“There is no silver bullet, there is no one single material that can solve everything. The solution is making best use of all available materials by using them in their most effective way.”
This was the response from sustainable design researcher Associate Professor Philip Oldfield, who is Head of School at UNSW Built Environment, Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture, when asked how we can increase the use of alternative materials within the construction and design of new buildings.
“We’ve been heavily reliant on two high emission primary building materials for 100 years now; steel and concrete and from a material perspective, we need to diversify them,” Professor Oldfield said.
”This is not about not using steel and concrete anymore; it’s about diversifying, giving architects, designers, engineers, a wider variety of options.
“If I had to pick one material to highlight, I would recommend biomaterials, such as mass timber, straw and some more exotic examples such as laminated bamboo which I think looks really interesting but I wouldn’t limit the range of materials to just biomaterials.
“Load bearing stone, as an example, looks to be a really effective option in the right circumstances,” Professor Oldfield said. “There’s currently some fantastic work being done by a group in London looking at multi-storey load bearing stone buildings.”
Other alternative material options put forward by Professor Oldfield include using cork, which has been highlighted as a versatile product by Cork House in London.
“Cork House has always astounded me as they’ve taken cork harvested from trees and they’ve created load bearing stackable wall modules, where the cork is both the structure of the house and the insulation so it’s being used for two things at once,” he said.
While this project has great potential for domestic architecture, Professor Oldfield accepts there probably isn’t enough cork in the world to build millions of homes completely out of cork, however, it further highlights the need for a greater suite of materials to be considered and used.
“We will still need steel and concrete but we need to decarbonize them and ultimately the future of buildings is that we will have a greater suite of materials and we will use them where they make the most sense,” he said. “So that might be load bearing stone columns, it might be timber floors, it might be steel joints, it might be concrete foundations, essentially making best use of the material as much as possible.”
One option for decarbonising concrete is finding ways to use less of it within a design, with options such as the ACORN slab which uses a series of interconnected curved concrete panels to create a vault standing on supporting columns.
ACORN claims its approach is 60% less embodied carbon than an equivalent flat slab, with greater savings in embodied carbon possible as processes are optimised.
While a future with a wide-range of materials being used is great in theory, the reality of this kind of future is probably further away than most people might want and part of that is down to the willingness and ability for firms to be innovative.
Unfortunately, Professor Oldfield believes that although the appetite for innovation might be there, risk aversion within the industry is much greater, especially within the current economic environment with increased cost constraints impacting the market.
Highlighting his point, he refers to International House in Sydney, which is the first engineered timber office building in Australia. The finished result is extremely impressive and highlights what can be achieved by thinking outside of the box, however, Professor Oldfield said the project experienced several hurdles that the design team needed to work through to get to that point.
“When something as simple as doing an office building with a new material creates a large number of hurdles that the design development team have to jump through, it highlights a barrier to innovation,” Prof Oldfield said.
“Our industry is remarkably risk averse in construction and anything new or innovative costs more, and will often be looked at with a degree of fear.”
How do we move forward? Professor Oldfield advises it is with a mixture of the carrot and stick approaches. He says the first thing that needs to happen is regulation of embodied carbon and restrictions need to be placed on the maximum permitted levels of embodied carbon within projects.  This would naturally encourage innovation to happen more freely.
“The other thing is to incentivize the use of decarbonized and low carbon materials,” he said. “For example, if developers can build 20% higher using a low carbon alternative or if they use recycled materials, then that could instantly start to attract more of an appetite for those things.”
The market conditions in WA over the past couple of years have helped to drive the need for, and acceptance of, the use of alternative materials here.
While the proclivity for building with double brick is commonplace, local alternative building material experts agree that things are changing.
“Recent conditions within the housing industry have caused a shift in the market acceptance of alternative building materials, which in turn has meant it has been quite easy to implement these materials into new projects,” Jessica Berry, Director of Fox Modular and PIQUE said.
“People are actively searching out alternatives to a traditional double brick home build, and at Fox we have seen a big increase in enquiries over the last couple of years,” Ms Berry said.
Into Place Managing Director Troy Gorton agrees with Ms Berry, highlighting the increase in activity following the stimulus measures in mid-2020 has amplified builders’ appetite to seek out alternative ways to build.
“This is principally due to the delays and escalation of costs being seen across bricklaying,” Mr Gorton said. “Trades and suppliers have vastly improved their products and availability of materials in this space, making alternate building methods a very valid option for builders.”
Among the advantages presented by alternative materials, both Mr Gorton and Ms Berry point to the increased speed of construction, especially with access to trades such as bricklayers providing a specific impediment to double-brick homes, however thinking outside the box provides other benefits.
“Alternative materials such as metal cladding have allowed for fresh new looks when it comes to the design of our homes,” Ms Berry said. “We’re able to create homes that look completely different from the stock-standard brick or rendered homes you see lining Perth streets.
“Supply shortages in WA have also prompted a rise in alternative methods such as steel framing or timber in lieu of brick. At Fox, we use steel framing for its precision, and clad with a variety of options including timber, colorbond, and fibre cement dependent on the chosen aesthetic.”
Although there are advantages and there has been an uptick in their usage in WA, it will probably still be a while before WA projects use alternative materials on a mass scale.
Mr Gorton believes, at present, we still lack the trade and supply base to underpin a large-scale transition to framed construction and as an example, points to the fact there are only a handful of suppliers that can deliver pre-manufactured timber truss systems.
“As an industry, we haven’t developed this capacity, as we have been focused on getting through the stimulus work,” he said. “There is increasing capacity around steel frame supply, but still a shortage of carpenters to install them.”
Looking to the future of alternative building trends in WA and both Mr Gorton and Ms Berry believe the current momentum towards alternate materials will continue to grow, with a range of materials being used as and when needed.
“Builders will seek out cost effective systems and look to secure solid supply lines so that they can adopt them as standard forms into the future,” Mr Gorton said.
The other advantage that has come about from the shift towards alternate materials, according to Ms Berry, is a shift towards a better gender balance amongst trades. Highlighting her point Ms Berry said that of the seven carpentry apprentices on Fox Modular’s books, five of them are female.
“Based on our experience, it seems as though females are much more willing to enter the trade, especially with a greater diversity of product available,” Ms Berry said.
It certainly looks like a bright future lies ahead for alternative building products in WA.
This story was originally published in The Urbanist magazine, an official publication of the Urban Development Institute of Australia (WA). It has been edited for republication by The Property Tribune. 
The Property Tribune thanks the UDIA WA for the opportunity to republish the work, and share thought leadership in relation to urban development and community creation with our readers.
Read the original copy of The Urbanist by heading to UDIA WA’s website under the News tab.

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