Synthetic versus Authentic Building Materials

Oct 26, 2017 No Comments by

In an era where this particular headline could also be translated as “commodity vs niche”, how does the building materials industry look to position itself without compromising standards for lower prices? Perhaps the stigma for synthetic or “engineered” materials deserves review, as historically, sentiment towards such materials has not enjoyed the same airtime as materials we have become accustomed to. While trying to maintain a balanced opinion on this topic, this is perhaps the perfect departure point in debunking the role synthetic alternatives offer the building materials industry.

The Human mechanics of adoption generally takes to a product or trend if it is seen, experienced and used often enough to deem it a standard rather than an alternative. There is scientific research to support this, based on the transition from familiarity to one of habit. So in order for this to seed and grow, we often witness methods of marketing that transcends more than one medium in order to reinforce a newcomer. For existing products, a newcomer is viewed as a threat to the market it has enjoyed to date, so any form of exposure is met with equal resistance. Fortunately for the consumer, we get to select as we see fit and will therefore be influenced by both perspectives.

For synthetic newcomers, such materials cover a multitude of applications, whether that being engineered wood variants, board variants and coating variants to mention just a few. The benefits of synthetic items, their main purpose for existence, would be to provide an appealing alternative product to one that is either organic, or a stand-alone material leading its class. It would also need to be sensitive to price, be readily available for the consumer and lastly relatively easy to install or apply. Of late, metrics such as its impact to the environment and the sustainable practices in its manufacturing and life cycle have received much attention as well.

The reduced usage of urea formaldehyde is a good example of how we are moving away from existing material additives in light of more environmentally friendly alternatives. Products borne out of the timber industry are now being modified to meet these new standards.

With such scrutiny on a building material, should we really be viewing synthetic materials in a negative light if the above requirements are met (if not exceeded)? Like any new adaptation to the status quo, scrutiny will constantly be placed upon the new alternative to prove itself within its market and against historical materials.

Trends within the building materials industry has promoted the desire for innovative new building materials. This together with an overwhelming focus on “green” building, has provided a very real platform for synthetic alternatives to showcase their performance characteristics.

Innovative materials such as the AAC (Aerated Autoclave Concrete), an alternative to standard masonry, is able to showcase its benefits not only from a performance perspective (class leading fire ratings), but also in its simplistic manner of construction. By reducing the reliance on mechanical (electrical equipment) in applications such as chasing conduits for electrical services for example, this method of construction speaks to both speed and accuracy. This is a real benefit in remote areas where access to power is limited and the availability of skilled labour is minimised.

Another key factor is the role science is playing in the performance of structures and how engineered products are leading the way in this regard. Locally in South Africa, the CSIR are constantly gauging and measuring the performance of materials and how their impact on the environment is creating positive and pertinent information to analyse. Examples of such tests include the BASF Passive House as well as materials such as PCM or Phase Changing Materials. Both examples indicate how engineered materials are able to play a positive role in passive insulation – a much needed characteristic in an environment where the consistent supply of energy has been compromised.

I have purposefully refrained from making direct comparisons to traditional “authentic” materials and the reason is two-fold. Firstly, traditional materials have enjoyed many years of exposure and as a result, provided the benchmark for any alternative that would warrant competing in the same space. Secondly, the message I am trying to promote here is not that the one derivative is necessarily better than the other, more so a comparison of what is able to be selected in order to fulfill a purpose or a need. This could also be viewed in light of how the material is consumed, including their respective routes to market.

As much as innovation is leading the way for synthetic alternatives, progress is perpetual and much like the “tech industry”, moving at a frenetic rate. In an industry that measures success as a result of multiple usages over time, how do these new alternatives, often outdated a year later, enjoy similar success?

The answer in short is how success is now being measured and not how frequently new materials are available.

Measurement in a modern economy consists of products that are contemporary and have the ability to reinvent themselves. These materials enjoy visibility through multiple marketing channels which often translates into the expected growth.

There are of course historical building materials that are in a mature stage of their lifecycle. These materials rely heavily on historical data, not at the disposal of the newer synthetic alternatives, in order to provide confidence in their ability. There is comfort in a tried and tested material and in an age where advancements occur so frequently, often quicker than our ability to comprehend, a simple fall-back on materials we have used before becomes an attractive proposition in itself. Such materials will always enjoy a market presence as a proven product of choice and may also enjoy a modern marketing narrative, in line with the promotion of their synthetic cousins.

Perhaps the most critical development “if not benefit”, in promoting a newer synthetic alternative will be its ability to bridge the gap between an historical alternative and the newer offering. This is often ignored to the detriment of the expected growth a newer alternative is expected to achieve. This would also incorporate how the materials are applied, taking into account the level of skill that may or may not be available.

It’s fair to say that with building regulations constantly being revised, the inclusion of newer materials, by association, must be considered.

Ultimately decisions made on which material type is utilised would be measured against a number of criteria. One type is not necessarily better than the other, as we have covered in this piece. This, I hope to have dispelled for the purpose synthetic materials were initially envisaged.

Alternative’s, competing for the same space as the original, should really be viewed for their ability to create a solution, rather than competition.

Blog, Interviews

About the author

Brendan Lowen is a qualified Senior Architectural Technologist and Head of Business Development for a nationally renown building materials manufacturer and supplier. Local and Global materials are constantly scrutinised for their fit-for-purpose offering in South Africa, whilst undergoing a route-to-market analysis. He often acts as an intermediary when engaging with the professional, manufacturing and retail sectors and most notably, when a disconnect becomes present within this chain. He contributes media content to the architectural community, through established industry platforms as well as the Advanced-Building website as its Thought Leader.
No Responses to “Synthetic versus Authentic Building Materials”

Leave a Reply

Advanced Building