How Can Concrete Construction and Sustainability Truly Coexist?

Concrete and sustainability are two words often viewed as incompatible. Concrete has been used since the Roman times. It is the most commonly used material on the planet due to its durability, versatility, cost-effectiveness and accessibility. Concrete’s widespread use in infrastructure and buildings forms the foundations for cities and connects people. It will continue to be a key part in solving the problems of the future, especially as cities face increasing population growth. However, cement is a key ingredient and can be a source of at least 8% global carbon emissions. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are many options to make concrete greener thanks to the advent of new technologies and products.

Concrete’s potential in sustainable architecture

As architecture shifts towards sustainability, the demand is growing exponentially for low-carbon materials in construction. Concrete is no exception. Although production processes have made it significantly less carbon-intensive over the lifetime of the material, there are still many steps to be taken before we reach optimal levels.

Casa de Sambade / spaceworkers. Image © Fernando Guerra

There are many ways to make concrete more environmentally friendly. These include using a carbon-absorbing concrete type, carbon sequestration processes and the use of insulated concrete forms (ICF) walls. These walls combine the energy-efficient benefits of concrete with integral insulation. Concrete is also reusable. This means that concrete can still be used after demolition to make landscaping mulch, habitat for oceanic fish inhabitants, and even as an alternative to concrete mix aggregates.

The true path to more sustainable concrete lies in two main principles: building from scratch with the least carbon footprint and creating long-lasting structures that are not subject to repair or replacement. Concrete producers will typically add more cement to increase strength and durability. However, most of the carbon dioxide is released by the chemical reaction that transforms limestone into cement. Given that concrete production is limited, it is possible to reduce the amount of cement that is used to make concrete. Kryton, the world leader in Smart Concrete technologies, has created a range of products that protect, waterproof and repair concrete structures. This extends their lifespan without adding carbon-releasing cement. This is how sustainability can be optimized without compromising design.

© Coastal Girl / Shutterstock

Less cement, more durability

There are many ways to lower the cement content in concrete mixes. These include using higher-quality aggregates with fewer voids to use paste to fill, or using high-strength concrete which allows workers to build elements from thinner sections. Water-reducing admixtures or hardening can also preserve the concrete mix’s strength, allowing for efficient use of cement.

Kryton’s admixture Hard Cem, for example, can increase concrete’s resistance to abrasion, erosion and replace toxic dry shake sealers and hardeners. The concrete paste’s hardness is increased by the addition of the product to the mix. This reduces the exposure of fine and coarse aggregates that can cause degradation. This increases the material’s lifespan by doubling its cost and reducing maintenance and installation costs. It also reduces carbon emissions as it does not need to be replaced with a cement-rich concrete set.

ST International HQ and SongEun Art Space / Herzog & de Meuron. Image © Jihyun Jung
ST International HQ and SongEun Art Space / Herzog & de Meuron. Image © Jihyun Jung
Lamas House / moarqs + OTTOLENGHI architects. Image © Albano García
Lamas House / moarqs + OTTOLENGHI architects. Image © Albano García

Concrete deterioration is a leading cause worldwide, as it is well-known. Products that can prevent this corrosion, and add resistance to concrete without the need for more cement, should be considered by architects and designers of concrete structures, particularly for infrastructure projects. Krystol Internal Membrane, a hydrophilic, crystalline admixture was developed in 1980 to make permanently waterproof concrete. Smart concrete acts as a barrier to reduce the material’s permeability by growing crystals that block waterborne salt and water movement from reaching the steel reinforcement. KIM is a cost-effective and long-lasting solution that does not contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Maturix Smart Concrete Sensors are available to be embedded in the material to monitor and transmit real-time temperature data, calculate strength and add more versatility to the mix. This allows the mixture to optimize cement usage and reduce cement content, as structures are often designed for safety.

© Banna Farsai / Shutterstock

These products can be used to make lasting concrete for a variety of projects. They include residential buildings, multi-use towers, skate parks, complex environments like industrial floors, dams and water tanks, sewage plants and slabs.

A more sustainable concrete construction environment

Concrete is a complex subject that can lead to many misperceptions. Although it is true that concrete has had a negative impact on the environment in the past, there are many technological advancements and innovative products today that could change this perception.

Kryton Hard-Cem admixture. Image Courtesy of Kryton

Concrete construction is a powerful tool for sustainable architecture. This is possible only if we continue to harness and leverage innovative products that will help unlock the sector’s ecofriendly future. It all boils down to making materials work better, smarter and more efficiently. Only then can we truly aim to combine all the inherent properties of materials with sustainability. Only then can we see a future with net-zero, sustainable buildings that help to create a better global construction environment.

Kryton Maturix Smart Concrete Sensor. Image Courtesy of Sensohive
Marina Bay Sands / Safdie Architects. Image Courtesy of Safdie Architects
Marina Bay Sands / Safdie Architects. Image Courtesy of Safdie Architects
A Casa Mirante / Víctor Gubbins Browne + Gubbins Arquitectos. Image © Marcos Mendizábal
A Casa Mirante / Víctor Gubbins Browne + Gubbins Arquitectos. Image © Marcos Mendizábal
LL House / Taller5 Arquitectos. Image © Oscar Hernández
LL House / Taller5 Arquitectos. Image © Oscar Hernández
Skatepark in California. Image © Amir Zaki
Skatepark in California. Image © Amir Zaki
Water Tank / Pedro Bandeira + João Figueira e Associados. Image © Helder Sousa
Water Tank / Pedro Bandeira + João Figueira e Associados. Image © Helder Sousa