Recently, researchers have investigated the use of “smart” materials in the construction industry and the benefits these innovative materials can bring.
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What are Smart Materials?
Smart materials are innovative materials that have emerged in recent years, providing benefits for multiple industries over their traditional counterparts. Other names for smart materials include intelligent materials, adaptive materials, and active materials.
The main difference between smart materials and the more conventional materials used in areas such as construction for centuries is their ability to respond to environmental changes and inputs. Inputs can include mechanical strain, changes in magnetic or electrical fields, temperatures, pH, light, and moisture.
Smart materials are classified by the type of input they respond to and their output. These include shape memory alloys, magnetostrictive materials, piezoelectric materials, electrorheological fluids, and electrochromic materials. Many have been developed in recent decades.
Applications in Construction
Due to key challenges in the ever-evolving construction industry of the 21st century, interest in smart materials has grown over the past decade. Currently, there are several innovative research areas producing new materials which could fundamentally change how buildings are constructed in the near future.
Smart concrete is a composite of concrete and carbon fibers that can detect minute structural flaws and possesses enhanced strength compared to traditional concrete. This material’s conductivity can change under loading and unloading processes, enhancing its conductivity.
Smart concrete has been explored for electromagnetic shielding and applications in roads, where it can be used as a smart traffic sensor to monitor vehicle flow and amount on pavements. Additionally, smart concrete can be utilized in infrastructure such as highways to melt snow by passing an electrical current through it.
Smart materials have found application in areas such as building health monitoring, vibration control, safety, and noise mitigation. They are used to transform efficiency and comfort for inhabitants and assets. Embedded fiber optics have been explored for their use in marine and rail transport for strain monitoring.
Smart materials with super elasticity can be employed as reinforcement elements to rehabilitate concrete cracking. Embedded fiber optics and intelligent materials can be used in critical infrastructure such as bridges and offshore oil rigs to monitor problem areas and ensure structural integrity is maintained.
Smart bridges can be constructed using these innovative materials, which require less maintenance as they can avoid the worst effects of vibration and environmental stresses such as wind or seismic events. In these structures, responses can be better monitored and evaluated.
Whilst this is an exciting area of innovation within the construction industry, there are still many challenges in the road ahead before the widespread utilization of smart materials can be fully realized.
Several barriers exist in terms of construction cost, government policies, maintenance, time for approval, systems optimization, lack of consensus, and unwillingness on behalf of key players in the industry to fully embrace the potential of smart materials.
In recent years, several studies have been conducted into what defines a smart building, exposing a lack of consensus on what this definition should be. There is a lack of commonly accepted, specific criteria that impact the scope of intelligent buildings.
Related to this, according to studies by Ghansah and Yang, the use of new materials, technologies, and methods increases the complexity of intelligent building projects.
This consequently leads to higher costs and a greater demand for training. Moreover, designs may need to be changed due to the unique specificities and characteristics of smart buildings. This also includes unforeseen circumstances that may arise during project design.
There is also a relationship between user expectations and building element design. These expectations, such as comfort, safety, well-being, and environmental concerns and benefits, need to be managed during project design. Additionally, the owner needs, such as ROI and cost minimization, must be considered.
The cost of smart building projects can be significantly more than conventional buildings due to multiple factors, although once installed, smart systems and materials provide a potential long-term cost saving. These costs must be balanced to ensure optimal cost-effectiveness.
Research from 2022 has found that the main barrier to the use of smart materials and the construction of intelligent buildings is government policy. The regulatory system, due to its inherent bureaucracy, is not known for fostering innovation and competitiveness and can sometimes move at a relative snail’s pace.
Tied to the concept of smart building is the smart city, which brings together numerous Industry 4.0 technologies and new ways of thinking about what constitutes an efficient urban area that improves the lives of its inhabitants.
In order to fully realize the smart city concept, government policies must concentrate on the ever-changing landscape of smart infrastructure management, which has so far been lacking in some key respects. Smart buildings have largely been constructed without the needed smart infrastructure, limiting the area’s potential.
Add to this the resistance to changing traditional working practices in the construction industry, which is not known for widespread fostering of innovation, and it can be seen that there are many key structural challenges that must be overcome if smart materials are to find worldwide adoption in construction.
Toward the Future of Smart Materials in Construction
Smart materials and systems can help build stronger structures with enhanced durability, providing real-time monitoring of mechanical strain, environmental changes, and inhabitant comfort and safety. The importance of these benefits for both individual buildings and the wider smart city concept cannot be overstated.
Whilst several roadblocks persist, the application of these advanced and innovative materials in the construction industry holds huge potential for the future of urban design and infrastructure projects.
As society evolves to deal with key issues such as population growth, rapid urbanization, climate change, and changing consumer expectations, so must the construction industry. Smart materials, if properly developed and deployed, can help to satisfy these demands on a global scale.
More from AZoBuild: Nanomaterials in Construction: Properties, Performance, and Applications
Further Reading and More Information
The Constructor (website) Smart Construction Materials – Applications in Civil Engineering (online) theconstructor.org. Available at:
Patel, J & Goyal, A (2018) Smart Materials in Construction Technology 2018 International Conference on Smart City and Emerging Technology (ICSCET) [online] ieeexplore.ieee.org. Available at:
Vargas, R.V et al. (2022) Barriers and Challenges of Smart Buildings Projects in the Context of Construction 4.0 3rd Latin American Conference on Sustainable Development of Energy [online] ricardo-vargas.com. Available at: