Building greener is all about finding the right materials for your needs.
Innovators are constantly developing new and better sustainable building techniques and materials, driven in large part by increasing demand for carbon neutral construction. Knowing what materials are available and how to source them can help you build a cleaner, greener building — and maybe save some money in the process, too.
Here are just a few of the more popular sustainable building materials available today:
Wood and Wood Replacements
Sustainable alternatives to traditional hardwood are growing in popularity, especially as solutions for flooring and cabinetry.
Bamboo. A popular solution for green furniture design, bamboo is a highly sustainable alternative to traditional hardwood for floors, cabinets, and moulding. Bamboo can be as hard as finished red oak, but only requires 5 to 7 years to mature, as opposed to 50 to 100 years for other popular flooring woods. When sourcing bamboo, keep an eye out for Forest Stewardship Council certification to ensure that your product was harvested sustainably.
Bamboo is widely available through sustainable wood speciality retailers, as well as several big box hardware stores like Home Depot.
Cork. Another popular green flooring alternative, cork is harvested from the bark of live trees, which doesn’t require cutting down trees to produce. Harvested cork is fully renewable and takes around seven years to grow back. When used for flooring, it’s handsome and rugged with the added bonus of being good for acoustic and thermal insulation.
Like bamboo, cork is growing in popularity and is now pretty easy to source from leading sustainable lumber retailers.
Nanocellulose fiberboard. Nanocellulose fiberboard is a fully sustainable alternative to MDF and molded plastic for home use. Designed by Yunting Lin, it is made using plant fibers and fermented nanocellulose to create a biodegradable plastic simulation that’s highly moldable and easy to use.
While many of the elements in nanocellulose fiberboard are widely produced in Europe and East Asia, this product is very much in its early stages and may be difficult to source without contacting the designer directly.
AinaCore. AinaCore works like foam core and is designed to replace stick frame and drywall construction for more energy-efficient homes. It’s both efficient and strong and comes with the highest fire prevention rating in its class.
For more information on sourcing and use, check out the manufacturer’s website via the California Manufacturing Network.
Some of the most sustainable materials available to architects and builders today come from the earth itself. Clay and soil have been used in building for centuries, both in fired and unfired forms. The increasing popularity of earthen building speaks to both sustainability and the passive cooling/heating properties of these materials.
Reclaimed brick. Reclaimed brick is popular today both for its sustainability and its classic weather-worn aesthetic. Two common varieties of reclaimed brick are available: fired bricks that are designed for structural use and unfired bricks designed for facades, pathways, and other aesthetic uses. Well sourced salvage bricks will be organized to ensure these two varieties aren’t mixed up, which can present major structural issues.
Ethical sourcing for reclaimed brick is important, too. Due to popularity, a black market for stolen bricks is thriving as recently covered by 99 Percent Invisible. Buying direct from licensed salvage yards is one way to make sure your new (old) bricks were legally acquired.
New unfired block. Unfired clay bricks don’t require wood or coal heat to produce, which makes them a more sustainable option for non-load bearing walls or infills in lumber frame buildings. They are a great traditional solution for cobbling walkways and finishing porches and steps. Unfired clay block should not be used for load bearing purposes.
Hemp block. Perhaps the most versatile and exciting of the new fiber bricks, hemp block consists of sand and lime mixed with hemp fiber for binding and pressed into a sturdy block. Hemp blocks are strong enough for structural use and yet lighter than traditional materials like wood and brick, which means they require fewer supports and lighter foundations. For developers and architects, this means saving a lot on heavy contracting, greater efficiency in transportation, shallow foundations, and more.
Perhaps best of all, hemp absorbs a lot of carbon dioxide when growing. Your average home built today comes with 30-40 tonnes of embodied carbon. Using hemp for the same residential build saves 50 tonnes of embodied carbon while it grows, which means your building is actually carbon negative.
Clay plasterboard block. Made from clay and recycled drywall, this block is designed using a thin-joint mortar system for better load bearing capabilities.
Lime finishes. Lime-based exterior finishes are a popular alternative to modern cement and gypsum-based stuccos because, as noted by DIY Network, they reabsorb the carbon produced during their manufacture as the lime sets. Lime comes in two forms: non-hydraulic lime, which includes mature lime putty/mortar, and hydraulic lime, which tends to be less pure and is considered a less desirable option.
Sustainable outdoor fabric. Shielding windows from the sun is a popular passive design approach to keeping interior temperatures level — even during the heat of summer. Awnings, umbrellas, and window coverings decrease the total energy needed to keep your building cool during the hot part of the day. Environmentally-friendly coverings do double duty, by reducing your building’s carbon footprint without negatively impacting the environment in production.
Similarly, using clear vinyl to insulate indoor/outdoor patio areas or build out greenhouses for year round local food production will help achieve carbon neutrality. Here’s some helpful information on outdoor fabrics and how to source for commercial and residential projects.
Final Note On Sourcing Materials
A lot of resources are available for architects, builders, and designers who want to source environmentally-friendly building materials. No matter which approach you choose — whether you decide to use reclaimed and recycled goods or select sustainably-produced products — the EPA offers some great resources to get started.
Additionally, if you want to use quality reclaimed materials, the Building Materials Reuse Association offers valuable resources to locate retailers and find more information on properly sourcing recycled building supplies.
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