Call for composite-specific guidelines

Words:
Stephen Cousins

Composites’ potential for architecture hampered by unhelpful regulations and standards, say Southampton academics

Blackburn Bus Station with its bespoke GRP loops and ceiling panels.
Blackburn Bus Station with its bespoke GRP loops and ceiling panels. Credit: Millfield Group, millfield-group.co.uk

Architects should be specifying more products made of composite materials to support an industry that could be worth £16bn in the UK by 2030, an academic report has revealed.

The position paper, ‘Modernising composite materials regulations’ published by the University of Southampton, calls for industry and government to work together to remove constraints that inhibit the use of composite materials in construction, rail, and oil and gas sectors.

Although the UK is recognised as a global leader in R&D for composite materials, obstacles such as inappropriate regulations, codes and standards, and a lack of awareness of the benefits of composite materials, have prevented new products from coming to market, according to the report.

Ole Thomsen, professor of structures and materials at the university and co-author of the position paper, told RIBAJ: ‘The construction sector as a whole is risk-averse and asset owners are wary of switching to a new material without proof that it is reliable and works. As long as the industry pull is not there and asset owners are not requiring this type of solution then it is difficult for producers to make a case for investment.’

The global market for composite products is predicted to grow from US$68bn in 2013 to US$105bn by 2030, according to figures from the UK Composites Market Study. The UK’s share of this market is estimated to rise to around $15.4bn (£12bn) by 2030, but could reach as high as $20.6bn (£16bn) if market sectors experience the same rate of growth as aerospace, says the report. Over half the weight of new aeroplanes comes from composite materials instead of metal alloys.

Over half the weight of new aeroplanes comes from composite materials instead of metal alloys

‘The architectural possibilities of composites are immense,’ says Thomsen. ‘Facade claddings provide a fantastic opportunity to play with surface texture and translucency. Lightweight prefabricated bridges are ideal for replacing old infrastructure built in the 1950s and '60s, and can be assembled in a fraction of the time is takes to assemble a concrete alternative. Composites can achieve extremely energy efficient and slender window profiles that fulfil future requirements for thermal efficiency.’

The report claims a major inhibitor to the uptake of composites in new sectors is the fact that regulations, codes and standards are explicitly and implicitly based on named materials, such as steel, and do not permit consideration of composites applications, despite the benefits.

The paper recommends that ‘performance’ assessment methods should be adapted to the needs of each sector to make it easier for manufacturers to prove that their materials can perform to the required operational safety and performance standards.

 ‘What is not in place in construction is a set of composite-specific Eurocodes providing detailed guidance to show that composite materials are fit for purpose for a particular structure in a particular application,’ Thomsen comments. ‘Experience of manufacturers and architects is not sufficiently developed; other sectors have a complete set of guidelines and testing standards that dovetail with the regulations to show how to use composite materials,’ he says.

The study was carried out by a multi-disciplinary team from Southampton’s Faculties of Engineering and the Environment, and Business, Law and Art, supported by the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute and the University’s Department for Research and Innovation Services.

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