Bridging the gap between science and industry for concrete impact in the construction world

Head of Construction Materials Laboratory EPFL Karen Scrivener receives honorary doctorate TU/e during Research Day on June 13.

Not from an ivory tower, but with your feet in the clay, or, in the case of Professor Karen Scrivener: in concrete. That’s how you manage applicable solutions to global problems, she knows and emphasizes. As head of the Construction Materials Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), she offers meaningful contributions to making the construction world more sustainable. "A very big ship slowly changing course," TU/e Professor of Building Materials Jos Brouwers calls that world. "But Karen gets things moving." For that, she will receive an honorary doctorate from TU/e on Thursday, June 13, during the Research Day.

When the invitation round for awarding the annual TU/e honorary doctorates began, Brouwers confidently wrote Scrivener’s name down on the list. "We have been working together for a long time and she has often helped me in various ways. She is an authority in her field and knows how to create concrete impact very well."

The lesson of getting out of that "ivory tower," as she describes it, Scrivener learned as a starting academic in the 1980s. "I was fascinated by materials, and because concrete is so widely used, I wondered what was needed to future-proof that material," she said.

"I didn’t find answers within science at the time, so I switched to industry. There, I realized that nobody really knew. But by now, I was able to bridge the gap between the two worlds by establishing a consortium that could get to the heart of the matter."

Joining forces and knowledge

It turned out to be a golden opportunity that caught the spirit of the times. "The negative environmental impact of building materials was increasingly being discussed, and cement and concrete in particular were culprits because they are massively used worldwide," she explains. "So if we could improve that, the positive impact would also be very big immediately."

The joining of forces and knowledge within the consortium bore fruit and, in particular, yielded the invention of LC3 technology (limestone calcined clay cement). This reduces the CO2 intensity of cement by up to forty percent.

Innovative and implementable
Companies in more than forty countries are now adopting this technology. Brouwers, the honorary promoter of Scrivener, cites this as an important achievement: "LC3 can be immediately applied in practice. It requires no new infrastructure, it can be done in the same furnaces as ordinary concrete and cement. So it is innovative but also implementable."

Karen is always close to the practice and listens to what is going on there. She knows very well what will and won’t work.

Honorary supervisor Jos Brouwers
According to him, that very combination is characteristic of Scrivener. "She is very realistic. Maybe because she has been in the industry? She is always close to the practice and listens to what is going on there. She often knows very well what will and won’t work."

Inspiring collaboration partner

Traits that make her an inspiring and valued collaborative partner, Brouwers knows. "She has a say in the allocation of research projects and led a number of large EU projects herself. As a result, she has contributed enormously to making the global construction industry more sustainable."

"Today, she is at the helm of the scientific committee of Innovandi , the research network of the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA); a conglomerate of companies and scientists that wants to make new strides in tackling environmental problems."

Karen Scrivener

Karen Scrivener is the head of the Laboratory of Construction Materials at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and has over 40 years’ of experience in the field of construction materials in both academia and industry. Scrivener is one of the most prominent and influential researchers in the field of cement and is a world leader in microstructural analysis. She received her PhD from Imperial College London in 1984 and has authored over 300 journal papers.

Her research focuses on understanding the chemistry and microstructure, hydration mechanisms, and durability of cementitious materials and improving their sustainability. Today, she continues to lead the LC3 Project while actively participating in both the United Nations’ CEET and 10-Member Group entities.

  • 1991: Leslie Holiday prize of the Institute of Materials
  • 2007: Klaus Dyckerhoff Prize (2007) for outstanding lifetime contribution to the field of cement and concrete research
  • 2010: Doctor Honoris Causa, Czech Technical University
  • 2010: ’Concrete Ambassador’ of UK Concrete Society
  • 2010: Kroll Medal and Prize of UK Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining
  • 2011: Della Roy Lecture award, American Ceramic Society
  • 2014: Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (UK)
  • 2017: Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Concrete Technology
  • 2022: Member of Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition (CEET)

  • 2024: Appointed as part of the 10-Member Group to Promote Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals by UN Secretary General

    Increase in construction projects

    Innovandi stems from an earlier consortium that Scrivener set up, Nanocem. "We have gone from a European to a global organization. This is important because we expect an increase in construction projects, especially in the southern part of the world, in the coming years. So that’s where we need to point our arrows. In China we see a decrease, but especially India and Africa are coming up. We need to set up teams in those countries now to realize sustainable developments."

