Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
The materials and resources that go into building homes significantly impact the environment. By choosing sustainable building materials that can be reused, recycled, and repurposed, we can help improve the planet’s long-term health and preserve natural resources that can easily be depleted.
Here are 13 sustainable building materials for homes:
- Straw Bale
- Rammed Earth
- Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs)
- Recycled Glass
- Recycled Plastic
- Wood-Plastic Composites (WPC)
In this article, I’ll take an in-depth look at 13 of the most sustainable building materials for homes. Ready? Then let’s get started.
Adobe is made from sand, clay, water, and fibrous or organic material (sticks, straw). It’s typically found in hot desert climates where there’s little rainfall. Adobe structures can be designed with cooling systems such as ventilation funnels and evaporative cooling ponds or passive solar design that requires no additional energy input after initial construction costs.
You’ll need to mold your adobe into shape when using it as a cob, but you don’t have to wait for it to dry. Instead, you can bake the bricks in an oven or kiln. Once they’re dry, you cut them into standard sizes that suit your construction project. You can use adobe blocks as is, or you can coat them with plaster for greater structural strength and a smoother finish.
The downside to adobe is that it isn’t solid unless reinforced with steel rods in the interior walls. Although adobe brick buildings are sturdy enough to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters, they’re prone to fire damage if not adequately fireproofed.
Bamboo is a solid and renewable material that doesn’t require pesticides or fertilizer to grow. It produces 35% more oxygen than trees, making it an excellent source of clean air. Plus, bamboo is a diverse material used in flooring, cabinetry, furniture, and paneling. Bamboo grows up to four feet per day, so it doesn’t take long for a forest to fill in.
As a bonus, bamboo is also insect-resistant and mold-resistant, features that make it perfect for homes in tropical areas.
The bamboo used for flooring is highly processed, and as a result, requires heavy doses of formaldehyde as a bonding agent. While formaldehyde improves the stability of the product, it’s also a known carcinogen.
To make bamboo flooring sustainable, you need to look for products that have been manufactured in an eco-friendly manner. Flooring manufacturers might use natural adhesives or no adhesives at all if they use the strand woven process.
3. Straw Bale
Straw bales are small bundles of stalks (usually wheat) that have been compressed and bound together. They make excellent insulation due to their breathability, which allows heat, moisture, and air to flow freely.
Straw bales provide excellent insulation and thermal mass, making them suitable for eco-friendly homes.
You can use straw bales to build load-bearing walls, which can work as great alternatives to conventional walls made from bricks, blocks, or timber frame construction.
And since straw is a cheap and plentiful agricultural waste product that is more often than not burned, using it in buildings is a great way to conserve the environment.
Straw can be used as an insulative material on walls or roofs and is often covered by plaster or stucco made from clay and lime (for protection from harsh weather conditions).
Because wood is renewable, it’s considered a natural resource that logging workers can replace after it’s harvested.
Wood is easy to work with, and unlike other resources like steel or concrete, it has natural insulating properties that help keep homes warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And as one of the most versatile construction materials, you can use wood for a variety of uses from structural framing to flooring, cabinetry, and more.
Structures made from wood use less heating and cooling energy, reducing their overall carbon footprint. Wood is also a highly renewable resource if you choose sustainably harvested trees.
One way to make sure your wood was sustainably harvested is to purchase Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber (FSC). FSC certification means that lumber comes from forests managed responsibly and in an environmentally friendly manner.
Cork is a natural, renewable material harvested from the bark of cork oak trees. It’s fire-resistant, durable, and easy to install, making it a great alternative to traditional flooring options like linoleum or carpeting. Cork is also recyclable and biodegradable at the end of its life cycle.
The manufacturing process uses very little energy, and no harmful chemicals are emitted into the environment during production. The cork oak tree sheds its bark naturally every nine years, which allows for damage-free harvesting.
Cork can be used as flooring or tiles, or as a wall covering. Additionally, the sustainable building material can also be manufactured into furniture and other materials and is loved for its impressive insulation properties.
Additionally, cork is a highly durable material that’s fire and rot-resistant, making it ideal for construction projects.
Leftover scraps of cotton and denim are collected and treated with a variety of non-toxic solutions before being compressed into sound-absorbing boards. This natural material is easy on the eyes and is more robust, durable, and cost-effective than other options. You can use cotton for walls and ceilings.
Cotton’s sustainability isn’t the only thing that makes it appealing. The material is also naturally flame retardant, making it safe to use as a component in construction materials. Cotton and denim can be easily recycled and reused to make other items.
Manufacturers can also combine cotton with wool or hemp to make roofing materials, such as shingles.
7. Rammed Earth
Rammed earth is made from compacted soil mixed with a binder such as cement or lime. The soil can be dug from the construction site or sourced from a local supplier.
Well-prepared rammed earth lasts for hundreds of years and can be recycled at the end of its life cycle. It’s used for internal and external walls, including garden walls and retaining walls for slopes.
Rammed earth construction involves packing wet dirt into forms, which are then removed to leave a stable, solid wall. The resulting walls are typically between 12 inches (30 cm) and 18 inches (45 cm) thick and can be covered with plaster, stucco, or tile.
Rammed earth walls are typically used for a home’s exterior, but can also be used for interior walls when finished with plaster or drywall.
