Building in a bag

2013-06-21 15:11

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Imagine a pop-up house, made of inflatable concrete. This is the concept Peter Brewin and William Crawford invented as engineering students in London in 2004, when they were looking to make extra cash by entering competitions.

Their invention – a cloth-based material that turns into concrete when wetted down – blew the British Cement Association out of the water.

After winning the Innovation Award, Brewin and Crawford quickly founded a company named Concrete Canvas, attracting interest from construction companies as well as the military.

Concrete canvas also has the potential to revolutionise emergency construction. Nicknamed the “building in a bag”, it can be used to construct semipermanent structures within 24 hours. All you have to do is add the equivalent of six bathtubs of water to erect a 25-square-metre shelter.

The shelter looks like a giant eggshell, and weighs about 3 tons, which is considered very light for a building of that size and durability.

It takes about 20 minutes to inflate, before it is pegged down around a ledge to make it secure. All the wrinkles in the fabric must then be smoothed out before it is hosed down, and left overnight.

While concrete holds weight well, it’s not very good at stretching, explains Brewin, speaking from the company’s headquarters in southern Wales. “A big challenge was making concrete set without cracking,’’ says Brewin. “That’s why we developed the canvas.”

So far, there are currently only a dozen concrete canvas tents set up in the world, and they are used primarily by the military.

The US army and the Dutch army have been testing the equipment for its resilience. Brewin and Crawford have spoken to various UN agencies, namely in Uganda, urging them to develop the product as an emergency relief shelter.

But the world of aid organisations proved harder to break into than anticipated: “Do you put in a semipermanent shelter when you are supposed to be dealing with a temporary crisis?’’ asks Brewin. “The life span of a shelter is 15 to 20 years: many refugee camps are around for that long. But not everyone is prepared to accept that.’’

The shelters may not yet have taken root where they may be most needed, but the lightness of the material, and the speed with which it can be assembled have already proven useful in high-risk construction. When engineers in Chile were designing a channel to hold glacier water at 5 000 metres of altitude in the Andes mountains in 2011, concrete canvas turned out to be just what they needed.

- Sparknews

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