Selecting sustainable construction materials

Updated: Sep 22


buddhist temple built with sustainable materials. A mixture of brown and green bottles have been recycled to build walls and columns

When adopting a sustainable approach for your construction project, one of the most important considerations is the selection of materials that will be used in the process. Today we will explain how to evaluate materials and choose the most sustainable for your building.


This is the second part in our series on sustainable construction. If you missed it, you can read part one here.


Design for sustainable materials.


While your choice of materials undoubtedly needs careful thought, it is important to also consider the bigger picture. The sustainability of construction materials needs to be balanced against various other factors such as energy performance, water use, social and ecological impacts, etc. The design phase dictates the demand for the materials used during construction, so specifying sustainable materials in your design will equate to a lower environmental impact for the whole project.


In most construction projects, building materials are evaluated and selected based on performance, aesthetics, and cost. However, choosing the right products, that have a smaller impact on human health and the environment, is crucial to achieving sustainability. Thinking about these following criteria will help you to select sustainable materials.


reclaimed bricks are stacked ready for reuse

Plan a sustainable life cycle for your building.


To determine the environmental impact of a particular construction material, you need to look at its whole life cycle. By evaluating the relative ‘greenness’ of building materials and products at every stage, from initial production, through to its eventual reuse, recycling or disposal, you will be able to choose products that enhance the sustainability of your construction project.


The ultimate in sustainability is to choose products that can be easily disassembled for redesign and reuse at the end of your building’s lifecycle. For example, with proper care and testing, bricks can be reused for up to 150 years. You can learn more about that in this handy guide produced by the Brick Development Association.


Source your materials responsibly.


Products that are manufactured using fewer, less toxic, recycled or replenishable materials are considered to be sustainably produced. However, that isn’t the whole story; selecting the right supplier is crucial. Sustainable construction is also attained by the supply and delivery of your materials.


Pay attention to the chain of custody of your materials. You must make sure the environmental credentials of the product supplier are appropriate and meet their local environmental standards. For example, when choosing timber, ensure that it has come from a legal source and from responsibly managed forests.


Fuel for transportation has a high impact on the environment, and can even negate the environmental benefits of a product, so it’s really important to select local suppliers, or ones that are close to your project location. If the material chosen is sustainably produced and eco-friendly, but is located very far away, you should consider replacing it with a local alternative.



Logs have been felled in a responsibly managed forest for use as timber in sustainable construction.

Sustainable construction materials.


There may be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to determine the ‘best’ product or material for a specific application. However, careful consideration of a product’s life cycle impacts, safety profile, and other attributes can help provide you with increased confidence in selecting sustainable materials. Here are some examples of construction materials that are considered to be more environmentally friendly.


Bamboo.

This is one of the most eco-friendly building materials on the planet because of its incredibly high rate of self-generation; some species can grow up to three feet in 24 hours! Its high strength-to-weight ratio, exceptional durability, and even greater compressive strength make it a very useful construction material. It is prevalent around the world but not widely available in Europe.


A sustainable school building has been constructed almost entirely of bamboo

Cork.

Grown in the Mediterranean region of Europe and North West Africa, this is another fast-growing resource that can be harvested from a living tree that will continue to grow and reproduce. Its resilience and resistance to wear make it a common element in floor tiles. Its noise absorption abilities also make it perfect for insulation sheets, and its shock absorption qualities make it well-suited for sub-flooring. Most importantly it is extremely light, so it requires less energy to ship.


Sheep's wool.

This is mostly used for its insulation properties. Unlike the commonly used fiberglass insulation or polyurethane spray foam, sheep’s wool is all natural. It doesn't degrade as quickly as other natural insulation materials, regenerates faster and can be harvested more easily. Sheep are raised all across the world and so you are likely to find a local producer, wherever you are. It is not considered a cheap insulation solution, but certainly one of the most sustainable materials.


A flock of sheep stand in the snow, showing how good their wool is for use as a sustainable insulation material.

As you can see, there is more to be considered besides the renewable nature of materials to achieve sustainability for your construction project. Thinking about these other factors will help you to choose the most environmentally-friendly materials that are appropriate to your project.


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Author.

Peter Bou Assi.

Peter is Assistant Project Manager at Iconic Project Management. He is a civil engineer with an extensive background in the construction industry and a solid project management knowledge. He has worked on multiple projects with international companies where he contributed to their successful completion.



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