P.R.O. FRAME is a prefabricated doorframe that was developed with support from SAIT Polytechnic’s Applied Research and Innovation Services (ARIS) department. Inventor Patrick Watson (left) showcases the product with Josh Brouwers, a former ARIS employee now working for the company. Photo: SAIT Polytechnic

Research organizations nurturing the next wave of construction innovation

Innovation is crucial to the long-term health of industry, but commercializing new ideas can be costly and time-consuming for a private company. Fortunately, there are government organizations and post-secondary institutes that can provide would-be innovators with a broad range of support services, including help getting to market more quickly.

One of the most well established of these organizations is the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), which collaborates with companies and other stakeholders to improve building regulations for market access, improve critical concrete infrastructure, develop and commercialize energy-efficient technologies, and improve building products for mid-rise wood buildings.

 With over 3,500 employees and 100 years of experience, the organization has a broad spectrum of expertise and can assist with everything from developing and evaluating materials and products, to demonstrating and validating technologies, standardized testing, regulatory compliance and access to the Canadian market. Companies can also take advantage of the NRC’s Canadian Construction Materials Centre (CCMC) to ensure that innovative materials, technologies and products meet code requirements.

“With the opinion of the CCMC, what you’re developing will typically be recognized by all provinces and jurisdictions in Canada, which means that they have a one-stop shop for access to the Canadian construction market. That is incredibly valuable for both time and efficiency,” says Trevor Nightingale, director of intelligent building operations, NRC. 

Companies can also look for help from post-secondary resources like Applied Research and Innovation Services at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary. The group does everything from research and development of prototype technologies and processes to testing and refining novel ideas to the point where they are ready for commercialization. Companies can also come to SAIT for comparative testing to look at how a product might stack up against others on the market, or for a technology assessment to understand what they can potentially add to their product so it meets the needs of a larger market.

“Most of the industry partners we’ve had to date have been relatively small companies with less than 50 employees,” explains Dave Silburn, general manager of SAIT’s Green Building Technology Access Centre (GBTAC). “We have skill sets they don’t have in their organizations, such as business instructors who do market analysis and assessment or construction project managers in the School of Construction who can do lean analysis. It depends on the industry need, and we plug in either the skills of the researchers at GBTAC or the skill set of the instructors at the school.”

Material progress

Both SAIT and the NRC are currently working with the private sector to develop innovative construction materials that could offer significant advantages to the industry.

For instance, the NRC is working on developing concrete that will cure to full strength in one week instead of four. Ahmed Kashef, director of civil engineering infrastructure and fire safety, explains that they’ve been successful by adding nanoparticles to the cement.

In addition, they’ve developed concrete that cures with minimal shrinkage. Shrinkage occurs during the curing process of regular concrete, which can lead to cracks. When exposed to humidity, the cracks can accelerate distress in the concrete through corrosion of the steel reinforcement. By reducing the potential for shrinkage, service life is extended without adding to maintenance costs.

“We also developed a validated radio frequency shielding concrete technology, which will prevent any penetration or access to information in a building,” Kashef says. “This has found its own application in embassies and any institution that needs privacy.”

A recent project at SAIT is looking beyond concrete to the use of Alberta agricultural waste products as an alternative to concrete blocks. Made of lime and hemp, the blocks, developed by Just BioFiber, can be used to build external envelope walls for warehouses and multi-family housing.

“When they approached us they were still having a hard time manufacturing them at a scale where they could produce enough to meet market demand. [They needed to determine] how they would cure and mold those units, and the time required,” Silburn says.

SAIT helped with a market and technology assessment to identify the standards the blocks would need to meet for approvals in various jurisdictions. They are also looking at construction details and other potential uses for the blocks.

While some companies approach research organizations with an idea, others already have a prototype but aren’t sure what to do with it. That was the case with Calgary’s P.R.O. FRAME. The owner had developed a prefabricated doorframe that ensures a perfect fit but needed SAIT’s help to establish the product’s value, test it and take it to market.

SAIT business students, along with GBTAC designers, helped with branding and developed a brochure with technical specifications so builders and developers would understand how the product integrated into the construction process. GBTAC researchers then worked with 10 developers to field test the product. After surveying the homebuilders to get their feedback, changes were made to the product and installation guidelines were created. Feedback was also gathered from the developers on price point.

Accounting for innovation

Of course, innovation projects cost money. An NRC project, for example, can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred thousand dollars to millions. But companies can tap into federal and provincial grants, such as the NRC’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, Silburn notes.

“Grants range in amounts, but often we’re getting two to four grant dollars for every industry project dollar,” he says. “Many of our industry partners contribute 25 per cent of total project costs, while leveraging partnerships with other agencies and industry.”

Even with these resources, the costs of researching, developing and commercializing new materials, products or technologies can be daunting, particularly for smaller companies. However, it remains a necessary expense for the industry, according to Richard Tremblay, general manager of construction at the NRC.

“Construction is a $171-billon dollar industry that employs more than one million people, and it consumes about 40 per cent of Canada’s total energy and about 50 per cent of its primary resources every year. It’s a big portion of Canada’s economy, and every Canadian is demanding better, safer, energy-efficient and affordable materials, technologies and products,” he says on the importance of innovation.

The size of the industry is also attractive to global companies looking to get in on the action. Innovation helps Canadian construction companies fend off foreign competition, grow and diversify.

Silburn adds that innovation also gives companies in Alberta a chance to compete not just at home, but also abroad.

“To a certain extent it allows Alberta manufacturers and suppliers an opportunity to engage not only the Alberta construction industry, but also the global market,” he says. “We’re starting to see a lot of innovative components coming from the Alberta market, and that shows our strength and consideration for cold climate construction, which I think Canada is quite good at.”

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