Episode 10:

A brief history of the future of zinc


We cannot accept that an industrial saga as rich as that of Vieille Montagne could end with a simple description of the current state of the company! Because history is ongoing and we all want to put another coin in the machine to discover the next episode of the adventure!

Nevertheless, I have to tell you that, over the coming weeks, VMZINC will be turning a major page in its history.

As I recounted in the ninth episode, Umicore underwent its transformation by positioning itself as a world leader in recycling, energy and clean mobility. In light of this, Umicore decided to break away from its traditional activities related to zinc. The Zinc Chemicals business unit was sold in 2016 and is now called “Everzinc”. Now it is the Building Products business unit’s turn to be sold. This will happen in the coming months, before the end of the year. Whatever happens, it will keep its VMZINC brand, which it has been preciously preserving since the start, a prestigious brand that is part of what is known as “intangible assets”.

Have we come full circle?

We could say, with emotion, that we have come full circle. The very first application of zinc in 1811 (see episode 1 of the saga) was installed on a roof and the zinc was already rolled. And the building products division, the only one still active in 2017 under the Vieille Montagne (VMZINC) brand, will be prolonging its fabulous history outside of Umicore Group!

But is it really so difficult to know what will happen in our sector over the next 30 years? Is it so impossible to imagine the medium term future of the use of professional products such as those offered by the VMZINC range for construction, which are perceived as being very traditional?

The building industry to the fore of innovation!

Perhaps it is the first mistake to avoid. All around the world, the building industry has never experienced such rapid change as over the last ten years or less! A slow revolution is underway. It aims to design and use buildings differently. The objective, although ambitious over the medium term, is to transfer methods and practices from the aeronautics and automotive industries to the building industry.

More specifically – thanks to integrated management of data and information – the objective is to anticipate, right from the design phase, errors at interfaces between the building trades, errors that up to now were identified and treated at site level. It is also thanks to digitalization of project models that it is possible to overhaul the way various stakeholders in a project work together, using a common language and supports that are completely computerized. By this I mean the irresistible BIM (Building Information Modelling) approach, which I would say is at the advanced experimentation stage, a gradual convergence of formats and practices by stakeholders that are still pioneers but already capable through concrete practice of demonstrating the real advantages of this approach.

We can already safely predict that in 2050, BIM will be widely used and the design and maintenance of 100% of new buildings will be managed using this method that will dematerialise supports of representation, considerably reduce delivery times and significantly transform the building professions, starting with that of the architect, who will have free online access to practically everything industrials provide. The latter will have abandoned their traditional print catalogues, and their offer will be available on generalist websites and in shared databases that will be updated in real time. Their sales teams will no longer need to visit clients, whether over-informed installers or architects, except to give them samples or customised mock-ups in project mode. The skills of these traditional sales profiles will evolve with greater technical knowledge to discuss functional and interface issues with clients. In concrete terms, as far as the VMZINC offer is concerned, it will no longer be a question of “placing” products and roofing, facade or rainwater systems without discussing and helping to design links with adjacent materials and systems or with components of the sub-structure.

Solutions, systems and packages

Which leads me to the subject of the systemic logic expected by design teams. Contrary to popular belief, architects do not work with unbridled creativity 100% of the time. They must act as conductors who coordinate and make compatible, rather than focusing on details. While they work mainly on the programme, proportions, form and choice of materials, they appreciate being offered reliable, well-defined constructive solutions, if possible with a guarantee of performance. So what they want from industrials is not to complicate their role, but to make it easier via the provision of “packages” for which they can simply measure compatibility with their project and the value of these packages in terms of the quantitative criteria they have established.

This is why the VMZINC offer that we have started to digitalize (to BIM-ize) cannot be based on the basic catalogue offer, i.e. on isolated products. It needs to be based on comprehensive systems that take into account the entire wall, from zinc cladding to supporting wall, whether for roofs or facade.

To accept our zinc cladding or roofing, the architect will want us to provide him with a complete, coherent system featuring clearly described performances in terms of mechanical, thermal and acoustic resistance. In short, even though we will (probably) not sell insulation, vapour barriers or primary or secondary frameworks, we will have to describe them skilfully and present these components in a generic manner in our system. The architect will appreciate even more as these systems will be installed by the same company. So zinc roofers will have to extend their skills to these related components, particularly because thermal regulations requiring installation of increasingly thick insulation will influence projects by placing the cladding further from the supporting wall or the frame. For example, the high performance roofing system known as “sarking”, featuring rigid insulation mounted on the exterior and serving as a direct support for the roofing material, would be installed by the roofer.

Water has already tried everything to get the better of Vieille Montagne zinc

In order to make forecasts, one has to start with the present.

First assertion: almost all VMZINC zinc installed in 2017 will still be on roofs and facades in 2050. It will even be in great condition, just patinated, because 33 is a good age for our material. So we will still be part of the landscape, even if all around our zinc things will have changed considerably.

Second assertion: in 2050 it will still rain and perhaps more than currently in certain regions. This makes me think of one of our advertising campaigns entitled “water has already tried everything to get the better of Vieille Montagne zinc”, which featured a gutter in winter with impressive stalactites and then the same gutter drenched by a downpour of rain or baking under a red hot sun!

