The sustainable building materials that will help the environment

The building industry has a significant carbon footprint, and to reduce this, architects and builders are increasingly looking to use environmentally friendly materials in schemes.

A host of new materials and initiatives are being explored to find low-carbon alternatives that will lessen the building industry’s environmental impact during and after construction.

Choosing eco-friendly materials will help meet the government’s environmental targets and demands for sustainable construction. Let’s take a closer look.

What are sustainable building materials?

Eco-friendly construction materials are produced and used in a way that minimises carbon emissions and their negative environmental impact. They are sourced, processed and manufactured with an emphasis on factors such as saving energy and using recyclable materials to be earth friendly.

When renewable materials are combined with sustainable building practices, the result is eco-friendly designs with renewable energy sources and reduced amounts of construction and demolition waste. The goal is to create structures that stand the test of time and have a low environmental impact.

Characteristics of successful sustainable building material

Construction material must:

  • Be resilient, weather resistant and not deteriorate quickly.
  • Have a minimal environmental impact during its life.
  • Be easy to install, assemble and use.
  • Offer thermal insulation and be energy efficient, keeping us warm in winter and cool in summer, for example, photovoltaic glass and efficient insulation will result in reduced consumption and energy costs.

The role of technology in developing sustainable materials

Technology is enabling the development of highly durable and financially viable green building materials. Advances in 3D printing allow the precise layering of sustainable materials, creating less waste and speeding up the construction process. Advancements in nanotechnology have led to the development of nanomaterials such as aerogels and carbon nanotubes, which can be incorporated into construction materials to improve insulation, structural integrity and reduce a building’s carbon emissions.

Aerogel product development.

The benefits of new, sustainable building materials

Renewability:

Eco-friendly materials often come from renewable sources, helping to save natural resources. An example is bamboo which can be harvested without harming the plant.

Recyclability:

At the end of a building’s life, many sustainable building materials can be repurposed or recycled, which will significantly reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill.

Low embodied carbon:

This is the total carbon footprint of a material throughout its lifespan, from extraction, through manufacturing, transportation and disposal. New sustainable construction components must have low levels of embodied carbon making them environmentally friendly.

Efficient energy use:

New materials must enable energy efficiency advances, for instance, insulation material will reduce the need for extra heating or cooling, leading to reduced energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Longevity and durability:

Sustainable materials should give green buildings a longer lifespan, reducing ongoing replacement costs.

Improve people’s quality of life:

Sustainable buildings offer healthier environments, better air ventilation, more natural light and sound insulation.

 

Let’s look at some key sustainable building materials

Self-healing concrete

Cracks in concrete can be mended by self healing concrete. The process involves embedding self-activating limestone-producing bacteria into the concrete mix. When water seeps into cracks it will activate the bacteria, which will then mend the cracks.

Recycled steel

Using recycled steel reduces the need for the energy-intensive mining and production methods used in new steel manufacture.

Timber

Highly sustainable and quickly renewable, timber has become more popular due to innovations such as cross-laminated timber (CLT). This involves planks of solid wood being glued together to create strong panels which enable wood to be used in tall building construction: CLT is also fire resistant. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, wood absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Fungi-based insulation and waste wood panels

Progress is being made in developing the potential of mycelium for the construction industry. Researchers at Bath University are testing fungi-based insulation and waste wood to assess their potential: prefabricated wall panels made from waste wood and insulation made from fungal mycelium are being tested in a major European project. The Horizon Europe project INBUILT, launched in February 2024, aims to advance sustainable building practices throughout Europe.

Compressed or rammed earth

Requiring minimal energy, the rammed earth is compressed between frames to create solid walls with a wooden exterior.

Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF)

ICF is a rigid foam construction sandwiched between two layers of concrete. An ICF house uses approximately 44% less energy for heating and cooling compared to conventional concrete construction.

Roof gardens and green roofs

Low maintenance and effective cost-wise, green roofs can help reduce energy consumption by insulating buildings. They can also reduce urban heat islands, manage stormwater runoff, boost biodiversity and improve air quality.

Bamboo

Bamboo grows quickly without the need for pesticides or fertilisers, making it cost-effective; it’s also light, highly durable and can be used for walls, frames, roofing, furniture and flooring.

Green concrete

Whereas traditional concrete is energy-intensive, green concrete is made from industrial waste by-products like fly ash and blast furnace slag, making it environmentally friendly while being as strong and durable as conventional concrete.

Recycled materials

Innovative building material can be made from the large amounts of waste generated by the building industry, reducing the use of landfill. Plastics, steel, aggregates, and glass can be recycled and used in new buildings.

Recycled textiles

Building insulation made from recycled textiles such as plastic bottles can reduce waste and provide an eco-friendly, sustainable material that is financially attractive, easy to install, and gives good thermal performance.

The challenges with new eco-friendly building materials:

  • Cost: They can be more expensive than traditional products but the long-term cost savings in terms of energy bills must be factored in before making a final assessment.
  • Availability: Some products have only limited accessibility or need specialist manufacturing.
  • Training and skills: Construction firms will need to train construction workers in the use of new materials.

Final thoughts

Climate change has quickened moves to develop sustainable alternative building materials and by embracing the opportunities, the building industry can reduce its carbon emissions.

However, while sustainable materials offer many benefits, investment in research, training and development is needed to promote knowledge and take-up.

The results could be hugely beneficial and lead to well-built buildings that are eco-friendly, make better places for people to live in, and offer a more sustainable future for our planet.

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