Preview Article: Building Materials Tomorrow

We’ve come a long way from the simple “timber or brick” construction alternatives of yesteryear – modern building materials are conceived in laboratories, not factories…

Hardware traders are familiar with announcements about new product releases. In the building materials sector, chants of “better, stronger, cheaper” go hand in hand with glitzy brochures, high-resolution images and brands that sound like the names of Manhattan apartment blocks.

Caption: Lightweight concrete materials from CSR Hebel are extending the design horizons of architectsAHJBuilding01Nov05

There are powerful forces at work that dictate the industry’s evolutions in building material design and fabrication. Shortages in raw materials and prestige timber products have necessitated a shift away from many traditional materials. In addition, developers on tight budgets wanting “more bang for their bucks” have driven great advances in sound-proofing, weight reduction and more appealing aesthetic finishes.

Most technical advances, according to Renee Bailey, CSR’s Fibre Cement National Product Manager, are indeed driven by feedback from customers, as communicated to sales representatives across the country.

“With our business, our R&D (Research & Development) works quite closely with sales and marketing,” Renee says. “We have tried to be responsive to what people want; for instance, we hear quite strongly that light weight is important – there definitely is a trend there and we envision it will continue.”

Lightweight materials, Renee explains, have numerous motivations. Lighter products require smaller teams of builders and have the potential to reduce OH&S-related injuries. Lighter systems also reduce freight costs and pave the way for less complicated construction methods. New material design has always taken strength and durability into consideration, but Renee says technical development goes way beyond the search for smaller product profiles with twice the toughness. A more complex array of priorities is at work.

“Traditionally, we have created Gyprock sheets,” Renee says. “Now we are taking much more responsibility as a company to say, ‘This is how the board works in the context of everything else.’ So the goal is to deliver warranted ‘systems’.”

This desire to refine building materials systems is a crucial innovation in the industry. Instead of looking at individual products, companies like CSR are creating networks of products that are designed for maximum compatibility, both in terms of functionality and design principles.

“A good example is sound-proofing,” says Renee, indicating that good sound insulation is just as important as light weight when developing new products. “We cooperate with other industries and have recently worked on a sound control system with Hume Doors & Timber (Aust.) Pty Ltd. It’s one thing for us to make great sound-control products, but the good work can be undermined by inappropriate doors and windows, so we have tried to create a full system where all components function together.”

AHJBuilding02Nov05Caption: CSR Residential ExpressWall™ panels have proven popular with developers seeking a sleek industrial look

The notion of an integrated and warranted building products system takes into account potential fastener configurations, decorative coating surfaces, even panel sizes. CSR commercial ExpressWall™ products, for example, have given rise to a Residential ExpressWall™ version for domestic applications.

Building materials also change in response to fashion, and Residential ExpressWall™ panels have specially pre-coated edges to expedite workflows and localise painting, if desired, to the panel faces.

The R&D for such refinements is usually conducted in-house. Renee says there might be 10–15 scientists working at CSR in her Fibre Cement division on any given project. Researchers from other product divisions such as CSR Hebel – manufacturers of aerated, autoclaved concrete (AAC) block and panel systems – also work in-house, so expertise is not localised to a single product range. In addition, the company retains links with universities to finalise product specifications and validate test results.

Aesthetics Matter
Another company with a strong presence in the fibre cement market is James Hardie Australia.

In-house R&D accounts for an annual expenditure of US$25m at the company’s two main research centres in Rosehill, Sydney, and the USA. Director of Business Development, Andrew Ward, says most research responds to clear market factors – cost being a primary consideration – though aesthetics also play a large role in the creation of new products. “We look at the new home market and really try to pick out the innovators and market leaders,” Andrew says. “They are the ones who are looking to give something new to consumers, and there are some very innovative designers out there who look to us for something different.” According to Andrew, new products that appeal to progressive building companies subsequently tend to filter through to mainstream markets.

Caption: James Hardie is constantly developing innovative building productsAHJBuilding03Nov05

“If you look at our fibre cement products, they have some core properties like fire and moisture resistance and durability, and we spend a lot of time improving the workability of products to match the aesthetic appeal – functionality is always important.”

The recent release of Linea™ weatherboard is an interesting test case. This fibre cement board replicates the look of traditional weatherboard sufficiently well to appeal to renovators of period homes, but the 16mm-thick cladding also offers the lightweight versatility and consistency that has made fibre cement such an all-pervasive product. In terms of product development, Andrew says fixing is enhanced through tongue and groove designs. Installation is faster and the builder needs less time to achieve symmetrical alignments. While past products may have required pre-drilling, significant advances have also been made to offer direct nailing simplicity.

Similarly, Eclipsa™ eaves linings come pre-painted in a removable adhesive slipsheet to prevent scuffing during transportation and installation. Added features like colour-matched fasteners provide yet another time-saving benefit to builders.

Perhaps the most buoyant sector in the Hardie product line-up is “express panel”-style façade cladding. Andrew says these rectangular panel designs first made their mark in commercial construction before gaining a foothold in domestic markets. Hardie products like ExoTec® panels have now been released for residential construction applications, with features like improved moisture resistance and the ability to accept a broad range of coatings. Fastening solutions like the D3–1000™ Fixing System offer a smooth mechanism for stable and predictable building processes.

While current panels are distributed with fully pre-sealed surfaces, the next step in the evolution of product development may include the release of pre-finished products. Hardie’s US division has paid a lot of attention to pre-finished surfaces recently, and – though Andrew is reluctant to forecast specific future Australian trends – he concedes that this may be a prominent growth sector for local Hardie operations in coming years.

While resellers’ take-up rates of new building materials can vary widely according to construction trends, regional design characteristics and suppliers’ order flexibilities, it is promising to see avant-garde materials making an impact in both regional and urban settings. Often new products are incorporated initially into composite designs alongside more conventional materials, but any increase in experimentalism can only be good for building-related industries and their retail stockists.

By John Power

You can read the rest of this article in the Australian Hardware Journal’s November 2005 issue.