A curvy concrete solution invented by researchers at The University of Melbourne promises more buildings with spectacular twists and bends that are also cheaper, less wasteful and less emissions-intensive to build.
The Curvecrete technology developed by Paul Loh and David Leggett at the University’s Melbourne School of Design is now breaking out of the lab under the guidance of architectural engineer Daniel Prohasky.
Since the robotics-enabled technology was developed in 2016, Prohasky has been working hard to commercialise the product alongside company chief financial officer Warren Rudd. After going through every entrepreneurial program at the university, including the Melbourne Accelerator Program, and spending 20 months negotiating Intellectual Property terms with the university, the company is now up on its own two feet and has a number of early projects in the pipeline.
So far, the material is lined up for a spiral staircase and curvy canopy in a Melbourne building. The product has also attracted the attention of major property developer Mirvac, Prohasky says.
A new way to cast concrete
The solution is an alternative to the traditional methods of producing precast curved concrete panels, which is a highly specialised, labour intensive task that involves building a mould out of steel, concrete or polystyrene foam. For every unique curved panel, a new leakproof mould is produced and subsequently discarded once the concrete sets in place.
“It basically requires the same skillset as building a boat hull, it’s like building a boat and then chucking it out.”
Prohasky’s technology instead uses a robotically-controlled adjustable mould that allows the easy and precise casting of curved concrete elements.
The robotically controlled mould can be reused thousands of times, slashing the excessive wasted formwork as well as the labour and associated costs involved with forming curved concrete the usual way.
The solution also reduces the materials needed in a building because curves are more structurally efficient, with the arching action creating resistance and stiffness in the concrete.
“You can build cladding panels that span much further with less material… it’s stronger relative to its mass.”
A third way the product slashes emissions and waste is in the concrete mix itself, with fly ash from coal fire generation used as the binding agent.
In total, the curved concrete solution sports an 80 per cent emissions reduction when the low emissions concrete, reduction of waste in processing and the efficiencies gleaned through curvature are taken into account.
The method is also ultra low waste but Prohasky is chasing “negative waste” where the company is consuming waste and not producing any.
This next step will involve finding alternative aggregates from waste sources, he says, with the company looking at a few possible streams.
Cutting waste and cutting costs
The technology also dramatically lowers the cost of delivering curved buildings, with curvature often value managed out of the project because of the cost of labour to fabricate it and the potential to delay projects because panels are often sourced from overseas.
Prohasky says the tech is “very cost effective” already and that eliminating the cost of formwork alone saves 35 per cent of the cost for cladding.
At present, the robotic moulding system is producing non-structural panels for external cladding or interior use. Prohasky says it will be the shift into structural panels, however, that will cut building cost by up to 70-75 per cent, depending on how the comparison is made.
The big saving potential comes from integrating the structural system with the cladding, cutting out the steel structure that typically supports a curved concrete façade.
The business model
The company is an advanced manufacturer of robotics systems for construction. It’s currently proving and unlocking the full potential of the robotic formwork technology by providing a design service and supply of low-carbon curved concrete panels. The tech presents an opportunity to build up Australia’s advanced manufacturing sector, he adds.
The company is also pursuing patents to distribute its robotic system so that pre-casters around the world can use it.
Prohasky says the company is currently looking to secure funding through grants and private investment to keep scaling the enterprise.
The embodied carbon opportunity
Prohasky is also involved with the recently launched Materials and Embodied Carbon Leaders Alliance, a collaboration of organisations whose aim is to drive reductions in embodied carbon in the building and construction industry, and sees his solution playing an interesting role in the take up of low emissions materials.
Creating momentum behind low carbon materials can be challenging when it involves a direct swap of one emissions intensive product with a lower emissions alternative for no economic or design benefit.
“We want to do something that’s exciting, using lower carbon materials that also maximises the benefit economically, functionally and design wise.”
Offering cost effective local production to realise curved designs, Prohasky says the benefits of a product like his outweighs the risks that typically prevent developers trying out a low carbon materials.
“You need to counteract that risk with a benefit of some kind.”