    Because, of course, she can’t do it alone, especially in other countries. "If we really want to achieve results, we need local people who know what works in their country so that we can think further from there," she emphasizes.

    Realistic expectations and perseverance

    That local intertwining often complicates things as well, she acknowledges. Which, in a general sense, applies to the entire construction industry. "It’s a business world after all. Shareholders want profits, companies don’t want to fail. People basically don’t like change. Not even if it means actually saving money in the long run, because they mainly see the money and time investment in the short term."

    Therefore, her advice is to have realistic expectations and perseverance and slowly but surely change that view. "Ten years ago, in India, we were also told ’they didn’t need our ideas.’ Now they think it’s fantastic. Because we have shown that sustainable materials are just as good and reliable as the mainstream variants."

    The construction world is slow to change. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work right away. Just persevere and convince with facts.

    Honorary Doctor Karen Scrivener

    "When we started working on cement and concrete at the end of the last century, everyone also asked why: surely we have something that works and that we know? Until concerns about climate change arose. Then, one after another came around. So don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work right away, persevere and convince with facts."

    Lessons for young researchers

    That’s one of the lessons Scrivener wants to teach young researchers. But also: "Don’t put effort into work that is not relevant. Seeing that your efforts have an impact in the real world is what you really need to stay motivated. Now that I have a successful career, it’s easy to just look at that. But it certainly wasn’t always easy. That’s perfectly normal, too. We’re all’human in the end, with good times and bad times, highs and disappointments. By the way, a good night’s sleep also does wonders; in the morning, everything is better."

    Research Day 2024: Celebrating Science!

    TU/e is awarding two honorary doctorates this year - to Martin van den Brink and to Karen Scrivener. These will be awarded during the TU/e Research Day on Thursday, June 13, in the Blauwe Zaal of the Auditorium.

    On this day, there are several activities in which we put the spotlight on the research we do at TU/e. Alongside the ceremony for the honorary doctors, the program includes a keynote titled ’Shaping the Future with AI’ by Carlo van de Weijer, the presentation of the TU/e Sciences Awards and, of course, speeches by both honorary doctors.

    View the entire Research Day program

    Life lessons offer perspective

    Just as this is true of age, she adds. "When you’re young, sometimes you can feel quite lost. I’m glad to be in my sixties, the life lessons help put things in perspective. And as a woman, it’s also nice not to be mistaken for the secretary anymore," she says with a wink.

    Which does touch on a more serious issue, because women in the predominantly male construction world don’t always have the wind in their sails. "It sometimes feels like a leaky pipeline: women drop out more often because it’s hard to combine work and family. I was very lucky with my husband, but that’s not true for everyone."

    Sometimes it feels like we’ve been having the same conversation for forty years. Yet I definitely see differences from the past, so there is hope.

    Honorary Doctor Karen Scrivener
    That change in that area is fairly slow in coming; she calls it discouraging. "Sometimes it feels like we’ve been having the same conversation for forty years. Yet I definitely see differences from the past. So there is hope, and as long as women continue to believe in that as well as in themselves, we will keep moving forward."

    "Let’s also not ask too much of ourselves; women tend to be too perfectionist. Be forgiving if, for once, things don’t go exactly the way you think they should."

    New audience

    In that regard, Scrivener sees her honorary doctorate as an opportunity to reach a new audience with her knowledge and insights. "Of course, it’s a wonderful recognition of my work. I’m absolutely proud of that. But above all, I hope to use it to reach the next generation, who are now being educated at TU/e. Universities have an important role in that sense. Being able to contribute to that by getting a podium feels like an enormous honor."