ArchDaily has partnered with CEMEX, a global leader in the building materials industry, to bring you an industry perspective into the latest advances that are relevant to architects. In this installment, we explore the role concrete plays in the development of forms in architecture.
Concrete is the most widely used manmade material in the world. Strong and plastic, it is capable of being poured into almost any form. Concrete can drip like water, flow in a graceful curve like a line of frosting on a cake, or jab into the sky like a craggy seaside cliff. It all depends on how it is mixed.
Like splicing DNA, specific physical traits can be selected depending on a project’s needs. Adjusting the mix or adding exotic materials to concrete can make it waterproof or sponge-like; it can change its acoustic properties, generate energy from footsteps or even clean pollution from the air. Concrete is amazingly versatile. It can even used like ink in giant 3D printers to print buildings.
All of this depends on the composition of the concrete, on its design. At higher levels of complexity, concrete-by-design requires level of engineering expertise that can only be developed through experimentation and research. What might begin as an idea in the mind of an architect requires a specific path to construction, like how the properties of concrete depend everything coming together—through the selection of ingredients, their proper mixing, transport, pouring and finishing.
Brutalism celebrated the aggregate, the rocks, fossils and shards of glass that bristle out of buildings like Paul Rudolph’s School of Architecture at Yale University. After that building’s concrete panels had set, workers had to attack them with bush hammers to reveal the aggregate and roughen the texture. There’s no Rudolph without concrete.
Technically, concrete is a composite of water, granular filler and cement. Water and cement, a binding agent made of lime and clay, have to be there, but the filler can be varied, and this makes concrete an even more useful material.
Mixed on-site or, more commonly, in a plant nearby, concrete can be made lighter to reduce weight, semi-transparent to let light into a building, or even mixed with insulating material like lightweight expanded glass to improve its thermal qualities.
Cement’s versatility may make it the most useful—and the most used—material humans have invented. As new technologies are developed, cement can incorporate them more easily than other materials, since it’s already a mixture. Waste ash from power plants is now commonly used in the production of cement, for example; this process saves millions of dollars and reduces the carbon footprint of concrete production. You can be sure that whatever new materials are invented in the future, they’ll find their way into experimental cement.
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