Cristina Galan: Climate Concrete – old resources, new ways

How can porous concrete be used in architecture in such a way that it can improve the comfort conditions and the energy efficiency of buildings? This was the lead question of the “Climate Concrete” Research and Development Workshop, organized by the Department of Industrialized Edification and Environment of UIC Barcelona School of Architecture in partnership with the Catalan architecture office PICH Architects and the global construction materials supplier – CEMEX.


The main focus of this research project was to demonstrate the enormous possibilities of the porous concrete that ought to improve the energetical behavior of the buildings along with indoor air quality of the establishment used upon.
This workshop and its objective sounded interesting, intriguing to me: Is concrete alone able to influence architecture in such a manner?
I wouldn’t find out if I wouldn’t apply for the workshop, so I did.

Theoretical Aspects

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In the first day the theme of the workshop has been unveiled, we were to develop a façade panel which was expected to act as a cooling system, based on the evaporative air cooling process, a process that takes place on buildings located in dry climatic conditions with high solar radiation.

The schedule was organized in 16 weeks, theoretical courses mixed with practical experiments and visits to some of Barcelona’s biggest concrete-based materials suppliers have defined a complete experience. During this time the proposals were taking shape and we were to find out soon that best proposals will continue the research and development process in Biel, Switzerland at CEMEX’s Global R&D Center, a full-scale prototype of the façade system and the whole suite of laboratory testing ought to happen, the stakes were getting higher and higher.

Two-student teams have been shaped and the drafting and research have started in the pursuit of world`s greatest porous concrete facade system. We had to do things right, therefore, my teammate and I have split tasks, one began to research the dry climate and its traditional architecture in the attempt to understand how people lived in such harsh climates and how basic materials or local technics can help while the other focused porous concrete and how it can take the shape of a façade panel. After combining the information we had, our first sketch was tailored.

Creativity has been at home in our workshop, the final proposals were incredibly different and extraordinary interesting as distinct ways of using water through the panels have shaped different results. Wind speed and pressure have also played a key role; we`ve joyfully thought that solar shading was never going to be the same once our panels entered production.

It is worth mentioning that developing the proposals went hand in hand with the theoretical part of the workshop. The courses held at UIC Barcelona helped us understand the technical aspects of the projects. Materials, compositions, and coefficients were always brought to discussion, as well as examples of contemporary architecture that used in some way or form a façade system that was meant to improve the conditions of comfort. At the beginning of the course we were also introduced to many probes of porous concrete in order to analyze the different porosities, weights, granulations, we`ve soon learned how to record the evaporative air cooling process through these probes. All those experiments were meant to help us familiarize with this type of concrete and form an idea about the materials and compositions that we were soon to use in our own product research.

In the following weeks, we`ve had two small trips with key-roles in our research, the first being a mini-trip to Escofet while the other, one week later being a visit to the CEMEX Concrete Plant in Barcelona.

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As the weeks passed by, the proposals were taking shape; all of them unveiled different design attributes and qualities that could have hardly been compared as uniqueness defined them. This was giving our mentors a difficult time in deciding which proposals will be qualified to go continue the research in Switzerland and therefore, to make the job easier, they invited CEMEX Global R&D Head Dr. Davide Zampini to Barcelona, to analyze the research directions that we took with our ideas and to give the final word.

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Preparations were in order, pressure installed along with high hopes in the studio. All teams have started preparing models and prototypes for what could have been a final presentation. Immense joy on all fronts have been the presentations as all proposals have been accepted and rated as fit to continue, the only condition was to join the two-student teams into a one four-man team in research; the aim was to create out of two panels one that could have presented different cooling properties, an improved prototype, an uber panel.

The weeks that preceded our trip to Switzerland were dedicated to defining and building the panels on a smaller scale, in the university studio.

Practical Aspects

Finally the time for our long waited trip came! Yes! We were going to Switzerland! When we arrived, our hopes were high and our enthusiasm even higher. The fact that it was January, the middle of the winter and freezing cold couldn’t stop us.

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During our one week stay, we`ve dedicated our time to producing the final prototypes for the two final proposals. One was about to be tested at what could have been a full-scale panel, 1 meter in width and 1 meter and a half in height; a smaller scale proposal that resembled more to sculpted bricks has also been tested as this created a different designs once scaled on a bigger surface depending on its position and rotation.

Two days were for defining the final proposals that were to be built and tested, three days last to build the molds, one to pour the concrete and one to unmold, but the end result was well worth the wait.

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We started by mixing different cement and aggregates to decide the final material compositions about to be used, we talked about the materials for the molds and the way they will be realized and, very importantly, about how will we assure that the panels won’t break during the unmolding process. Our models have also undergone 3D simulations of the wind passing through the panel that helped us determine its cooling capacities.
After all these details have been put to rest, we began our work.
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Two days were destined for designing the final prototypes, three days last to build the molds, one to pour the concrete and another one to unmold, but the end result was well worth the wait.

In between all the work we made time to visit Zurich and Bern, the tiny and beautiful capital city of Switzerland.

And now what?

In all truth, usually, the work envisioned for a workshop barely leaves the drafting board and the computer simulation. Despite that, we’ve had the opportunity to actually materialize the seed of our imagination, to have it tested in a proper research and to see it improved. A year has passed since we first started our research in developing a product that could improve the energetically behavior of a buildings and the indoor air quality, and now, a year later, we were to find out that a mature state of our concept will actually go into production for a specific project, currently in development in Mexico.

To see that the end result is becoming a reality made this whole experience, not only educative and fun, but also very satisfying. Personally, I could not have been more accomplished and fulfilled by a workshop, it simply opened my eyes to new possibilities, and it highlighted the quote “do what you love and you’re never going to work again in your life”.

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Cristina Galan

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