Opportunities for composites in construction

Market researchers at Lucintel report that pent-up demand for composites in construction applications in China is producing double-digit growth there, while in North America, construction applications are expected to expand at a rate of about 5% a year through 2013.

In Europe, growth will average over 6% in the same period.

Commercial and industrial construction applications are keeping the overall demand for composites from slumping in Europe and the USA.

Fibre reinforced plastic (FRP) composites are used in a wide range of applications in construction because of the benefits they provide over traditional building materials. Primary benefits include reduced weight, requiring less supporting structure, and excellent resistance to corrosion and rot, which can significantly reduce the durability of structures built with wood and steel.

Less maintenance and repairs mean reduced life-cycle costs. Lighter materials also facilitate handling during assembly, reducing installation costs as well as transportation costs. Composite also offer greater design freedom, enabling the creation of complex shapes.

Early in design stage

Involving the composites engineer early in the design stage of a project is important, observes David Kendall, Managing Director of Optima Projects Ltd., a UK-based consultancy specialising in advanced engineering design, analysis and FRP composite materials. His firm is currently working on a major construction project in the Mideast, where they’ve handled the composites engineering from the start.

“Often times, the materials are not considered early enough in a project. A roof, for example, can be made structurally efficient in composites at half the weight,” he relates. “But if all the supporting structures have already been designed in when they engage the composites specialist, it’s too late to take advantage of the weight and cost savings that are possible. Too many things have already been frozen in terms of geometry or loading or whatever,” he explains.

“We’re seeing an increased use of composites in buildings in countries in the Middle East, where there is a huge amount of development and some very interesting architecture,” continues Kendall. “Interestingly, there are no great concerns in using composites. They’re viewed as just another engineering material. And that is a good thing,” he says.

“The next big step that we want to see is greater structural use of composites in buildings. A lot of what we’ve done have internal steel frames and steel supporting structure. We want to produce shell-type structures, such as stadium roofs and other structures where you need big open spaces without internal frames and linings. We could create shell structures spanning 200 or 300 meters. It is doable.”

He describes the acceptance of structural composites in construction as “frustratingly slow,” given all the opportunity. “I think architects will embrace the materials for structural applications more quickly than engineers because of the freedom of design that it gives them. Engineers are typically more conservative in the construction industry, which is driven by codes. But there’s an awful lot of good, detailed engineering in terms of loading and performance being done with composites in other industries. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t apply that same approach in construction,” he comments.

This article is an extract from the feature Building on the advantages of composites in construction, published in the September/October 2010 issue of Reinforced Plastics magazine. You can read the complete feature here.