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Behind the Viral Sensation: Concrete Canvas Goes Beyond Fast-Deploying Shelters

National Geographic’s recent video on Concrete Canvas shelters went viral, as nearly 4.8 million YouTube viewers saw how quickly a sturdy structure could be raised when air is blown into wetted, cement-covered cloths. So we caught up with Peter Brewin, director of the U.K.-based Concrete Canvas company, to get the story behind the innovation.

Concrete Canvas shelter

Concrete Canvas shelters can be set up rapidly. Photo courtesy of Concrete Canvas Ltd.

Can people buy the Concrete Canvas shelters now?

Yes, our shelters are available from different distributors in different territories.  We have a distributor for the U.S. as well as other places.

How many Concrete Canvas shelters are out there?

Not a huge number. We’ve been growing very quickly, and our focus has been on the Concrete Canvas material, which in the U.S. is called Concrete Cloth. This is being used in a whole range of applications—primarily in civil works, for things like stabilizing slopes and lining water channels.

We will still produce shelters if buyers want them, but we haven’t put a lot of focus on that. A few have been bought by militaries.

How much do the shelters cost?

It depends on the volumes [of the order], thickness of the material, and your location. We supply most of the world from our U.K. plant, and the Concrete Canvas costs between 15 and 40 British pounds per square meter, in the U.K. ($23 to $60). For the U.S. we have a licensee: Milliken.

A Concrete Canvas shelter would cost 15,000 to 20,000 pounds, in the U.K., for a one-off ($23,000 to $30,000), but the price steps down if you are buying volumes.

Concrete Canvas shelter deployment

Concrete Canvas shelters are blown up quickly. Photo courtesy of Concrete Canvas Ltd.

 

Concrete Canvas shelter interior

Concrete Canvas shelters can be surprisingly inviting inside. Photo courtesy of Concrete Canvas Ltd.

What are some examples of how the shelters are used?

There are many interesting projects with the Concrete Canvas material, including one in Chile where they are installing a gold mine at very high altitude: 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). On one side of the valley there is a glacier, and they wanted to prevent the melt runoff from going into the mine tailings [and picking up toxic material], so they built intercepts out of our material to carry water below.  These are very difficult conditions to work in, where workers can only put in five hours a day because of the low oxygen, and our material is much lighter than alternatives, so it was easier to work with.

Most of the shelter projects have been military. We supplied shelters to the U.S. military for tests, which sent some to Okinawa, Japan. We have also supplied the Swedish, Dutch, and [United Arab Emirates] militaries, most of these for tests. The Swedes put one on a range and tested it against mortars. They were quite pleased with how it performed.

What about humanitarian applications?

We haven’t sold a huge number to NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. We put quite a lot of effort into that early on, but we’ve had real difficulty. It’s partly the political element, because people don’t want to put up a semipermanent building for a crisis; they want to believe a refugee camp will go away soon. NGO customers also want a very large number of shelters if there is a crisis, but that is very difficult for a small company to supply.

NGOs would often want us to secure the funding, so we would have to get a donor involved, usually a government, so it was going to take an awful lot to get into the aid sector. We still think the shelters are really cool, and there’s a lot of potential. But right now we are focusing on the material.

There is a lot of interest for hurricane shelters, and we’ve got a test project to evaluate that and other applications this summer [in the U.K.].

Chile Concrete Canvas installation

A channel is lined with Concrete Canvas, to direct glacier melt runoff away from a mine site in Chile. Photo courtesy of Concrete Canvas Ltd.

Can you take us through the history of Concrete Canvas?

Eight or nine years ago, Will [Crawford] and I met doing postgraduate degrees in industrial engineering at Imperial College London and Royal College of Arts. There was a design competition run by the British Cement Association, and we really liked the idea of making efficient shelters very quickly.

To make that work we had to develop a Concrete Canvas material, which we could make dry in a thin layer, wet in an uncontrolled way, then have it set without cracks into a reliably strong form. That was a remarkably difficult thing to get right.

