What Makes A Building Material Sustainable? Top 5 Picks

Sustainability means a lot of things to a lot of different people. It’s a hugely broad concept that often frustrates people with its many different definitions. In general, sustainability means the capacity of something to endure forever and commonly it’s important to consider the social and environmental impacts of decisions made. 

The same happens in the building industry regarding sustainability so we’re out to shed a bit of light on this topic; what characteristics does a building material need to have to be considered sustainable and what you might consider using off our top 5 list?  

Characteristics of Sustainable Building Materials 

The answer to this question really depends on your building context as they are many characteristics that make a material considered sustainable and depending on your overall project building goals, there are many solutions.  Eco-friendly building materials could range from non-toxic finishes, paints, insulation all the way to how you orient your building structure and the methodology and materials used to construct it. 

Building related issues contributing to the poor health of our environment and society have to do with how materials are extracted and used such as minerals and metals, how fast we harvest raw materials from nature and toxins or chemicals involved in the production of building materials. Considering these aspects gives us great filters through which to evaluate and select building materials for our projects. 

We will take a look at specifically what kinds of materials are used to build homes in the scope of this article.  Key aspects to consider during your sustainable materials decision making process and final selection might be: 

  • Are they renewable or locally sourced?
  • Are they abundant or scarce in nature?  
  • Do they contain recycled content? 
  • Are the materials recyclable or designed for reuse?
  • Are the materials considered non-toxic? 

 Let’s look at some of the World’s Top 5 Sustainable Building Materials 

Sustainable Building Material #1 – Trash

According to website Statista, in 2019, the production of plastics totaled around 368 million metric tons worldwide. This plastic is used in the production of many kinds of products, much of which ends up as “single use plastic” and discarded after one use, causing a mounting global trash issue. 

Many people are finding ways to repurpose this plastic waste into usable building materials. Kenyan startup company Gjenge Makers recycles plastic waste into paving bricks and Australian scientists are discovering how to create “green” types of bricks and construction materials using recycled plastic waste, plant fibre waste and old canola oil. These are but a few people in the world creating long-lasting building bricks by recycling plastic waste. To find potential suppliers near you, do an internet search for “recycled plastic bricks” + [your location] to find any manufacturers in your area. 

Sustainable Building Material #2 – Straw

Building with straw as a material has been around for centuries and homes typically built from straw are expected to last centuries themselves. While the technology has largely remained the same, various techniques have emerged to make these buildings appropriate for modern day building code requirements such as being used as non-load bearing walls built within timber frames and on modern foundations. 

Strawbale buildings have incredible indoor air quality as the walls are known for their ability to “breathe” as they expand and contract minutely with the heating and cooling from the sun daily.  They provide thick, thermal mass walls with high insulation values making these homes very inexpensive to heat and cool. Strawbale walls when finished with earthen plaster are extremely resistant to fire and pests, giving them further merit for their durability, yet another important characteristic of sustainability. Building something of high quality that’s meant to last is the best use of any material!  

Sustainable Building Material #3 – Bamboo

Timber bamboo is a fast growing bamboo plant variety that can grow two to three feet per day and reach up to six inches in diameter, making this material as robust in size as traditional timber harvested from trees. 

Smaller diameter varieties of bamboo are often harvested and used in the production of engineered products such as paneling for walls or ceilings or laminated flooring products.  Bamboo, while not fireproof, does provide a sustainable building material due to its flexibility of use, its natural abundance and rapid growth in nature. Whether you’re able to use bamboo timber for framing or incorporate it into the interior finishings in your home, it’s a very renewable resource that provides strong, durable and flexible building materials for many styles of buildings. 

Sustainable Building Material #4 – Adobe

Did you know that the use of adobe bricks that are made from clay, sand, straw and mud date back to as early as 8000 B.C., making these earth mud blocks some of the oldest and most widely used sustainable building materials

Adobe bricks and plasters are incredibly sustainable building materials to this day as they can be made on your building site and can even incorporate locally sourced earth materials and straw to be used in the manufacturing process. If you don’t want to go as far as manufacturing your own bricks, there are many manufacturers worldwide. The use of adobe in your building materials provides several key benefits including being non-toxic and biodegradable yet incredibly durable.  They also contribute thermal mass to floor structures or building walls that either store and radiate heat into the building or provide excellent thermal insulation.   

Sustainable Building Material #5 – Steel Metal 

Did you know that most modern building steel contains at minimum 25% recycled content. While the extraction of virgin iron ore for the production of steel is energy intensive and environmentally disruptive, once mined, it can be recycled indefinitely.  As the sources of unmined iron ore become smaller or more difficult to access, it is hoped the world’s ability to capture scrap metal for recycling will only increase.    

Metal provides a long-lasting and extremely durable building material and due to its ability to be recycled over and over again, it’s high on the list of sustainable building materials to incorporate into your building project. If you include a metal roof or paneling in your building project, these elements provide decades of use and are able to be removed from the building and recycled at the end of its useful life. Using metal in this away allows builders to benefit from a very sustainable building material.