12 Sustainable Building Materials

A sustainable (a.k.a. eco-friendly) building material is one that minimizes its impact on the environment – whether in its production, use, or disposal – and that can be readily recycled. Building with sustainable materials reduces the amount of carbon involved in the growth, production, and/or manufacturing of the material, thus diminishing the size of the carbon footprint associated with that material. Here we discuss some candidates among the current generation of eco-friendly building materials.

1. Bamboo
A widely known trend in sustainable construction materials is bamboo, which is used mainly for flooring but also in wall coverings and countertops. When installed, it resembles traditional wood. It is also a biodegradable and sustainable material since bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. When you choose bamboo for flooring or other surfaces you are helping to slow the rate of deforestation. While traditional wood has a harvesting cycle of at least 25 years, bamboo’s cycle is only 3 years. Bamboo is also affordable, durable, and easy to install.

2. Cob
Cob, cobb, or clom (in Wales) is a natural building material made from subsoil, water, fibrous organic material (typically straw), and sometimes lime. The contents of subsoil vary, and if it does not contain the right mixture, it can be modified with sand or clay. Cob is fireproof, moderately seismic-resistant, and uses low-cost materials. It can be used to create artistic and sculptural forms, and its use has been revived in recent years by the natural building and sustainability movements.

The oldest known structure to utilize the material is believed to be over 10,000 years old. Cob is one of the materials that’s slowly finding its into the mainstream. Besides being environmentally friendly, if you are a do-it-yourselfer cob is a natural material easy to use and, due to its pliability, gives you the freedom to create any shape you could possibly imagine.

3. Sheep’s Wool
Sheep’s wool is entirely natural and eco friendly material that can be regrown quickly. Wool is best known for being used for cosy warm blankets and sweaters. But it also plays a role as an outstanding home insulator – with its fibers forming millions of tiny air pockets that trap air. Usually, you can see wool incorporated in the ceiling, walls or attics. Wool is an easily sourced, excellent alternative to conventional fiberglass insulation.

4. Reclaimed , Recycled or Sustainable Wood
Wood is probably one the most used type of building material, and for a reason. It is aesthetically pleasing, easy to use, and it feels like nature indoors. Reclaimed or recycled wood has a much lower environmental impact than harvesting new timber. However, if you are getting a new wood, it is essential to source from a sustainably managed forest. Besides being used in home building, it’s also an excellent material for natural-looking floors or exposed beams. No wonder it’s become one of the most used materials in eco friendly architecture. Sustainably harvested wood has extremely low embodied energy; and recycled wood has next to zero. Besides that, surrounding oneself by wood finishes as a natural material significantly increases one’s overall feelings of wellbeing.

5. Cork
Cork is a green material with great deal potential in the construction industry. It is a renewable material that’s harvested from cork oak trees that can be sustainably and ethically sourced. No trees need to be cut down to produce it since it is made by peeling the tree bark by hand. Currently, cork is typically used for flooring, with the possibility for future uses in the coming years. As far as usability, there are several benefits. It is an effective and affordable insulator, comfortable, durable, naturally mold and mildew resistant, hypoallergenic, and antimicrobial. Plus, it’s easy to install, maintain, and refinish.

6. Straw Bale Construction
Straw-bale construction is a building method that uses bales of straw (commonly wheat, rice, rye and oats straw) as structural elements, building insulation, or both. Research has demonstrated that straw-bale construction is a sustainable technology both from the standpoint of materials and, since it is highly insulative, the resulting energy savings in both heating and cooling.

Advantages of straw-bale construction over conventional building systems include the renewable nature of straw, cost, easy availability, natural fire-resistance, and high insulation value. Disadvantages include their susceptibility to moisture and, given their physical thickness, the spatial requirements needed for the bales themselves. Proper construction of the straw-bale wall is vital in keeping moisture levels down, just as in the construction of any type of building.