The strength of rammed earth walls makes it possible to build homes up to three stories tall utilizing this technique.
Rammed earth is incredibly energy efficient and can help reduce energy costs in both cold and hot climates. It also requires no special maintenance and is recyclable.
However, rammed earth isn’t suitable for all weathers as the material is subject to erosion from water, meaning it must be well-sealed to protect against moisture damage.
8. Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs)
Insulating concrete forms (ICFs) are hollow foam blocks stacked into the shape of exterior walls before being filled with concrete. The exterior and interior surfaces of the ICF blocks can be finished with stucco, siding, or drywall.
ICF homes are inherently more energy-efficient than conventionally built homes because they have thicker walls, which translates to better insulation.
There are several reasons why ICFs are sustainable building materials. They have a high R-value for starters, meaning they’re excellent insulators.
ICFs also reduce air leakage, which means they require less ventilation and don’t need finishing materials like drywall or plaster to be usable (although insulation can be added behind the forms if desired). Their strength makes them resilient to fire and severe weather.
Additionally, ICFs don’t settle or warp as wood-framed buildings do over time, which results in lower maintenance costs.
While ICFs aren’t yet common on residential properties, builders can use them to construct homes and other buildings. The main drawback is cost; ICFs add around 10% to the price of a project compared to conventional alternatives.
Hempcrete is sustainable because it’s made from hemp, which grows quickly and abundantly.
Hemp is also renewable, making it an ideal choice for sustainable construction.
Hempcrete is an all-natural, non-toxic, and flame-resistant material made from the inner part of a hemp plant mixed with a lime-based binder.
Its health benefits include better air quality and insulation, which helps regulate temperature and humidity in the home.
Hempcrete can make walls, floors, roofing tiles, bricks, and blocks. It’s also versatile enough to cover existing surfaces such as concrete or wood.
What makes hempcrete the most sustainable building material is that it’s easy to work with and can be used as an insulating material for soundproofing and fireproofing purposes.
Hempcrete doesn’t rot, nor does it need to be treated with preservatives or chemicals.
Timber has been used in construction for thousands of years. It’s a renewable material that can be grown and harvested sustainably, making it one of the most environmentally friendly building materials available today.
In addition to being green, timber is also a beautiful, durable material that you can use for many components of your home or commercial building.
Sustainable timber is a renewable resource, meaning it’s more environmentally friendly than non-renewable construction materials such as concrete, brick, or steel.
The use of timber also helps to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon storage – both important in tackling climate change. Other benefits of using timber include its aesthetic appeal, versatility, insulating properties, and acoustic qualities.
Timber can be used for framing, flooring, roofing, and more. While some types of timber are better suited to specific applications than others, they can be used in various ways and have many different finishes.
11. Recycled Glass
Glass is a 100% recyclable material that can be put to different uses in a variety of constructions.
In addition to being a sustainable, environmentally friendly product, recycled glass can add texture and color to any room or space. Recycled glass products look like beach glass or sea glass and come in various colors, including blue, green, amber, brown, white, and black.
Adding recycled glass to a space gives it an earthy and natural look. Countertops made from recycled glass come in an array of colors. The beauty of these countertops is that they’re different every time since no two pieces of recycled glass can have the exact appearance.
Recycled glass is also very durable and easy to clean and maintain. Unlike other countertops made from natural stone, recycled glass countertops don’t have to be sealed regularly to protect them from stains or moisture damage.
12. Recycled Plastic
Recycled plastic is part of the plastics family, one of the significant contributors to pollution. The amount of plastic waste in landfills is increasing by the day — and only 9% of all plastics are recycled.
That’s where recycled plastic comes in. It helps reduce the amount of plastic waste in landfills, and also contributes to creating sustainable building materials for homes.
Recycled plastic is durable and weatherproof, and is most often used as an alternative to wood or concrete.
Recycling plastic saves energy and resources as you’ll be using plastic that’d otherwise go to waste and damage the environment. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions (compared to making new plastic) and keeps plastics out of landfills.
Plastic lumber is an excellent alternative to traditional wood, metal, and concrete building materials.
Plastics are incredibly durable and impervious to water, perfect for outdoor use in decks, retaining walls, boardwalks, and playgrounds.
In addition to construction applications, builders can use recycled plastic in various products, including containers, bags, bottles, crates, pails, pipes, and fittings.
13. Wood-Plastic Composites (WPC)
Wood-plastic composite (WPC) isn’t as popular as the other materials; however, it’s very sustainable.
WPC is a combination of recycled wood fibers and recycled plastic and is often used to make durable decking material, door frames, outdoor furniture, and other construction materials.
Another great advantage of wood-plastic composites is that it uses recycled wood and plastic that would otherwise be disposed of as waste.
WPC doesn’t rot or decay, doesn’t need chemical treatment (for termites and pests), and can last for over 50 years if properly maintained.
- American Cancer Society: What is formaldehyde?
- Forest Stewardship Council: Certification Resources
- Science Direct: Evaporative Cooling
- National Library of Medicine: A State of the Art of the Overall Energy Efficiency of Wood Buildings—An Overview and Future Possibilities
- Isotherm Thermal Insulation: What’s all the fuss about R-Value?
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