL is developing an ultrasonic drying system in residential dryers that would shake loose the moisture in clothes and allow the moisture to be vented from inside of the dryer. The energy required for that technology is insignificant compared to the electricity or gas usage on a typical clothes dryer.

In the field of insulation there is activity in developing materials that have higher R-values per inch of thickness. In some cases the materials are even bio-based and require no fire retardant chemicals.

Our knowledge base on phase change materials is broadening to find ways to integrate these dynamic energy-efficient materials into conventional building materials such as gypsum board, insulation and possibly into certain roofing materials.

New insulation materials such as vacuum insulation products (VIP) are being optimized for better practical handling and flexibility to provide a realistic insulation layer of R-35 per inch.

New photovoltaic technologies continue to drive down the cost of PV with more efficient and smaller systems. The technology to print PV circuitry like we print a document is being developed 

Changing the way we now install PV systems on buildings is being re-thought. A “Plug and Play” approach, such as what is now popular in Germany, is being developed in the US with support from DOE and from industry. This would significantly lower the installed cost to the building owner, simplify the process and shorten if not eliminate the permitting and inspection phases.

Air infiltration is a component to the overall energy efficiency of buildings. The code calls for continuous insulation on the thermal envelope of a building.  New technology is making this possible with a spray-on insulation that can fill up to a ¼” gap in materials used on the envelope.

In the field of coatings there are advances being made in self- healing materials that would significantly reduce maintenance cost and extend durability. This type of technology has been available in the concrete industry but is now spreading to other types of building materials.

The days of static roofing may become a thing of the past. A concept of directionally reflective roofing is being perfected. With this technology incorporated into certain roofing materials, the roof appears to have a dark color from the perspective of a person on the ground looking at the roof, but the surface of the roof is actually performing more like it is pure white with respect to the reflectance of solar energy. As the angle changes, the appearance also changes.

Another dynamic approach to roofing is based on the thermochromic and electrochomic technologies used in the window industry. The ideal roof would be one that has high solar reflectance and thermal emittance during warm weather, and lower solar reflectance in cooler weather. These types of “switching” coatings are under development.

Similarly, switchable insulation materials are being developed to optimize the insulating power of materials as the conditions in a building change.

The advancement of 3D printing is incredible. Oak Ridge National Laboratory  has used a 3D printing system to actually “print” a house suitable for temporary FEMA housing. We are already using 3D printing for creating human body parts and machinery. What’s next???

Another mind-bending advance in materials is taking place at Stanford University. This technology was described in a previous column, but more advances were recently announced. Research at Stanford has been underway on a material that gets colder under direct sunlight and stays 5°C cooler than the surrounding area. This work, and the lead engineer, was recently highlighted in the Pioneers section of the MIT Technology Review publication. The material under development would be ideal for air-conditioning and refrigeration systems that would require little or no electricity! The theory behind the performance of the material is from the 1960s but Stanford scientists have applied nano-scale manufacturing techniques that didn’t exist at that time. The material can be made over large areas using the same techniques used to coat windows.

It’s fun to dream and wonder what the future will bring to us. Marty McFly would be amazed at the changes and improvements that have taken place since the 1985 American science-fiction adventure comedy film to now. Marty was hoping to see the Cubs win the World Series this year. As a Mets fan I would never bet on that outcome. But it is safe to say that we can bet on technology, research, and discoveries that will surely make it exciting to watch the changes and improvements in building materials and systems as we look back into the future.

Scott Kriner is the president and founder of Green Metal Consulting Inc. He is a LEED Accredited Professional who began his career in the metal construction industry in 1981. His company is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the California Association of Building Energy Consultants and the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET).

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