As a renewable material, straw can be harvested and re-planted with minimal environmental impact. The straw material is typically sourced from farmers who would otherwise be mulching their straw after harvest. Rather than have the straw release its embodied carbon back into the atmosphere when destroyed, thus contributing to increased carbon emissions, repurposing this waste by-product as an insulative material ensures that its carbon content is captured in the most eco-friendly way possible. Straw-bale construction is a highly sustainable method, from sourcing to energy efficiency.

7. Recycled Plastic
Plastic items take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills, whilst plastic bags we use in our everyday life take 10-20 years to decompose, and plastic bottles take 450 years. It’s time to get to give our planet a well-deserved clean-up and reuse all the plastic that we’ve let flow in our oceans, parks, and homes. Companies that use a carbon-neutral, non-toxic manufacturing process to make construction materials out of recycled plastic – produce 95% lower in greenhouse gas emissions compared to concrete blocks. Recycled plastic is a durable and robust material, great at sound retaining.

One example of plastic material re-used as a construction material is a proprietary product called ByBlocks. ByBlocks are a construction-grade building material developed entirely from recycled (and often non-recyclable) plastic waste. A single ByBlock is made from 22 pounds of plastic, keeping that waste out of landfills. They can be used in lieu of concrete blocks and are ideal for retaining walls, sound walls, sheds, privacy fencing, landscaping, and accent walls. They have many advantages: water-resistance, crack-resistance under high pressure, and 41 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than concrete blocks. They do not require glue or adhesives as internal binders and are reportedly created in a zero-waste process.

8. AshCrete
Ashcrete is an environmentally friendly alternative for concrete made of about 97 percent recycled materials. It consists of fly ash, bottom ash (by-products of coal combustion) and borate, a chemical in the chlorine family. Ashcrete is actually stronger and more durable than regular concrete because of its smaller pores. Additional advantages include having a high resistance to acid, fire, and temperature changes. It also saves water, since it requires less water during the hardening process.

9. Hempcrete
Hempcrete is a plant-based product made of sand, hemp fibers, and lime material. It is breathable, lightweight, long-lasting, fireproof, pest-resistant, and resistant to cracks and shrinkage. It also helps absorb carbon dioxide during the curing process. Additionally, carbon dioxide is absorbed and offset during the life cycle of the hemp plant. The product is available in two forms: as pre-cured insulation blocks or cast in place, which involves using form boards to create walls.

10. Plant-Based Rigid Foam
Rigid foams used in many building materials are typically made from petroleum-based products that are not kind to the environment. But now we have a better option: plant-based rigid foam. This new generation of environmentally-friendly foams can be produced from a variety of components, such as hemp, bamboo, and kelp or from biopolymers that contain less carbon dioxide like ethylene vinyl alcohol, polyvinyl alcohol, polysaccharide, and starch. These plant-based foams are typically used for insulation, thermal barriers, and flooring. They are durable, energy-efficient, effective at minimizing noise, and naturally resistant to heat, moisture, mold, and pests. Given their natural and nontoxic make-up, they are also better for our health.

11. Timbercrete
Timbercrete is an eco-friendly building material made of sawdust and concrete mixed together. The sawdust replaces components within the concrete that are most energy-intensive to produce – which makes timbercrete a green material. It is lighter than concrete or clay, and therefore much easier for transport. Timbercrete can be used in the form of blocks, bricks and pavers.

12. Newspaperwood
Newspaperwood is a cutting-edge material actually reverses the paper production process by turning paper, which would otherwise end up as waste, back into a material that resembles wood. Developed by using a special layering technique and solvent-free glue to create planks, newspaperwood can be made into furniture and cabinetry. It can be produced in a variety of thicknesses for a range of purposes, from paper-thin to extra thick. Newspaperwood is waterproof, and flame-retardant, and 100 percent recyclable and biodegradable. It can be sawed, sanded, and finished with wax, oil, paint, or varnish.

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