Building materials: Between innovation and tradition

Sustainability plays a significant role in real estate – and that holds true for construction, too, where the choice of building materials is crucial. Wood and high-quality synthetics are currently popular, but commonly used materials like concrete, steel, and glass have proved their worth. And the very oldest materials, such as clay, are experiencing a revival.

January 28, 2022

Tried and true


Robust, durable concrete is a proven, well-established building material throughout the world. Since it is processed as a liquid, it can be molded into nearly any desired form, and it can be produced in various colors and with different surface structures. Used properly, concrete offers protection against noise, fire and, of course, the weather. It also retains heat.


The Eiffel Tower is made of steel, as are many bridges, long-span buildings, and support structures. In the modern world, almost every structure includes aluminum and steel. Because it is elastic, steel is easy to process and shape. Aluminum, too, can be used in many different ways, but is much lighter than steel. It is found in windows, building exteriors, and doors, as well as roof and wall systems. 


Glass has a wide variety of uses, extending far beyond just windows and roofs. Cast glass and glass blocks, for example, are used in constructing the exterior of a building. High-tech blends have improved the performance of insulation glass, making buildings more energy-efficient. As a building material, glass is robust, low-maintenance, and odorless.

Natural stone

Natural stone has been in use since the Stone Age. Today, however, it is found almost exclusively in interior spaces and on the exterior of buildings, where its durability and variety of colors and textures have made it very popular. As a building material, it is an excellent conductor of heat, which is why it is often used with underfloor heating systems. The heated stone radiates warmth gradually, keeping rooms at a comfortable temperature.

Back to the Future


Wood has made a comeback in recent years. Thanks to the latest technologies, it can be used even in complex types of construction and as a load-bearing material in high-rise buildings. Wood is both strong and elastic. It has the same load-bearing capacity as steel, but is much lighter. Modular construction makes this renewable resource attractive in terms of price.

Robots can assemble prefabricated wooden elements and then disassemble them later on – which is ideal for achieving a circular economy.


Clay minerals and sand come together in the soil to form clay, which is found in large quantities all over the world. But it is not suitable for constructing a building. Instead, this natural material is generally used for non-load-bearing interior applications, for example as decorative, colorful plasterwork or to insulate a wall. Because it absorbs moisture, then gradually releases it, clay makes for an excellent indoor climate. It retains heat in the winter, while the building stays cool in the summer. Clay is also used in manufacturing brick and tile.

Promising innovations

Insulating gel 

A natural material called nanogel, derived from silica, could transform the external insulation of buildings around the world. Its thermal conductivity is three times less than that of air, making it an obvious choice for use in insulating buildings. A non-toxic material, it can be sprayed directly onto external walls. Although production costs and energy consumption during production are still too high, this gel clearly has great potential. 

Wood concrete

In wood concrete, fine wood shavings take the place of the gravel and sand that are found in conventional concrete. Depending on the type, wood concrete can be made up of more than 50% wood, making it lighter than conventional concrete. Stress tests have demonstrated that wood concrete is suitable for use in load-bearing functions as well as in ceiling and wall elements. Swiss researchers are currently testing the use of this new material in residential and office buildings.


American researchers have developed a new graphene material that is ten times as strong as steel, while weighing only one-twentieth as much. This high-tech material could be used in the future to construct buildings and bridges that are ultra-strong, lightweight, and heat-resistant. Again, it is important to note that more research is needed before this material can actually be used. Yet the outlook is very promising.


High-quality plastics play a significant role in construction, particularly in the exterior walls of a building. They absorb little water, provide effective thermal insulation, and are highly water-resistant. For these reasons, and because of their transparency and resilience, they are especially well suited for use in exteriors. There are very few buildings today that have no plastic at all in their outer walls.

Carbon concrete

Carbon could revolutionize concrete construction. The kind of filigree architecture that seemed impossible in the past is now suddenly within reach. Carbon concrete is a combination of concrete and carbon fibers. Reinforced with carbon, it is lighter than steel and can, among other things, withstand higher tensile forces.

Unlike steel, carbon does not need to be protected by a thick layer of concrete against the rust that can result from exposure to air and rainwater – so the use of carbon concrete saves material costs. It opens up new possibilities, such as floor panels that can be processed like wooden boards.

Such panels are two-thirds lighter than steel and only four centimeters thick, and do not require steel reinforcement. In the future, they could be prefabricated as separate elements, making formwork at construction sites unnecessary. While we have not yet reached that point, carbon concrete – with its long useful life and the material savings it offers – holds great promise for the construction industry.

Novum – the magazine

In this issue of Novum, we take a look at the subject of architecture from various perspectives.


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