Our original business plan was focused on the humanitarian sector, so we went to Uganda and got very positive feedback. We won a lot of business-plan and design awards that helped fund the start-up, got some government funding and private-equity investors, and borrowed a derelict factory. After another round of funding we set up a production line in south Wales.

About five years ago we made our first sale, to the British military, to protect sandbags in Afghanistan. They survived a lot longer [than untreated sandbags] in a firefight. In our range demonstration, we showed that a sandbag wall covered in Concrete Canvas stopped 1,100 machine gun bullets.

Then we saw the material was really useful in construction. It can be set up about ten times faster than other methods. Instead of pouring or spraying concrete that has to be 50 to 150 millimeters thick (2 to 6 inches), our material is 8 millimeters thick (0.3 inches) for most applications. Laying slabs of concrete by hand is very slow and labor intensive, and spraying concrete is messy. Pouring concrete requires formwork.

Another interesting project was [when we covered] a pipeline in the Middle East; they dropped our material off a boat and divers installed it under water. It solves a problem in a totally new way. We also do a lot of slope stabilization. You just hang it off a crane, roll it off like carpet, then pin it.

Concrete Canvas slope protection

Concrete Canvas is rolled off a crane to stabilize a slope. Photo courtesy of Concrete Canvas Ltd.

 

Concrete Canvas roll

Concrete Canvas is rolled up like cloth. Photo courtesy of Concrete Canvas Ltd.

Is Concrete Canvas a green design?

Concrete is not the most carbon-neutral material. You use a lot of energy to make it, and when it sets, it releases carbon dioxide. But the advantage of our material is that you are using about 10 percent of the mass of alternatives, so you are emitting less carbon dioxide and saving on transport emissions. It is less bad than other ways of solving that problem.

The mixture we use also has a very low alkali capacity, so if you use it in a watercourse you do less damage to aquatic organisms.

Do you think your story has resonated so well because it is an example of “thinking outside the box” in our built environment?

Yeah, we tick that box pretty clearly. We’ve got several patents on the technology, and it’s a completely new way of using concrete.

It can be hard to convince engineers to use it the first time, but once they try it we normally get a lot of repeat orders.

Comments

  1. Aaron Cox
    Kazakhstan
    March 28, 2:13 pm

    I agree, ridiculously over priced. Just greedy! Thank God for reverse Engineering. Hopefully CN will have it for a tenth of the price soon, good luck for your “Patent” over there! Such a great idea and should be shared, image the applications for the less fortunate!

  2. Gary McNeish
    Manchester UK
    March 14, 12:44 pm

    I am currently at the prototype stage. With a system that is similar to that of Concrete Canvas. I use a fiberglass sandwich system. The fiberglass is impregnated with a water activated resin with the wolds most environmental friendly cement. It is far cheaper with a cleaner, smother finish.

    My costs are at least 50 to 70% less than Concrete canvas. Our offices are in Manchester. UK. Florida USA and Mumbai India. I can also offer a build to your own design service. I will make to your requirements so you do not have to make do.

    Interested parties please contact me at: garyjmcneish@gmail.com

  3. Kathryn Stevenson
    Tucson, AZ USA
    March 9, 3:29 pm

    I agree with many of the comments here concerning the pricing. I realize that you have had investors and have worked for years inventing and perfecting this, but at these prices you have outpriced yourself for humanitarian purposes and that is too bad. I think that if the prices were dropped by at least 25% initially until this caught on, you would have more success.

  4. Chris
    USA
    March 8, 10:38 am

    A 20×30 sq/ft structure with 10ft sidewalls assuming 1/2 inch thick concrete canvas would contain 1.85 cu/yds of cement. The local price for concete or grout is $75-95 per cubic yard. You can get a quality canvas tarp that size $500. A pool liner to inflate such a structure would cost about $1000. A blower for a kids “moonwalk” inflatable is $100-200. Total raw materials at RETAIL prices is no more than $2k, wholesale costs would be evn less, maybe 50% putting raw materials at $1k. Shipping might be close to $500. Whomever is pricing these things at $20k is out of his mind.

  5. James Thigpen
    Maryland, USA
    March 7, 6:31 pm

    Is this a publicly traded company?

