Have you ever wondered how tall buildings withstand the extreme conditions that exist hundreds of metres above the ground? The dazzling 828m tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the 632m Shanghai Tower snake their spires up towards infinity amidst howling winds and the blazing sun. Buildings like these have only been made possible in very recent years, thanks to impressive advances in technology.
Beyond making buildings taller, the construction sector has made several extraordinary advances in recent years. Buildings emit less greenhouse gases and have become more energy efficient. Their construction uses less resources, and they last longer, requiring less repairs. Great strides have been made in making buildings resistant to earthquakes, high winds and extreme temperatures; buildings today are safer than ever.
According to the European Commission, buildings account for 40% of the energy used in Europe. The sector is therefore crucial to achieving the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement, the 2030 climate and energy framework and the circular economy action plan. At the same time, the construction sector is vital for the European economy – it provides 18 million direct jobs and contributes to more than 5% of the EU GDP. The solution to the problem is therefore not to construct less, but to construct better.
How were those heights and energy savings achieved, and how will construction continue to improve to meet the needs of tomorrow? Advancements in the fields of engineering and architecture are of course fundamental, but I would like to highlight also the role of material science, and silicones in particular.
Silicones were first used in construction more than 50 years ago, and are still holding many of those same buildings together today. This inventive chemistry set revolutionised construction with its multitude of positive attributes. And silicone innovation did not stop there – every year the silicones industry continues to invest around 4% of earnings in R&D. Allow me to point out some core achievements in the construction sector to date.
Structural glazing using silicones protects and maintains the long-term quality and appearance of a building façade. These façades depend on silicone sealants and glazing to insulate and protect glass panels in buildings from UV rays. In tall buildings, silicone sealants reinforce the attachment of the glass to the frame, and their flexibility and temperature resistance help those impressive structures stay in place.
In addition to enabling construction under extreme conditions, silicones contribute to the circular economy by reducing the amount of materials used in construction (by eliminating the use of mechanical fasteners, among other things), prolonging the lifespan of buildings and facilitating energy efficiency. Insulated window glazing using silicone sealants saves nearly 30 times more greenhouse gas than was emitted when they were made. Silicone additives and coatings can also reduce water ingress by up to 80%. Considering that water intake is the predominant reason for biodegradation of buildings, this is no mean feat.
Silicones also help buildings become ‘net-zero’ emitters, through building-integrated photovoltaic materials that replace other materials to provide a renewable energy source where a regular roof, skylight or façade would have been.
Silicone coatings reduce degradation and help lengthen the operational lifetime of buildings and façades, avoiding costs arising from water or damp damage. In old buildings and landmarks, such as the statues on Easter Island and the Statue of Liberty in New York, silicones help reinforce the structures without compromising the integrity of the original materials. Silicone surfactants on polyurethane panels improve insulation and energy efficiency without compromising surface quality. The versatility of silicones allows for design flexibility, which has brought the world the Gherkin and the Shard in London, ‘Gardens by the Bay’ in Singapore, BMW Welt in Munich and many others.
Who knows what additional architectural and engineering innovations in building design silicones will enable in the future? A look in the crystal ball shows potential for dynamic glass, next generation lighting and completely transparent bonding materials.
The next time you crane your neck to look up at a tall structure, admire a nearby UNESCO heritage building, or drink a cup of tea in your well-insulated house, take a moment to think about the advanced technologies that made it possible.