Meeting the challenges of climate change

Climate change, resulting in more extreme temperatures, heavier wind loads and more damaging droughts and floods, is having a profound effect on the composition and use of building materials, as well as the entire hardware retail sector. JOHN POWER looks at some of the latest trends and innovations.

The building industry bears a heavy responsibility for the future comfort, safety and well being of the world’s citizens.

In Australia alone, the annual cost of replacing buildings damaged from increasingly extreme weather has been estimated at $200 billion per annum, with the CSIRO advising that this figure is expected to rise to $1 trillion by the end of the century (source: ‘Sustainable Architecture and Building Design for Extreme Weather’, Adam Latham, http://blog.latham-australia.com).

In other words, building fabrication needs to adapt to a new era of harsh realities, and hardware stores will be at the coalface of this revolution.

There are two ‘streams’ of weaponry when it comes to battling climate change in the building sector: the first stream relates to ‘green products’, i.e. products and materials that, by their nature, involve more efficient and cleaner fabrication processes and therefore have a reduced impact on the environment. A good example might be non-toxic insulation made from recycled natural fibres.

The second stream relates to materials and products which, though not necessarily ‘green’ in their own right, still have a role to play in enhancing building performance, most obviously by lessening a building’s energy consumption through a combination of intelligent design and judicious placement. A good example might be external window shades or louvres that restrict heat gain.

Australia is at the vanguard of the push towards more sustainable materials and smarter design technologies in the built environment, stretching the boundaries in categories as diverse as roofing, rigid thermoset insulation, as well as glazing. Whether it is improved fixing and sealing technology to make buildings more airtight, and therefore less prone to heat loss in winter (or heat gain in summer); superior shading systems to minimize direct solar radiation on walls; superior UV-reflective coatings to cope with tougher conditions for longer timespans; or more advanced irrigation products to make the most of water supplies, the retail hardware sector is evolving to match the challenges.

Regardless of which stream of products is under the microscope, there is an obvious incentive for manufacturers to focus on recycled raw materials. The drive towards composite decking materials made from recycled plastics, for example, has been strong for over a decade, and is now gaining unprecedented momentum.

Demand is particularly buoyant within the public sector where a policy preference for sustainable materials has seen a leap in applications in schools, civic buildings and parks for wheelchair ramps, walkways and platforms.

The obvious appeal of this kind of composite decking is its capacity to replace scarce timber resources while also offering minimal ongoing maintenance.

Just like natural hardwood
However, other Australian products are tackling the issue of forest preservation in utterly novel ways. One of the most sophisticated companies in this field is the Melbourne-based firm 3RT Holdings (www.3rt.com.au), which has developed a composite timber material called 3Wood. This amazing product has all the full-profile qualities of mature tropical hardwood, but it is made exclusively from juvenile plantation timbers. Unlike other engineered products, which are based on laminated veneer lumber (LVL) or cross-laminated timber (CLT), 3Wood makes use of new processing techniques that mimic the way real tree fibres grow, in effect accomplishing in a week what nature does in 150 years. The result is an engineered product that features the full-profile appearance, random grain, smooth workability and pleasant feel of genuine mature hardwood – but without knots, warps or milling marks.

This kind of furniture-grade product has the capacity to reshape top-end ranges in traditional timber yards, where imperfections
and anomalies account for massive wastage. Not only does 3Wood replicate mature tropical hardwood without the destruction of mature trees, but it also opens the door to a new wave of customization. For instance, a customer might commission specialist timber made from a blend of different eucalypts – one dark and the other blond – to achieve a unique swirl effect in the finish. Size is another customizable feature, with perfectly consistent shapes and lengths limited only by the capacity of the processing machinery.

The developers of 3Wood, which was created with the help of researchers from Flinders University in SA, are quick to add that the product is non-toxic and completely safe for sanding, drilling and sawing.

Engineered timber conference
Other companies involved in LVL and CLT wood products, ranging from flawless prefabricated trusses to oversized laminated beams, are continually upgrading their output to deliver more affordable product lines.

