Sustainable Building Materials: Everything You Need To Know

December 17, 2019

A Sustainable Future

Sustainable and green building is the future of construction. Not only does it help to protect our environment, building greenly can actually reduce the cost of building operation over time. One important aspect of green construction is the choice by contractors to use sustainable building materials. 

Identifying sustainable building materials may seem easy, but when you really think about it, how easy is it? For years, our buildings have been primarily made up of concrete, steel, glass and brick. Concrete is actually one of the most used building materials in the world. It’s also one of the worst materials.

As material shortages, increasing costs of raw material, and concerns over the recyclability of building materials grow, the interest in alternative materials does as well. What is interesting about many of these alternatives is that they are not brand new ideas. Instead they are often an environmentally friendly spinoff on the materials we already use today. 

An example of this is recycled steel. Steel is actually one of the most recycled building materials in the world. In 2014, 86% of all steel produced was being recycled. Today recycling steel to create new steel products is a staple in the industry. That being said, it is possible to source recycled steel to reduce the environmental impact of the building materials used.

The industry goal should be to make recycling a standard just like it is with steel. However, a big impact on the industry can come from the choices that contractors make when choosing and suggesting building materials.

What Makes Sustainable Building Materials Different?

There are 5 key factors separating sustainable building materials from others.

1. Locally Available and Sourced

Using locally sourced materials reduces shipping and with it, the environmental impact that goes into sourcing the material. Look for businesses in the area of a project to reduce the carbon footprint of material sourcing. 

The same can be said for equipment. If a project is out of the centralized area of your business, consider renting local equipment instead of shipping large machines across long distances. Going local is a great first step for choosing sustainable materials.

2. Recyclable Materials

There are two parts to choosing recyclable building materials. 

Step one is to do some research on what materials can be recycled. This is the easy part. Many different kinds of materials can be recycled. Concrete, steel, plastic, wood and even bricks can all be recycled. There are a few materials which cannot be recycled, such as broken glass and some plastics. Reducing these materials and focusing on using materials which can be recycled is step one. 

Step two is to actually implement the process of recycling these materials. Construction materials in large quantities such as concrete or steel cannot go to the local city recycling facility. Look up ahead of time where these materials can be recycled, and implement a plan on site for how they will be separated, stored, and shipped to the recycling facility. Using recyclable materials is only good if the materials are actually recycled. 

3. Recycled Content

The other side to recyclable materials is to choose materials which have been made from recycled products.  Plastic is a great material that has been recycled into a variety of construction items. From roof tiles and insulation to to fences and carpet, sourcing products made of recycled material is a great way to practice sustainable building. 

Recycled building materials come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and come from some surprising sources. There are so many different kinds of recycled materials out there. Cinder blocks made from plastic bags, tiles created from wine corks, and even walls grown from mushrooms are three examples of the fascinating recycled building materials available on the market today.

Recycling materials is a great way to add sustainability to a project. Both sourcing recycled materials for building and recycling extra materials are two ways to incorporate recycling into your sustainable construction plan.  Image borrowed from The Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association

4. Durability

The stronger, more durable building material you choose, the longer it will last. The longer it lasts, the less material needed to replace or repair it in the future. “Reduce” is the first step on the recycling hierarchy and choosing durable materials is a key part of this.

5. Resource-Friendly Manufacturing

One of the last ways to source sustainable building materials is to look at where and how the material is created. Choosing suppliers that also practise environmentally friendly processes means that your materials have an environmentally friendly life cycle. Many companies use their environmental practices to differentiate from their competition and advertise their green initiatives. 

Resource-friendly manufacturing can include green manufacturing buildings, using renewable energy sources, choosing toxic-free materials, and disposing of the manufacturing byproducts in an environmentally friendly way.

Benefits of Using Sustainable Building Material

Looking at this list, the question may come to mind of whether or not it’s worth the trouble of sourcing and using sustainable materials. 

The answer is simple: It definitely is!

 

Building owners and architects are often the ones driving for sustainable buildings: achieving LEED Certification and reducing overall building operation costs make green buildings popular to these two groups. Construction is a huge part of a building. A construction company that can promote themselves as being environmentally and sustainable material conscious could be the differentiator to land a job or win a bid.

On top of this, the entire process of reducing waste, recycling materials, and keeping a green project can save money while making the work environment healthier.

The different levels of LEED Certification which can be achieved. Image borrowed from LEED.

Examples of Sustainable Building Materials

There are new kinds of sustainable building materials being discovered, modified and created everyday. Here are some of our favourites.

Bamboo

Image of the Green School build totally from bamboo. Image borrowed from Natural Building Blog

Bamboo usually grows in tropical, subtropical or temperate zones. It makes sense then that bamboo for construction is associated to these same areas. Used to build anything from entire homes to small buildings, this sustainable building material has been making its way to North America. 

Bamboo has been shown to be just as strong as steel due to its cylindrical form. It is even stronger than concrete. The lightweight material can make it easier to work, lift, move and build with. The material can be cut and laminated into sheets and planks to be used as walls, flooring, roofs, and much more. It’s flexibility also adds a new dimension to this material than other building material. It’s naturally waterproof and doesn’t tend to warp from heat or damp environments.

