UK researchers’ vaulted floor cuts costs

UK researchers’ vaulted floor cuts costs

Feb 23, 2022 3 min read
  • The UK’s University of Bath reveals new cost and emissions saving method for concrete buildings, developed in research collaboration with Cambridge and Dundee, that could push the construction industry towards net-zero
  • Alternative to slab floors, ‘vaulted floor’ design reduces carbon by 60%, delivering on the project’s aim to improve the construction sector’s sustainability through innovations in the manufacture, assembly, reuse, and deconstruction of concrete buildings
  • Created by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funded project Automating Concrete Construction (ACORN), the innovative vault-shaped floor design takes advantage of concrete’s natural properties and strengths to create an alternative 'thin shell' that uses 75% less concrete

University of Bath reveals new cost and emissions saving approach to construction, developed in research for Automating Concrete Construction (ACORN), funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in collaboration with the universities of Cambridge and Dundee. ACORN is a Bath-led project that aims to improve the construction sector’s sustainability and productivity through innovations in the manufacture, assembly, reuse, and deconstruction of concrete buildings. According to the researchers, their design for a ‘vaulted floor’ uses 75 per cent less concrete than a traditional flat slab floor and could significantly reduce emissions in the construction sector.

Created by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funded project Automating Concrete Construction (ACORN), the innovative vault-shaped floor design takes advantage of concrete’s inherent natural properties and strengths. ACORN has assembled an interdisciplinary team of structural engineers, mathematicians and manufacturing experts from the universities of Bath, Cambridge and Dundee, and their first full scale demonstration of the thin shell floor design suggests the method reduces carbon by 60 per cent versus construction with the equivalent flat slab concrete floor.

ACORN’s researchers have claimed the demonstration suggests the new construction process could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the sector and the built environment. The floor’s level surface is created by standard raised floor panels that rest on the curved vault structure underneath. Flat slabs lack the efficiency and rely on ‘bending strength,’ requiring more steel reinforcement, whereas ACORN says the ‘vaulted floor’ leverages concrete’s natural ability to resist compression.

The floors can be then also be disassembled and reused elsewhere at the end of a building’s life, according to the researchers, who say the design could be game changing for a circular economy in the construction industry.

Dr Paul Shepherd stands on top of the ACORN thin-shell concrete floor
Image credit: University of Bath

ACORN uses far less concrete because the material is only used where needed and in compression. Alongside work on the vaulted floor, the ACORN team developed an adaptable automated mould and robotic concrete spraying system for onsite construction. The researchers have also developed software that automates the adaption of the floor for different architectural plans as well as software that automates the manufacturing process.

Dr Paul Shepherd, Reader in Bath’s Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering and the Principal Investigator for ACORN:

“Achieving the net-zero targets recently ratified at the COP26 conference will require significant change by the construction industry, which is responsible for about half of the UK’s total emissions. Since concrete is the world’s most widely consumed material after water, and its production contributes more than 7 per cent of global CO2 emissions, the easiest way for construction to begin its journey to net-zero is to use less concrete.”

Adam Locke, Programme Leader of the Europe Hub Technology & Innovation at Laing O'Rourke:

“The ACORN Demonstrator is a very useful stepping-stone in the progressive pathway to decarbonizing our solutions.”

FYI/ The production of concrete is carbon intensive and contributes some 7 per cent to 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions, according to Chatham House. Concrete is the world’s most widely consumed material after water and number one that's man made - each year more than 4 billion tonnes of cement are produced. The chemical and thermal combustion processes involved in its production are a large source of carbon dioxide emissions globally. Cement producers need to reduce emissions by some 16 per cent to meet obligations to the Paris Agreement.

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