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Making the Concrete Jungle Beautiful—and Sustainable

When you think about sustainable design, you probably don't think about concrete first—but these folks do.

This post is brought to you by GOOD, with support from UPS. We’ve teamed up to bring you the Small Business Collaborative, a series sharing stories about innovative small businesses that are changing business as usual for their communities and beyond. Learn how UPS is helping small businesses work better and more sustainably here.

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When people think “green,” it’s understandable if concrete is one of the last words that comes to mind. Yet for all the important work done to green roofs and add life to grey cityscapes, when it comes to the guts of a building—the walls that keep the whole thing from crashing down—we will settle for nothing less than rock-solid strength, and that, typically, brings us back to concrete. One Pittsburgh company, TAKTL, has found a more sustainable alternative in ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC) that is structurally comparable to steel, requires considerably less material than traditional concrete to meet the same structural requirements, is manufactured locally and has a range of aesthetic capabilities that can make concrete seem refined, even beautiful.

Lauren Flannery and her husband Roger founded TAKTL in 2010, a spin-off from other ventures designing and manufacturing for architecture. They first heard of UHPC when the research arm of their company came across the material, finding it could achieve a range of textures and colors. It was also a sustainable option, with low-energy production and a long life. It was even recyclable. They worked with the world experts in UHPC, German partners who chemically formulated TAKTL’s product, along with a range of algorithms that allow them to reformulate its production according to the building site, using nearby materials. It’s like having an adaptive recipe that lets you whip something up from local ingredients—but in this case, with assured chemical properties so that quality is consistent no matter where you make your mix.

The TAKTL team spent three years making their formulation locally reproducible and found that developing material that’s both sustainable and versatile, they needed what the city had to offer: a strong pool of designers, engineers and architects.

According to Flannery, Pittsburgh has “a unique access to talent” and “first and foremost, a very strong work ethic.” Proximity to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Institute allowed the start-up to recruit highly trained engineers, architects, and industrial designers. This talent pool was crucial for a company designing and building almost all of its own manufacturing equipment, and ramping up to full production by January of this year.

In application, TAKTL supports new ways of building, often in rear-ventilated façades—an increasingly common element in green architecture that is not possible with traditional concrete. Zach Hartle, an architect who’d had a specialization in sustainability, is on staff at TAKTL and explains, “For the longest time, we’ve had this opinion that you just can’t let any moisture into your building.” But, practically speaking, you’ll never find contractors able to build “these perfectly, hermetically sealed structures.” Moisture gets in—but in order to avoid mold and a litany of other problems, the more important concern is how moisture will get out. TAKTL creates façade panels—enclosures off the face of the building—with three-sixteenths-inch open joints that allow water to evaporate. The façades give buildings extra shade in the summer and added insulation in the winter.

Michael Griffin, the co-director and executive director of the Green Design Institute and advises TAKTL on its lifecycle assessment. While the assessment is still ongoing, Griffin points out some general attributes: “TAKTL's process was designed from the ground up with minimizing materials use and wastes, energy efficiency, and low emissions in mind.” TAKTL is made of very little water—5 percent as compared to conventional concrete, which is 20 percent water. The Pittsburgh facility sources 94 percent of its raw materials from within 200 miles, minimizing the energy associated with transport.

Griffin also notes that TAKTL’s testing and use has shown it will outlast traditional concrete as well as other façade materials. Its durability is in large part due to chemistry—the bonds in TAKTL’s UHPC are closer together than in traditional concrete, making a stronger, longer-lasting material. In traditional concrete, water can enter into capillaries and through freezing and thawing, creates cracks, which leads to corrosion. The particles in TAKTL are so densely packed that water cannot penetrate it.

TAKTL also makes the option for sustainable materials more attractive. It can be very pretty, with textures like crumpled paper or patterns of vertical tendrils that looks like a field of grass. It comes in a range of gray, white and terracotta, but can be customized in a rainbow of colors. Flannery explains, “We can achieve curve, geometries, subtle textures, and good color that just can’t be achieved in another way.” The ability to mold TAKTL into a variety of shapes has led to a line of outdoor furniture, called SITU, of molded products like benches, lighting, and planters.

Now with a staff of 45, TAKTL’s production line is busy handling the logistics of rolling out building components for structures spanning the U.S., the Middle East and across Europe. Over coming years, TAKTL plans to improve efficiency by getting closer to their projects—literally. By opening additional facilities in proximity to a growing number of buildings for which TAKTL is now the basis of design, they improve their production and delivery time. It’s a big step toward keeping carbon footprint low and being mindful of their rapidly expanding logistical challenges as TAKTL is adopted by increasing numbers of sustainable builders.

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