I was reading an article on the “Construction Enquirer” website last week, regarding problems being encountered on a large construction project currently underway for the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Social Sciences site off Northumberland Road.

The new faculty building at Sheffield University (Source)

According to the article, the main contractor BAM is to pull down and rebuild about half of the structural frame of the new building after they identified that there was settlement occurring in excess of that which would normally be expected in a structure of this nature.  A statement from BAM confirmed that their detailed investigations into the cause of the settlement had confirmed “…a problem with the piling of the structure, which are unusually complicated…”.

Dealing with these issues will, apparently, delay completion of the project by 10-15 months, and no doubt the financial cost implications arising from this problem will be very painful indeed (for someone) on this £65 million project.

The timing of the article made me smile (no, I’m not a complete sadist – please read on) because only last week we were chatting away at the end of our weekly team meeting and – I forget how – the subject of piling beneath structures came up.  I was, in my usual “old fart” style, reminiscing about a story told to me when I was doing the Advanced Structures Course at the Sheffield Polytechnic, now of course known as Hallam University (yes, I am that old).

This particular week were to be lectured on the matter of piling.  One of the lecturers – I forget his name – was a Geologist and started his section of the talk with the opening: “Piles are unfortunate things that occupy the undersides of buildings and people”, so we knew it was going to be one of those lectures before we had hardly started.

Let’s get this out in the open right away – I have been banned outright from making any further references in this article to haemorrhoids, ‘Farmer Giles’ or the use of certain proprietary ointments to cure the University’s building problems…

Anyway, back to the plot…

The rest of the lecture that evening was presented by the late Jim Ducker, who always tried to brighten his lectures with the odd anecdote.  This particular evening, Jim was telling us the story how – through his “side line” business as J Ducker and Partners Consulting Engineers, he had been instructed to carry out a peer review of another company’s design for a building in the South Yorkshire area.  The project was for a building of four or five storeys, on a site where it was known the ground conditions would require some form of piled solution.

I forget all the details of the ground conditions that were gone through in detail for the benefit of a room full of young engineers, but suffice it to say that the original design using twenty concrete piles was deemed unlikely to satisfy the client’s requirement that the building should experience a maximum settlement of no more than 12.5mm in the first three years.

So, the designers set about the problem and came up with a revised design, this time using about forty 600mm diameter reinforced concrete bored piles going down about 20 metres into the ground.

Unfortunately, only six months after work had finished, the building had already settled by 75mm!

N.B. This might not be the building Jim was telling us about…

Dear old Jim went through all the technical arguments that he presented in his peer review, but the punchline of his lecture was that:

“It was the weight of all those extra piles that had dragged it down!”

Now, I’m not saying that BAM and their consulting engineers should have listened to Jim Ducker… but, well, there is a well known phrase about being doomed to repeat history.

Sustainability was defined by the Brundtland Commission as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. And with Climate Change in full swing and evident to all but the most stubborn deniers, everyone is looking towards sustainable applications for everything from agriculture to manufacturing.

The construction industry is no different in considering sustainability to be an ethical imperative as we go forward, especially as we consider the changes we will need to make to our building styles and methods as climate change affects the world around us.

Image of a green, slightly sunny, British countryside view. You can almost smell the mud.

It’s a situation made a little more complicated by the fact that there is never going to be a “one size fits all” solution within the construction industry — one site will always be different to another, no matter how subtle the changes might be.

For example, prefabrication has been cited as being more sustainable than some other construction methods, with the reduced time on site and reduction of potential fabrication mistakes amongst the factors that makes it a tempting prospect.

However, this method isn’t without its downsides. Prefabricated sections are usually large and require specialised transport to site, which can significantly increase the carbon footprint of a project, plus the additional provision of ways to manoeuvre the sections into place.

This has led, within the construction industry as well as within many others, to an increased level of creativity and innovation when considering ways that we can become more sustainable.

For example, a Scottish company founded by an Professor Gabriela Medero, an engineer from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, is currently working with a design for a brick that is made from construction waste.

The K-Briq is recycled and has a low carbon footprint (image copyright Dezeen.com)

The K-Briq (yes, I know) is comprised of 90% recycled material and is unfired, meaning that it generates a much lower level of carbon emissions than regular bricks. It is said by it’s creator to look, weigh and behave like a clay brick, however, we note that this is stated in an interview in DeZeen magazine and, at the time of writing, no supporting research is publicly available.

And this is by no means the only research into more environmentally friendly ways to form building materials.

Research is ongoing by Suzanne Lambert at the University of Cape town to create a zero-waste brick which is hardened at room temperature using bacteria and human urine.

The blocks use loose sand, bacteria & human urine to create a solid building material (image copyright Dezeen.com)

Following on from this use of bacteria, there was a post that caught my eye last year, largely because it combines construction with one of my hobbies, which detailed work by London-based architect Bastian Beyer who had been using bacteria to calcify knitted materials to form solid columns. They have a wonderful, almost DNA-like structure to them due to the solidification of the knitting structure.

It was interesting largely because, like 3D printing, it could be carried out, with an appropriate advancement of technology, on site with minimal space. And it has the potential for a much simpler repair process if the structure is damaged.

The column is knitted from jute and polyester fibres impregnated with bacteria which form a calcite coating (image copyright Dezeen.com)

Of course, the idea of a calcified structure in an era of climate change, pollution and acidic rainwater is certainly something that would need to be worked upon. As would the way in which the new structures would interact with the surrounding ecosystem and wildlife.

Likewise there would need to be rigorous testing on how these new methods of construction would work at a larger scale, especially with the potential ability to change the loading capacity of the structure by simply changing the knitted pattern.

However, a combination of technology like this with 3D printing and more traditional construction methods suggests that introducing sustainability to the construction industry may not be as far off, or as expensive, as many have stated.