New and Old Sustainable Building Materials

The manufacture of concrete, steel, and glass uses vast amounts of raw materials and water and emits copious amounts of greenhouse gases per year. A staggering 8% of total global carbon dioxide emissions come from cement manufacture alone. Moreover, embodied carbon, which is carbon released over the entire life cycle of a building, including end-of-life material disposal, is responsible for 11% of total global carbon emissions. The impact of these “hidden” emissions is vast.

Several conventional and innovative green building materials are increasingly being explored to reduce the impact of the construction industry. Here are some of them.

The use of reclaimed wood saves virgin resources and reduces landfill usage. Reclaimed wood is useful for structural framing, flooring, and cabinetry.

Bamboo is an incredibly fast-growing and carbon-neutral building material. This perennial grass grows in many parts of the world and continues to proliferate without the need for replanting. Bamboo possesses a high strength-to-weight ratio, is long-lasting, and has greater compressive strength than concrete or brick.

Another ancient material, rammed earth, is a long-lasting green material. It has benefits for use in foundations, floors, walls, and can be pressed into wooden frames to produce a building material similar to concrete. Walls and floors constructed from rammed earth can be used as natural thermal storage. Rammed earth buildings contain vastly reduced amounts of embodied carbon than traditional concrete buildings and can be strengthened by the use of bamboo or rebar.

Recycled plastic can be used for flooring, roofing, and windows. Utilizing plastic waste reduces the environmental impact of both the construction industry and the plastics industry, reducing landfilling and helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The incorporation of polymeric materials into concrete as aggregates reduces carbon emissions and improves its mechanical and chemical properties.

The use of reclaimed and recycled steel reduces energy demands and carbon emissions. Recycled and reclaimed steel can be used for structural framework, roofing, facades, and foundations and is an incredibly long-lasting construction material.

HempCrete uses hemp, a natural and sustainable resource and carbon sink, to construct a concrete-like material. The hemp plant’s woody inner fibers are combined with lime to construct renewable, carbon-neutral, strong, and lightweight blocks that reduce transportation costs and energy. The material is fire-resistant and has good acoustic and thermal insulation properties.

Timbercrete uses sawdust, a valuable waste material produced by the construction and carpentry industries, to replace a proportion of the energy-intensive materials used in traditional concrete manufacture. It can be used to create bricks, blocks, and paving slabs.

Composites of mycelium (the root structure of fungi) and pasteurized sawdust are strong and lightweight and can be shaped into a multitude of shaped bricks for different construction purposes. Able to withstand extreme temperatures, mycelium-based composites can be used as green insulation and fire-resistant concrete alternatives.

Ferrock is a relatively new addition to the sustainable toolkit of the construction industry. Waste industrial materials such as ferrous rock and steel dust, which would otherwise be sent to landfills, are used to manufacture this concrete-like building material with superior strength. In the drying and hardening process during production, carbon dioxide is trapped and absorbed, making the material carbon neutral. This innovative green material can be mixed and poured like traditional concrete to produce structures, pathways, flooring, and construction elements like staircases. Ferrock is extremely weather-resistant.

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