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In late 2017, Holland’s Amsterdam Airport Schiphol introduced unique flooring produced with 3D printing and additive manufacturing. The United States is following suit, incorporating not just things created through additive manufacturing, but other modern materials as well. As international tariffs and talk of trade wars loom, modern architectural materials offer innovation and design challenges to compete with and complement traditional building materials. 

Anthony Amenta, a principal-in-charge at Amenta Emma Architects, which has offices in New York and New England, says exterior materials depend on the project location. 

“Urban projects can range from all glass—generally high-rise construction, both residential and commercial—to a mix of glass, metal, brick and synthetic stucco,” he explains. “Suburban developments use predominantly brick and glass for commercial buildings, while mixed-use and multifamily projects use a variety of materials, from brick to cement-fiber clapboards and vinyl siding to panelized or non-panelized cementitious systems. 

“A lot of what we do to comply with energy codes involves innovative materials that are invisible to the end user because they are hidden within the wall construction or behind a roof screen.”

As an example, Amenta cites an air vapor water barrier that combines insulation and structural sheathing in a single product. 

“This all-in-one design reduces labor and construction time and labor costs, and creates a tighter, more weather-resistant enclosure,” he says. “Another example is the growing market for variable refrigerant flow heating and cooling systems. Previously associated most commonly with small residential applications, we see these system types increasingly utilized in larger commercial projects, especially in renovations of older buildings.” 

Jonathan Hall, a marketing associate with Concord Terrazzo, Charlotte, North Carolina, says terrazzo products are in demand, particularly for LEED projects. 

“Terrazzo is considered one of the world’s first green flooring systems,” notes Hall. “Created in the 15th century, Venetian marble workers reused discarded marble pieces to create inexpensive flooring. Today, terrazzo is valued for its durability, design flexibility, long life cycles and low maintenance.” 

Hall says that the use of terrazzo continues to evolve. “Architects and homeowners like having the flexibility to work with terrazzo for their projects, while architects and general contractors are drawn in by terrazzo’s sustainability,” he says. “As a flooring system, terrazzo can help contribute to LEED credits. Terrazzo becomes an attractive green material due to its recycled content such as post-consumer recycled glass, porcelain and concrete; low VOC emissions from epoxy resins; and local manufacturing sources.” 

Tariff Tumult

When talking architectural materials, there is an elephant in the room: trade tariffs. It may take some time to feel the full effects of impending tariffs on the building and construction industry, though some see clear indications already.

“In the short term, the steel tariffs probably won’t have much impact on the construction industry,” comments Steve Conboy, chairman and general manager of M-Fire Suppression, Inc., Carlsbad, California. 

“Projects under way or in the final stages of design will proceed, with builders simply swallowing the costs or passing them on to buyers. But long term, builders will start to look at mass timber as an affordable alternative. The lumber tariffs are easier to handle because we have the capacity to create new growth timber quickly.”

For some raw architectural materials, the effects from tariffs are already noticeable. “Lumber is up 10.5 percent since January. Rebar is even worse, jumping up 58 percent this year alone,” says Murray Rice, a principal with Richard and Rice Construction based in Deerfield Beach, Florida. “When you add in the higher cost for steel and lumber, the price to build a typical 2,500-square-foot single-family home has risen nearly $2,500. A typical two-story, 4,000-square-foot single-family home adds $6,000 year on year.”

Amenta sees tariffs as a significant problem for the industry, particularly with regard to metal materials, from structural steel to aluminum-based window and storefront assemblies. 

“Unfortunately, as imported materials become more expensive, domestic suppliers are taking advantage of the situation and raising prices on the non-tariff alternative materials as well,” states Amenta. “We don’t see an alternative to rising prices. Even modular construction will be affected, as that process is as reliant on imported materials as onsite construction. We would like to be taking advantage of alternative building systems, such as mass timber, but these also rely on imported materials. So far, they have not yet proven to be cost effective compared to steel systems.”

Nick Martin, a principal with Martin Architects PC of Sagaponack, New York, says tariffs could stimulate materials production to be more self-reliant and aid domestic production to create products that are competitive with imported materials. 

“Worldwide manufacturing will always continue, but my hope is that U.S. industry will learn to design a vertical creation-to-production line within our own country,” he says.

The Rise of Additive Manufacturing

The prevalence of trade tariffs encourages the use of domestic production, and even more self-reliance with materials production that uses methods such as 3D printing. In fact, the domestic creation of more products may act well in concert with the emergence of additive manufacturing. 

Additive manufacturing via 3D printing is expected to make great strides in the development of architectural materials, though adoption of its use is sluggish. According to Amenta, the construction industry is slow to change and risk-averse to adopt additive manufacturing. He says that until a process is very tried and true, developers will not embrace it. 

“Developers can’t afford to be experimenters,” he asserts. “The large printers that are required for additive manufacturing—for onsite concrete pours, for example—rely solely on the reliability of the print head. If a problem develops there, the entire process can grind to a halt. The enormous size of these printers makes them expensive and difficult to transport as well. I believe that modular construction—somewhat lower on the hierarchy of technologically advanced construction methodologies—will gain market share well before additive manufacturing does.” 

Modular construction in a factory-controlled environment, rather than on a construction site, provides precision and speed, but still relies largely on human labor; this allows production to be easily adjusted, adapted, modified and corrected. 

“I am not aware of any large-scale printers being heavily utilized in a factory environment for the purpose of creating building units,” Amenta adds. “Laser-guided tools are another technological advancement and fairly commonplace on larger construction processes. What’s more, GPS and satellite technology for building layout and grading the site are becoming standard practices.”

Stronger, Safer, More Durable and Efficient

Architectural materials will always be sought for their durability, safety and efficiency; however, their selection may be at a crossroads. Additive manufacturing is new and may greatly change the selection process when considering the best architectural materials. The uncertainty of the effect of tariffs will probably aid this trend, as well as the search for better products to adequately compete with imported materials. Innovations that provide functional advantages as well as sustainability will gain ground. 

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s 2017 Innovative Building Technology Guide is a good representative of the overall pulse of building materials selection: “The landscape of building products, materials, components and systems has increased substantially in recent years. These advancements have paved the way for the new design and construction methods that make buildings stronger, safer, more durable and more efficient.” 

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