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Concrete: love it, hate it, replace it or even grow it?

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There's so much of it everywhere that we've come to take it for granted. Not any more. Something must be done about the remarkable stuff that's concrete.

Love it or hate it? I’m one of those who love it, but dedicating this issue to concrete wasn’t my idea. It came from our technology editor, who reckoned there’s so much to say about concrete’s surprising history, problematic present and fascinating future.      

Concrete is everywhere, the most obvious of human-made materials, and it’s been around since antiquity. Topping the world’s biggest companies you’ve never heard of are China’s enormous cement and concrete giants.

The world’s reliance on concrete is a problem. It’s a significant contributor to greenhouse gases and this raises some interesting technical, policy and even aesthetic questions. In this issue we’ll be looking at solutions to those problems.

It’s hard to find exact figures for concrete, but Statista says the world produces over four billion tonnes of the key component, cement, every year. That means a lot of carbon dioxide, and it’s doubly difficult to cut because its very chemistry makes emissions inevitable – even beyond the usual manufacturing, transport and disposal emissions you’d expect. So concrete could be the last industry to achieve net-zero. To kick off our coverage, Chris Edwards looks at the options: alternative materials, mitigation like carbon capture, and technical innovations, including those to be learnt from archaeology.

One of those alternatives is wood, which, as most people know, is ‘regenerative’. You can’t grow concrete. Or can you? We’re not about to validate the ideas of any talk radio hosts, but our feature on the future of concrete does cover the breakthroughs in self-healing concrete. It won’t be a regenerative process from start to finish, but concrete may one day be able to generate its own repairs. It could even be more than a building material – it could be a sink for carbon or even a battery for storing energy.

These are just the next chapters in the never-ending story of innovation in concrete. Hilary Clarke learns about the construction of the Pantheon in Rome, which hides many astounding layers of ingenuity. We take a brief tour of concrete’s greatest worldwide hits, from Rio to Dubai and discover some surprising, bold new uses for concrete.

Brutalism isn’t everyone’s favourite architecture but you’ve got to like these buildings. What should we do with the less-loved legacy of the post-war concrete boom? Rip it up and start again was the 1983 call from one Glasgow jangle band, but is that really the best way? Environmental considerations make a case for keeping more of those structures, adapting them, repurposing them and learning to live with them if not love them all.

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