Anyone interested in learning more about the latest developments in engineered timber should consider attending the next Frame Australia 2018 event called ‘Timber Offsite Construction’, which will be held on the 18th and 19th of June 2018, at Park Hyatt Melbourne. Sessions will cover design development of both multi-residential and commercial buildings for low carbon, energy-efficient outcomes; BIM and 3D design digital platforms; plant automation and robotics in prefabrication; examples of timber and engineered wood construction systems; and current timber building projects around Australia. Visit the Frame Australia website www.frameaustralia.com

Roofing with solar tiles
While development of an individual product always has its own tests and tribulations, it takes considerable thought to create an alternative building ‘system’. However, this is exactly what the Australian company Tractile (http://tractile.com.au) has achieved with its unique solar roof tiles, which are designed and tested in Australia for full-roof applications, and rated to withstand Australia’s cyclonic storms.

This product has the potential to revolutionise traditional roofing – quite a claim, given the lack of broad-brush innovation in roofing over the last couple of centuries.

Tractile’s innovation relates to the burgeoning solar energy sector, as characterised in typical domestic settings by arrays of large black photovoltaic (PV) solar panels bolted onto roofing substrates.

But why bolt a big solar panel a few centimetres above perfectly good roofing? Why not ‘incorporate’ the solar cell technology into the actual roofing material itself? This is precisely what Tractile has done with the creation of its own form of solar roof tiles, which feature PV cells embedded directly into the tile surface. Rows of solar roof tiles, nestled symmetrically alongside same-sized non-solar tiles of the same model, constitute an aesthetically harmonious, single-profile roofing system – without any messy bolt-on solar panels.

Designed, quite clearly, for full roofing installations on new builds or major renovations, the multifunctionality of Tractile solar roof tiles is enhanced even further with the inclusion of pipework built into the tiles for water heating. So, these tiles not only harness solar energy, but they also heat water! (As a matter of fact, the water in the pipes actually cools the tiles and improves the effectiveness of the PV cells.) These tiles, which also offer the benefit of superior insulation performance, need to be installed by professional plumbers and electricians, but installation is considered straightforward compared to clay or concrete tiles.

For starters, Tractile’s composite resin tiles are very lightweight, making life easier for tradespeople, and there are fewer tiles needed to complete a roof because each tile is approximately eight times larger than a traditional tile. Add a ‘slide and lock’ fixing methodology with greater spacing between battens, and the full system is very appealing to tradespeople. Another significant bonus: old-fashioned bolt-on solar panels can become missiles in a storm or cyclone, so replacing them with a single-profile solar roof tile system makes sense in northern Australia, in particular.

Future applications will inevitably see solar cell technologies incorporated into wall cladding materials, further enhancing the ability of homes to provide shelter as well as energy simultaneously.

Other companies also making headway in this fascinating product category include Monier (http://monier.com.au) and Tesla (https://www.tesla.com/en_AU/solarroof), though the Australian market is still waiting for the long-promised arrival of Tesla solar roof tiles. Time will tell whether Tesla units, made to satisfy the North American preference for ‘shingle’-type tiling, will have mainstream applications in our market, particularly in light of unknown elements relating to installation and performance. (Don’t expect to see a Tesla tile floating past the moon any time soon!)

Insulation and glazing
Back to more earthly matters, the insulation product category is also advancing to counter increasingly extreme weather conditions without compromising valuable room space. While soft insulation remains the dominant insulation product class, rigid thermoset products such as the Kooltherm range from Kingspan Insulation (www.kingspan.com) have won favour in Australian commercial building development and are filtering through to domestic buildings. These large, slimline insulation boards allow homeowners to maximise the floor area of rooms without sacrificing precious cavity space to soft insulation. An equally important feature is the ability to fit boards snugly side by side, eliminating the large air gaps typically associated with soft insulation as it settles within wall frames. NB: rigid insulation panels are also available for underfloor and ceiling uses.

Tighter control of heat loss and gain also underpins new synthetic (u-PVC) window glazing materials, which are responsive to customer demands for low-maintenance and highly energy-efficient performance in double-glazing.

Last century there were only three main types of framing materials for windows: steel, aluminium and timber. Nowadays, synthetic window and door framing materials are stealing market share across all classes. Not only do these composite materials minimize heat transference between external and internal environments (major problems with steel and aluminium framework, less so with timber), but they also retain their fresh appearance for years without coatings.

The above technologies are just a taste of the innovation on display throughout Australia and the world as we accept the realities of climate change.

As building materials and systems adapt to harsher conditions, the retail hardware sector also changes to reflect fresh product ranges and new installation methodologies. It is a continual evolution, and one that defines the dynamic hardware sector.