French Architect Jacques Ferrier is a big fan of concrete. He has used it extensively in his latest work, including his design of the French pavilion for the 2010 World's Fair in Shanghai, and believes it has strong aesthetic appeal. "It has a sensuality," he enthuses. "It evokes images of white minerality." Most of all, Ferrier praises concrete for its environmental friendliness. One of his concept projects is Hypergreen, a showcase tower with a curved, concrete lattice façade, designed to generate enough energy to meet most of its own needs.
Yes, concrete. Not the cheap, gray, easily cracked soulless stuff that gave urbanization a bad name when it was slathered over Western cities in the 1960s, but newfangled, bright--and still relatively expensive--concrete that has come on to the market this decade. High-performance concrete (or ultra-high-performance, as it's known in the industry) is up to 10 times as strong as regular concrete. It costs several times as much as standard concrete, yet industry experts say price comparisons are misleading because the high-tech versions have properties that make them more comparable to materials such as stainless steel and aluminum, which can be even pricier. Those attributes give architects, engineers and builders far greater flexibility to use concrete's long-lasting thermal and acoustic properties in everything from pedestrian bridges to bus stations. That in turn contributes to big energy and other environmental savings. Some of the innovations are startling: the white concrete that American architect Richard Meier used for the Jubilee Church in Rome, for example, contains titanium dioxide, which keeps the concrete clean while also destroying pollutants around it, like car exhaust.
High-tech concrete is just one of the products that have emerged from the research-and-development labs of cement, steel and chemicals firms this decade, and it signals an increasing commitment by heavy industry to the notion of "sustainability." As public pressure has grown to reduce energy use and carbon emissions--and in general to tread more lightly on the environment--companies in these industries have poured money into R&D efforts. Much of the work has focused on internal processes, especially on the critical task of how to lower emissions during manufacturing. But in their labs, scientists have also been playing with the materials themselves, swapping around molecules and gazing at atomic structures through electron microscopes in the hunt for new, "greener" variations. The idea is to improve the entire life cycle of the product--not just how it's made but also how it's used.