Bamboo can grow up to 4 feet a day, and can regrow after being harvest without needing to be planted again. Bamboo, however, can be harvested in an unsustainable way if forest and farmland are replaced with bamboo fields. Bamboo can also be susceptible to insects and fungus. Treating the plant with pesticides can impact the environment in another way as well.

Papercrete & Other Concrete Alternatives

Two papercrete bricks. Image borrowed from Lily Ann Fouts

Concrete is an interesting topic in construction right now. A global shortage of sand, the production of carbon dioxide, and its impact on flooding have started to make concrete a hot topic of environmentally friendly construction conversations. Alternatives to this building material are giving concrete a new look. 

Papercrete and hempcrete are two examples of concrete alternative. Just like with concrete these two building materials use cement or clay. The difference however, is that these other forms use more environmentally friendly aggregates instead of the nonrenewable aggregates found in traditional concrete. Repulped paper fiber, hemp and even bits of wood or sawdust have been used to create concrete-like materials for building. Even if interior walls of new buildings were replaced with this alternative sustainable building material, the environmental impact would be amazing. 

Some downfalls to papercrete include poor moisture resistance. There are waterproofing methods that can be applied to the materials, but it’s still made of paper. For papercrete in particular, raw materials aren’t expensive. The heat and sound insulation found in papercrete is much better than traditional concrete. Papercrete has a high compressive strength and is lightweight enough to be used as a roofing alternative.

Lumber & The Rise of Wooden Skyscrapers

Wooden structures are growing in popularity. Image borrowed from the Globe and Mail.

In 1666 London England caught fire. Referred to as the Great Fire, 436 acres, 13,200 houses, and 87 churches burned down in England’s capital in five days after a small bakery fire spread from house to house. The rebuilding of London included new building regulations which made it law for houses to be fitted with brick fronts instead of wood. The danger of burning cities in a world ruled by candlelight changed the way people build homes. 

Almost 400 years later, wooden buildings are making a comeback. The introduction of new technology wish as cross-laminated timber (CLT) make wood an incredibly strong building material for skyscrapers. CLT is created when individual strips of wood are glued together to create sturdy beams. This process means that there is no need to harvest old-growth forests for wood either. This supports a sustainable logging practices. Originating from Switzerland, CLT is just being recognized in North America as a regulatory sound building material. Ontario, Canada invested $5 million this past summer to build its first CLT plant.

Unlike the buildings in 1660’s London, Cross Laminated timber is fire resistant. It also has a quicker installation time than concrete and improves thermal performance for heat retention. Since the panels can be manufactured for specific uses off site, it reduces the amount of on-site waste. It’s no surprise that buildings are beginning to pop up that are completely made of wood. Wood structures may be the future.

Straw Bales To Build Walls

Straw bales are used as a structural and insulation material for buildings. Image borrowed from Builders Ontario

Straw in construction is not new. It has been used in the past as a way to reduce mud and erosion while finishing a project in wet climates. Today we are seeing straw is entering the construction industry in a new way. 

Straw bales are being used to build walls in new homes. Either as a load-bearing support or as a filler between and around the structural frame, there are different ways to use bales in building. Straw bale walls are made by stacking bales between the structure beams, and then platuring on both sides which makes the walls airtight. This is important as moisture in the walls could cause the straw to rot. 

Straw-rot and mold can be prevented by proper building techniques to keep moisture out of the walls. This building method may be not the best for areas of extreme humidity and rain, but is being used in some areas already. 

Benefits of straw bales in construction include their low cost when sourced locally, and their incredible insulation abilities. Straw bale walls have shown to be more flame retardant than regular wood-frame buildings as the close-packed bales smolder without burning once the source of the fire is removed. The thick walls make for lovely reading benches in window sills, and offer designers a unique space to work with.

Wool

The creation of natural wool insultaiton. Image borrowed from Remi Network.

For areas with an abundance of sheep, wool insulation is becoming all the rage. A natural air filter, moisture and climate controller, sound absorbing, and fire resistant material, wool is being used as an all natural insulator for buildings. Havelock Wool is an example of a company challenging the industry standard and educating about sustainable alternatives available. 

Challenging the industry standard of the pretty pink fibreglass, wool provides a sustainable and moisture-friendly alternative for a product used in almost every home and building. But wool is not the only alternative. Just like the straw bales above, wool is joined by other sustainable alternatives like hemp insulation and denim insulation.

Sustainable Building Materials Are Here To Stay

There are so many different sustainable and green building materials for the modern contractor to choose from. The ability to bring alternatives to the industry through your own recommendations could lead to green building jobs, waste reduction and cost savings. 

Whether sourcing an environmentally friendly manufacturing provider, renting local equipment, or advocating for the swap from concrete to papercrete, every contractor has the power to help build a greener world. Choosing sustainable building materials is a good place to start.

Kevin Forestell

Kevin Forestell is CEO of DOZR and one of the co-founders. Kevin first got started as an entrepreneur when he founded Forestell Landscaping right after graduating from University. His love and passion for the industry and desire to help solve an equipment problem that contractors faced every day is what brought the founding team to start DOZR. Kevin is proud of the level of efficiency brought to the industry through DOZR and hopes that DOZR will help change the standard way equipment is rented.

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