In my post number 67, I talked about the raison d’être of our company, which I consider to be entirely related to the ultimate goal (reached with the help of zinc workers) of preventing rain water from penetrating into the building that VMZINC zinc is protecting! This is why I can assert that there will still be lots of our material on roofs in 2050, on “seams” and flashings, especially as we will be continuing to intensively train zinc roofers using effective digital methods such as electronic tutorials!

Third assertion: in 2050, rainwater will be collected locally by the roof for inhabitants. Already in Japan and Germany, rainwater being collected and directly stored is replacing 25 to 40% of the volume of water consumed by occupants. This collection at source makes it possible to better manage - via retention - excessive flow of rainwater due to storms, a flow that by accumulating could saturate urban evacuation networks and sometimes lead to significant damage! So this is a challenge for horizontal and vertical evacuation systems in zinc, which could be extended to carry rainwater to collective tanks for a block or a neighbourhood. Perhaps VMZINC will also have to develop new skills in the area of storage, treatment and daily re-use of rainwater!

Building envelopes: a key issue for tapping energy

Building envelopes remain a central investment for architects because they sign the meaning and image of buildings. They are probably the last real area of freedom left to architects. But aesthetic choices are not or are no longer the only reason for this. The envelope, perceived as a skin, is undeniably the main area of exchange with atmospheric energy, light, solar heat, wind and, as previously mentioned, rain water. None of this energy alone could respond to the needs of housing, but together they can contribute to the achievable objective for the building to be energy self-sufficient (this is already possible), and subsequently (around 2030) even to produce excess energy. Thermal regulations the world over are heading in this inevitable direction. So the building envelope of 2050 will probably be where numerous thermal and photovoltaic sensors will be placed, micro-wind turbines* and measurement tools or LED lighting elements. This could lead us to think that the surface area of traditional roofing materials could be reduced. As far as zinc is concerned, we can be optimistic and anticipate that it will remain, even covered and hidden, the reliable watertight material that can adapt to these new configurations. It would be reasonable to predict the return of roll cap roofing, in an updated form, its longitudinal junctions with capping could be used to cover cables and various sensor connections.

(*) We can begin to imagine roofing made up of wind installation tiles, each tile integrating a micro-turbine on a small nozzle formed in a stamped zinc panel. These interconnected micro-wind turbines could produce energy to complement photovoltaic installations.

With a little daring, it wouldn’t be Utopian to think that photovoltaic materials, in fact metal substrates (produced by Umicore!), could be sprayed like paint on a pre-installed zinc roof. Then it would just be necessary to connect these extremities to the entire surface of the roof, which would then make up an enormous, highly cost-effective photovoltaic sensor!

Connected roofs and leased roofs!

Is it incongruous to imagine that in 2050, roofing elements in zinc would be connected objects, with the zinc mass incorporating micro-sensors for example constantly measuring run-off, expansion cycles, watertightness or deformation due to wind! In other words, the life of your zinc roof monitored by a control screen!

Another possibility that is intrinsically linked to the durability of our material is that of roof leasing. VMZINC is the BMW of roofing and facade: incomparable quality and performance, a specific elegance combining classicism & modernity, and a high trade-in value. Enough to imagine VMZINC as the owner of an international fleet of roofs with long term leases, possibly including energy sensors, maintenance and perhaps initial installation with guarantee. Should a roof be traded in, clients would transfer their leasing contract and a purchase option could even be offered after a certain number of years (30, 40 or 50 years!). This would be a significant change in business model, with which VMZINC could associate its installer clients.

Elegant envelopes: what will VMZINC look like?

Judging by the appetite architects have for our patinas, our surface treatments and our coloured zincs, the VMZINC range in 2050 will be much broader and extended to include new aspects. The engraved Azengar range is just starting out. VMZINC zinc, while remaining the noble material it is, will again be available in new shades of grey and in other preweathered colours. It will be nicked, scarified, attacked by acid, laser engraved and perhaps mixed or used with other materials such as timber, stainless steel and glass!

The vertical city

This subject is a passion of mine. The enthusiasm in large cities for roof-top apartments and accessible terraces makes it possible for visitors and night owls to discover cities differently, from a height.

What if we were to live on roof-tops? And we entered our future buildings via the roof?

We all remember Bruce Willis as a taxi driver flying between buildings in the “Fifth element”, the famous film directed by Luc Besson. Will we manage, as suggested in the film, to live at high altitude to escape pollution and the vicissitudes of the gloomy life that will have developed at ground level? If public transport evolves under the influence of drones, will we travel in small collective or individual aircraft that will perhaps turn roofs into runways or light aircraft parking lots? In this case, will VMZINC become a specialist in watertightness for helipads?

The future is what we make it

The previous paragraphs outline some avenues for development upon which our company could embark over the coming years. There will be choices and investments to make. New professions to learn. We will also have to renew ourselves while remaining ourselves, as we have been doing for the past 180 years.

If you have any comments on these mainly realistic predictions (or even the more forward-thinking ones), your feedback is always welcome! If your vision of the future for the construction industry is different, please tell us about it!

We love talking about the future;