compromising on cost – steel, asphalt and plasterboard are all more energy- intensive than concrete. Naturally, then, the industry needs to rethink the way concrete is made, and how much of it. To reduce emissions, Bowder- Ridger believes the material needs to be used more sparingly and intelligently, “with an assumption that it should be considered as non- disposable”. Dr Natasha Watson, the senior structural engineer at Buro Happold, agrees. “I believe that our current use of concrete is lazy. We need to treat concrete like a precious resource, using it only where necessary,” she says. “Carbon emissions are the primary cause of climate change as we know it today, and if we are to reach our targets to reduce global emissions by at least 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels, in accordance with the Paris Agreement, we need to really look at our use of concrete in the built environment.” Cement accounts for around 10% of the concrete mix, but alone is responsible for around 8% of global carbon emissions.

Seeking sustainable solutions Watson calls for the replacing of ordinary Portland cement with other cementitious materials that have a lower embodied level of carbon, such as the waste products Ground Granulated Blast Furnace Slag (GGBS) and Pulverised Fuel Ash (PFA). “Unfortunately, GGBS and PFA are waste products from the smelting of iron ore into molten iron, and the ash results from the burning of pulverised coal in coal-fired electricity generation,” she says. “But in the next five to ten years, GGBS and PFA will be appropriate cement-replacements.”


However, as we move towards increasing steel reuse and less iron mining, as well as a reduction in burning coal for energy, there needs to be a more sustainable alternative. The Dutch microbiologist Hendrik Jonkers thinks he might have found a solution, having developed a formula to prolong the lifespan of concrete further. His invention sees self- activating limestone-producing bacteria embed itself into concrete, to heal cracks that appear on its surface – the aim of which is to decrease the amount of new concrete produced and lower repair costs for cities and private homeowners alike. “We know that concrete cracks, so therefore we have steel reinforcement embedded in it,” says Jonkers. “This can corrode when damp gets in, so our motivation was to find a solution to this problem.” His healing agent (a combination of bacterial spores and nutrients – ‘food for the bacteria’) needs water to activate, when it can then begin to make a certain product. Therefore, Jonkers and his team mix the healing agent through the concrete so that only at the moment when concrete cracks and water gets in does the bacteria activate and start producing limestone to fill the cracks – making the structure watertight once again. “Self-healing concrete reduces the need for steel reinforcement, because steel is there for structural performance,” he says. “But part of the steel is there to ensure that when cracks occur, they only extend to a certain width. Self-healing concrete means you can allow larger cracks to occur, because the bacteria will heal the crack.” In a typical watertight construction, you apply 50 to 60kg of steel, according to Jonkers. If you combine this with the self-healing

agent, he estimates that you can reduce the amount of steel needed to 30 or 40kg, making the building process less costly and reducing carbon footprint.

Reshaping solid foundations It’s important to note that the environmental benefits to Jonkers’ formula could take decades to be seen, and many believe this to be time we do not have when it comes to reversing the effects of climate change. “There’s no easy solution,” says Hall, “but the best thing is to stop destroying buildings.” Watson concurs, adding that we should prioritise looking at the buildings we already have in a different light and adapt them over time for what we need, “rather than throwing them away like fast-fashion and building new ones”.

Constructions like Bowder-Ridger’s Centre Point Tower, which achieved BREAM Excellence, is a fine example of how to approach our existing concrete behemoths. For its renovation, the firm reused almost

all of the existing concrete of the original 1960s office building to create a residential building for 21st century needs. Bowder-Ridger is all too aware of the environmental consequences of not preserving concrete buildings, which he has witnessed first-hand having worked on projects across East Asia, where many tonnes of concrete are demolished every generation, only to be replaced with new concrete frames. But, in earthquake areas such as Japan, there is currently no material better suited to withstand such pressures. Perhaps emerging technologies will allow us to treat aged concrete buildings across the globe more like historic constructions, which are repaired, sustained and repurposed over hundreds of years. Certainly, in Europe, the tradition to rework and layer existing buildings with other materials creates a richness to our ever-changing built environment – and this, as Bowder-Ridger observes, transforms a worsening problem into a concrete opportunity. ●


Eugene Regis/Rosalba Matta-Machado/

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