Modern Construction - Is it Built to Last?

02.5.18 3 MINUTE READ

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The building industry has seen a technological revolution in recent years to make construction faster, cheaper and safer. From drones, to AI (Artificial Intelligence), to BIM (Building Information Modelling) – we’ve made it possible to live and breathe the construction of a building before the first brick is laid. But how far have we taken our lifecycle modelling of new construction methods and materials? – will these buildings last?

"The future belongs to those who prepare for it today"

In my 20 years of experience, I have seen asbestos banned, R22 refrigerant gas phased out and now the application of cladding panels being in question. The challenge is to try to predict the next asbestos or hazardous material.

For hundreds of years the advancement of buildings seemed slower than human evolution - generally made from big solid lumps of brick or stone - 'traditional construction' - or timber-framed. This started to change during the nineteenth century when the timber frames turned to iron and steel, but the principles generally remained the same. Even when concrete became a more viable option in the post-war period, the construction of buildings was still very basic. Simple forms of construction had simple wear-and-tear problems, which are often readily apparent, as there were rarely large volumes of concealed elements.

Over the last 30-40 years, construction technology has rapidly developed. We are now able to collect valuable data, take more accurate measurements, share 3D designs, and improve productivity. But even with foresight studies, the future - by definition - is unknown, so we cannot fully predict how technology and new materials might succeed or fail. The surveyor’s challenge is to use his training and experience to predict what may happen and advise accordingly.

Whilst construction technology is making leaps and bounds in progressing our industry, and responding to demand for reducing project costs and programme, we need to be sure we are still allowing enough time to monitor new, fast-paced, construction techniques and materials. We also need to take into consideration the ease at which we will be able to dispose of new materials or recycle them.

There are some reports of future potential deleterious materials, but for now, these can still be used. Commercial pressures apply - if they didn’t, we may have seen plasterboard and MDF outlawed by now.

Below, I have listed ten construction techniques and materials currently used, which may have an uncertain future:

  • Durable, High Performance, Self-compacting and Alternative Additive Concretes – the 1960s saw the development of High Alumina additives that is now widely known as a deleterious material. These new concrete technologies are an exciting development, and will no doubt have been tested and their longevity and performance will be watched by the industry.
  • Multi-storey timber-framed buildings are becoming more popular, but the quality of timber has reduced. This could pose problems in the future life of the building as the guarantee may only last for 60 -70 years. That may be within a generation for now, but how will it be performing after 30 years of life? It is possible that the property value may significantly reduce, as we don’t yet know if the guarantee could be extended.
  • Modular construction continues to develop as more production can be undertaken off-site. These can be built in controlled environments to high standards, but replacing individual modules in situ or attempting repairs is challenging. The life expectancy can be much less than the main building structure.
  • Improved Wood - the race is on to modify the growth of trees to provide more consistent and predictable wood. This is in its early stages of development but is one to watch out for
  • Composite materials and even recycled materials are often untested or acceptable in one application but not another. More work needs to be done to make these sustainable and ensure that they are appropriate. Recycling is becoming increasingly important, so we need to understand which materials are not new
  • Plasterboard could be phased-out due to the difficulty in disposal, or it could have more stringent measures put in place. 
  • Adhesives are widely used as methods of fixing, but as with all glues, they will have a limited life expectancy. In most cases, the adhesive will be in concealed locations and other clues will need to be seen to identify potential challenges
  • Insulation has become increasingly important, whether it is for thermal, sound or fire properties. The technologies are combining to provide one product but their use and such composite materials may become difficult to dispose of. 
  • Air conditioning gas - these will continue to be phased out and every time an alternative gas is found there are rumours of further bans. It will become increasingly difficult to track which gas is banned and which is not
  • Nano technologies in building materials. This is a relatively new technology and is one to watch. We do not yet know how the technology would be updated to meet future demands

Many surveyors will only comment on the current condition of a building and the next few years only, as it’s so difficult to predict the future. At Bidwells, we keep abreast of new construction methods and take the whole lifecycle of a building into consideration.



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Dan Coston

Partner, Building Surveying

A natural problem-solver with an adventurous heart, Dan rolls up his sleeves with no preconceptions, and gets stuck into the most convoluted projects.

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