  6. Gary McNeish
    United Kingdom. Manchester. USA and India
    March 7, 4:21 pm

    We to are currently at the prototype stage. With a system that is similar to that of Concrete Canvas. We use a fiberglass sandwich system. The fiberglass is impregnated with a water activated resin with the wolds most environmental friendly cement. It is far cheaper with a cleaner smother finish.

    Interested parties please contact me at: garyjmcneish@gmail.com

  7. dt johnny lloode
    afrikka
    March 6, 10:13 pm

    we would like to buy as many as possible for our NGOs in AFRIKKA…

    right now we use shipping containers

    please contact us at intl friends of afrikka
    dr johnny lloode

    johnnyjf747@yahoo.com

    thanks urgent

  8. Maurice nelson
    Bonnie scotland great Britain
    March 1, 6:34 pm

    Hi I used some similar stuff for ground works wen upgrading the m6 at gretna as pond liners and hated it as it was heavy and hard to work with but it came from Germany I have to say I love the shelter idea if I ever have the money to buy then I wouldnt hesitate wot a great idea don’t ever give up on these as in our ever changing climate I’m sure these are destined to take off in a big way I mean imagine if during the second world war instead of Anderson shelters u had these I love them and it’s brittish nice !

  9. Luther Jannusch
    Thailand
    February 21, 9:35 pm

    Here in Thailand $30,000 USD builds 2 beds, living room, kitchen, bathroom, porch, fixtures, utilities, decorative treatments, lock stock and barrel. If I search, (or perhaps create for myself), I’m certain one can still turn a great profit at $5,000 USD. This company is greedy and trying to make a fast buck. Only decadent wealthy westerners would actually buy this crap at these prices.

  10. Tossouvi Phillipe Prince
    Benin, west Africa
    February 11, 3:24 am

    I saw the pictures and watched the videos and love the ideas and I believe it would sell here in Africa because people are tired of wasting money for block buildings as offices and house but what about the sun? I will love to be your distributor in Africa..

  11. Moshe Minin
    Israel
    February 10, 1:19 am

    How can i find you? get in touch
    Please e mail me.

  12. Jeffrey G Druzak
    United States
    February 7, 11:41 am

    I see many applications and would like to be your distribution arm in the United States.

  13. Rachel Holmes
    United States
    February 6, 9:15 pm

    I was just wondering it says $20,000-$30,000 is that US dollars? and do they start out at $20,000?

  14. Terry
    January 29, 8:06 pm

    $23,000 – $30,000 for some concrete impregnated canvas? Wow….I need some of whatever drugs you people are on.

  15. Chris
    Western, NY
    November 15, 2013, 7:44 am

    Its always about a new class of material. New material = lots of new ideas and inventions

  16. Curtis Carr
    USA
    October 11, 2013, 10:02 am

    What about a ventilation point for heating in the winter? A small heating stove inside that would need to be ventilated out of the top.

  17. hojat
    May 17, 2013, 2:56 am

    veryvery good your porogram.
    all people enjoy waching your program

  18. karie gamlin
    bangalore,karnataka,India
    April 18, 2013, 3:11 am

    how about the ventillation…n do we need or can we fit a.c inside it?

  19. DINESH KUMAR
    TIRUPATHI,ANDHRA PRADESH,INDIA
    April 1, 2013, 11:27 am

    IT IS AN EXCELLENT WORK.IT PROVIDES A NEW FOUNDATION FOR THE DEVOLOPMENT OF CIVIL STRUCTURES.WE ARE INTERESTED TO DO PROJECT WORK ON CONCRETECANVAS SO WE REQUEST YOU TO SEND US THE MAKING PROCEDURE OF CC

  20. Raoul Alvarez
    The Philippines
    March 21, 2013, 12:59 am

    Positively a product worth thinking of and providing under a host of conditions, emergency or otherwise, including mining, water distribution, etc. More access to information needed. FYI, I represent a London-based firm that propagates ASSF process technology in the production of ethanol.

    RAOUL ALVAREZ