Construction

Construction - Overview - About the Sector - Text

The construction industry covers the building, maintaining and repairing of buildings and infrastructures for living, working and transport, including providing materials for those purposes. The sector is described in the European Nomenclature of Economic Activities (NACE)[1] in the following way:

  1. Construction of buildings
    1. Development of building projects
    2. Construction of residential and non-residential buildings
  2. Civil engineering
    1. Construction of roads and motorways
    2. Construction of utility projects (for fluids, for electricity and for communications)
    3. Construction of other civil engineering projects
  3. Specialised construction activities
    1. Demolition and site preparation
    2. Electrical, plumbing and other construction installation activities
    3. Building completion and finishing
    4. Other specialised construction activities

Construction is considered to be one of the secondary sectors of the economy, as it consists of the manufacture of finished products from raw materials, primary sectors relating more directly to the production of raw materials. The construction sector impacts many other sectors as a major consumer of services, energy and intermediate products such as raw materials, chemicals and electrical equipment[2]. Although the relative share of construction in Europe's economic activity has declined over recent years, construction is still of high importance for European economies. Currently, in 2016, it accounts for more than 5 % of value added in the EU28, supports around 20 million jobs and contributes about 10 % of the EU‘s GDP.[3] [4]

The construction sector is a stable, cost-driven and traditional sector, not a strongly technology-driven one. Consequently, industry R&D investments in the sector are rather modest, the largest European companies showing on average a 0.6% R&D intensity in 2014[5].

In contrast to the manufacturing sector, mass production is still rather scarce in construction, although the volume of pre-fabricated modules is gradually increasing. Construction projects tend to be one-off and typically have an identifiable private or public client for whom the work is highly customised. They generally involve large-scale investments that are expected to produce ‘goods’ that have a long lifetime. This long end-use life-time of buildings and civil works is one of the reasons for the slow pace of adoption of new technologies. There is an inherent reluctance to adopt new technologies, to be the first to apply a new process or use a new material in construction.

Currently, nanotechnology is largely applied only to niche markets in the construction industry and much of its potential is not yet being used, the construction industry being rather conservative in nature. There are applications of nanotechnology in various areas of the construction industry, including coatings, insulation materials, fire protection and cement-based products but the penetration of these products on the market is limited.

Nanomaterials can be found in ordinary construction materials and products such as cement, mortar and concrete, paints, coatings, insulation materials and glass. The nanomaterials (including polymers, particles, carbon nanotubes, quantum dots and thin films) can be used on their own or, more typically, in combination with other materials. The purpose of their use include self-cleaning and non-wetting, photocatalytic cleaning, weight reduction, energy efficiency, safety, longevity, fire resistance and thermal stability.

Some notable potential functionalities for construction offered by nanotechnology include the following:

  • Improving the primary properties of materials traditionally used in construction like concrete, steel or glass. The use of nanotechnology-enabled materials is associated with benefits related to decreased use of natural resources (raw materials and energy), and to reduced generation and increased recyclability of waste.
  • Adding new features to existing construction materials by means of coatings or paints (e.g. to add properties such as self-cleaning, self-repairing, antimicrobial, antireflective, fire resistance and pollution degradation).
  • Introducing new materials that help to provide solutions to some existing problems like insulation or steel corrosion.

The use of nanotechnology materials and applications in the construction industry should be considered not only for enhancing material properties and functions but also in the context of enhanced energy efficiency of both the construction process (e.g. concrete and steel manufacturing) and along the life cycle of buildings.

Despite the potential benefits of nanotechnology in construction, there are several barriers to its wider introduction:

  • High material costs are not yet justified by the benefits achieved[6]. Nanomaterials and nano-products for the construction sector are still considerably more expensive than the conventional alternatives, largely due to the cost of the production technology[7]. As construction materials are generally used in large amounts, small price differences in materials can enormously increase the overall costs when considering the total volume of material used for construction of a building.
  • Lack of availability of good quality nanomaterials in the large volumes[8] needed in the construction sector. Many of the current processing technologies of nanomaterials have not yet been shown to be suitable for large scale production. However, as construction uses such large volumes of materials, where it adopts a nanomaterial the volumes will be large. Thus, any future use of large quantity of a nanomaterial for construction may lead to a significant scaling-up in its production and result finally in a significant reduction in market prices.
  • There is no mandatory labelling of nanomaterials used in construction sector[9] and it is often not clear whether or not nanotechnology is being applied, for the following reasons:
    • Nanoparticles may be used in some phases of the material fabrication process but are not traceable in the final product.
    • Some companies may not publicly identify the use of nanotechnology in their final products due to business secrecy.
    • Some companies may market their products under a nano label while, in reality, there are no advanced functional properties resulting from the use of nanotechnology.

[1] Eurostat (2008) Statistical classification of economic activites in the European Community. NACE Rev. 2.

[2] http://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/construction/index_en.htm

[3] Eurostat Construction Production (Volume) Index Overview, data from 2016: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Construction_production_(volume)_index_overview

[4] EC, DG GROWTH (2016) The European construction sector - A global partner. http://eurocodes.jrc.ec.europa.eu/showpublication.php?id=333

[5] European Commission, JRC/DG RTD (2014) The 2014 EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard. The Scoreboard reports data on the world's top 2500 companies including a sample of 38 EU based companies in construction sector.

[6] Arora et al. (2014) Drivers of technology adoption — the case of nanomaterials in building construction. Technological Forecasting & Societal Change, 87, pp. 232-244.

[7] van Broekhuizen et al. (2011) Use of nanomaterials in the European construction industry and some occupational health aspects thereof. Journal of Nanoparticle Research.

[8] ObservatoryNano (2009) Economical Assessment / Construction sector, Final report. June 2009.

[9] Jones, W. et al (2015) Nanomaterials in construction and demolition – how can we assess the risk if we don’t know where they are? Journal of Physics, Conference Series 617.