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business models, strategies and technologies

Reconcocting concrete structures and how to deploy them

Making concrete structures low-tech and idiot-proof via Concrete Canvas

Rethinking concrete structures and how to deploy them

Concrete Canvas Ltd. is the British company behind an innovative material technology that makes it possible to use concrete in radically new ways. Their Concrete Canvas product is a flexible fabric impregnated with cement. It hardens on contact with water to form a thin, durable concrete layer that’s both waterproof and fireproof.

Concrete Canvas consists of a three-dimensional fibre matrix containing a specially formulated dry concrete mix. A PVC backing on one surface of the fibre makes sure the material is completely waterproof. The material can be hydrated either by spraying or by being fully immersed in water. Once set, the fibres reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks and ensuring a resilient hardened structure.

Concrete Canvas is delivered folded into a sealed plastic sack. The volume of the sack determines the water-to-cement ratio, eliminating any need for measuring how much water is being added. The company describes the product as “concrete on a roll”, asserting that all you have to do is add water.

Building in a bag

Concrete Canvas was originally developed for the award-winning Concrete Canvas Shelters, a remarkable ”building in a bag” product that provides rapidly deployable hardened shelters and requires only water and air for their construction. This patented idea makes it possible to rapidly and inexpensively create hardened structures using a cement-impregnated cloth bonded to an inflatable inner surface.

Basically, Concrete Canvas Shelters are inflatable concrete buildings. A small model can apparently be erected by just 2 untrained people in less than an hour, using only water, and the new structure is ready for use in only 24 hours. Not surprisingly, the original design for Concrete Canvas Shelters won numerous awards, including the 2005 Saatchi & Saatchi Award for World Changing Ideas.

Ideal in crisis situations

A low-tech, easily transportable fabric shelter that hardens within 24 hours after being sprayed with water has obvious applications in disaster zones and in helping deal with refugee crises According to the inventors, such shelters provide safer, more secure and much more durable living space for refugees, because – unlike tents – they’re lockable, fireproof, cool in the sun and will last for decades. They can also be delivered in sterile configurations, allowing previously impossible surgical procedures to be performed in situ from the very early stages of a crisis situation.

The structure is intended to improve upon two current methods of providing emergency shelter: tents, which provide only poor protection, or prefabricated, portable buildings that are expensive and difficult to transport. Concrete Canvas Shelters incorporate the best aspects of both forms – they are almost as easy to transport as a tent, but are as durable and secure as a portable building.

Environmental advantage

According to the manufacturer, Concrete Canvas is currently the only way of laying a thin concrete layer from a prefabricated roll of material. This means that for many basic surfacing applications the usual requirement of up to 150mm of poured concrete can be replaced with just an 8mm thickness of Concrete Canvas.  This adds up to material savings of as much as 95% for a typical construction project. This significantly reduces the carbon dioxide footprint of construction work because fewer materials are required, but also because much less transport is involved and much less on-site machinery is needed.

New generation of construction technologies

The Concrete Canvas product is an innovative rethink on key issues of portability, ease of assembly, durability and cost. The humanitarian applications seem obvious, but there are many other fields where this technology could be – and is – deployed successfully. The company itself has seen this potential, and its website is brimming with photos of how this remarkably practical material can be used in vast numbers of different applications, civilian as well as military. These include a wealth of ad hoc requirements for hardened surfaces and fittings, where the conventional use of concrete – with all the preliminary work involved – would make it complete overkill. The company’s website provides a thought-provoking gallery of ways Concrete Canvas can be used – for protection against erosion, in ditches and waterways, as trackways and surface protection, in both permanent and temporary fittings and structures, etc.

Concrete Canvas also seems to be part of a new generation of construction technologies that rethink some of the basic tenets of buildings and structures, with HESCO Concertainer technology from Hesco Group as another. It is no coincidence that both technologies are now often deployed together in military contexts, in particular.

Concrete without the infrastructure

But in my opinion, the most fundamental innovation in the Concrete Canvas technology lies in its capabilities for engendering a new mindset about what cement and concrete (they’re not the same thing – a common layman’s error) can be used for, and – not least – how such structures can be deployed.

I personally have a background in the building industry, and my overwhelming memory from building concrete structures is the vast amount of manpower-intensive preparation – all the one-off formwork and shuttering that requires skilled carpenters and lots of timber, plywood or other equipment, all the supports, struts and bracing needed to keep it from moving during the pour, all the rebar/reinforcing rods and mesh, all the logistics of mixing (or getting it in from the trucks to where it’s needed), pouring and vibrating, etc. etc. And once it’s in place and properly cured, it’s pretty permanent and difficult to modify. All this is in glaring contrast to brick, which is easy to erect virtually anywhere, requires very little support infrastructure, and is easy to modify and extend without major construction surgery and big electricity-guzzling equipment.

The idea behind Concrete Canvas seems to address these very issues – you can do pretty much anything with it, and it requires very little infrastructure. It’s remarkably low-tech and idiot-proof (an important consideration in the real world) and can change the way people in general – and building operations in particular – think about hardened structures and surfaces and how to establish them.

External info
http://www.concretecanvas.com/ http://www.hesco.com