efficient green building materials

11 Green Building Materials Used Today

Read Time: 8 minutes

The green building trend of the 21st century has a number of goals. Increasing the sustainability of our entire environment is at the forefront, while secondary objectives include reduced waste, greater product recyclability, lower operating costs on behalf of local business owners and even an improvement in residents’ quality of life. With these goals in mind, there are plenty of opportunities to implement green building materials into the construction or renovation of a home.

Low-E Windows

Low-e, which stands for low emissivity, refers to a highly specialized window treatment that is seeing increasing use in new construction throughout the U.S. Although they’ve been around since the 1980s, recent advancements have made these windows even more energy-efficient than ever before.

From a technical viewpoint, the coating on Low-E windows acts as an insulator that prevents heat from escaping to the outdoors. These windows pull double duty by reflecting sunlight and excess heat away from the window in the summer, ultimately allowing you to maintain cooler temperatures when it’s hot outside.

The benefits of Low-E windows over traditional hardware are enormous. This efficient green building material can lower construction costs and decreased utility bills are the most obvious, but Low-E windows often feature complementary treatments that prevent air leakage, resist condensation and offset solar heat gain.

Thatch

As the saying goes, “now for something completely different.” Thatch is a demonstrably lower-tech material than many on this list — but don’t underestimate this timeless building material. It’s still in wide use today, and it delivers several benefits.

Thatch is a bit of a deceptive material. It’s made up of little more than dried straw, rushes or reeds, but with the right amount of compaction, it becomes far more solid than you might expect. It also provides excellent insulation compared to pricier synthetic materials and sheds water very well.

Once used simply out of cost-effectiveness, thatch roofing is now in high demand across the world as a practical but bold fashion statement. A thatch roof requires replacement every 20 to 40 years, which is better performance than an asphalt shingle roof, but not as impressively long-lived as a steel or aluminum roof.

Recycled Wood/Plastic Composite Lumber

Recycled or reclaimed wood are typical examples of efficient green building materials. Apart from keeping wood scraps out of our nation’s landfills, recycled wood has many advantages when constructing a home. The added durability of recycled and reclaimed products is typically far greater than newly manufactured beams and studs, while the lack of any significant maintenance costs can even make these materials cheaper in the long run. Recycled planks and lumber that have a nice finish many choose for its aesthetic appeal as well as its sustainable nature.

Plastic composite lumber, on the other hand, makes an excellent green replacement for modern decking and wooden walkways. Low maintenance requirements, a prefinished surface that is resistant to weather and damage, and the ease of installation all make plastic composite lumber a great choice for those who are looking to upgrade their home with green building materials.

Cool Roofing

Among the newest technologies on our list, the modern cool roof lets homeowners take advantage of a relatively unused area: the roof of the house. Designed specifically to reflect sunlight, a cool roof expels more heat into the surrounding atmosphere. This results in a much lower temperature throughout the home in summer.

Cool roofing materials vary. The climate you live in restricts your options. You must also consider the overall slope of your roof, its total exposure to the sun and even the need for additional moisture control before installing a cool roof on your home.

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Bamboo

Bamboo is another green building material that provides practicality, beauty and eco-friendliness in equal measure. The two words that describe bamboo best are “plentiful” and “durable.” Bamboo plants are capable of up to four feet of growth in a single day and are compatible with a number of different growing climates. Bamboo even releases more than one-third more oxygen during its time in the ground than trees.

Bamboo isn’t just renewable and green — it’s also several times stronger than steel. That makes it a rugged choice to use in structural elements of a building as well as the flooring, roofing and several other areas of new construction. This material is also a good choice for deploying emergency shelter across a troubled area in a short amount of time.

Recycled Steel

According to some sources, 50 percent of all steel is allocated toward construction projects around the globe. With so much dependency on this specific type of material, steel products that take advantage of modern recycling methods have the potential to impact industry sustainability in a huge way.

The benefits of recycled steel mimic that of newly produced steel. When compared to wood, these advantages include increased durability, little to no long-term maintenance and resistance to adverse weather. Moreover, all steel scraps can be recycled at the end of the day and reused in other steel products.

Rammed Earth

This is another green building material that sounds like a blast from the past — and it is. Humans have been using this very basic building technique for thousands of years because it’s extremely cheap and relatively easy, and we’ve only gotten better at it over time.

Rammed earth is nearly as simple as it sounds. In ancient times, builders would tamp down earth by hand to form hard bricks. But in its modern form, rammed earth involves building wooden forms, placing earth within it, and then using a mechanical tamper to pack the earth until it’s incredibly dense and tight within the form. We haven’t added much technology to the process, but we’ve managed to eliminate a good bit of the sweat and toil associated with the tamping process.

Concrete structures outperform rammed earth in terms of engineering strength, but only barely. And they both have a similar appearance. Rammed earth reinforced using rebar or other materials is more than strong enough for use even in large and multi-story structures. Not all types of soil around the world are sufficient to meet rammed earth building codes. In New Mexico, the material has to reach a compressive strength of 300 psi after weathering in place for a few days.

Solar

Solar panels and appliances have been used, with varying degrees of efficiency, for decades. Despite their prevalence in some communities, solar energy only makes up approximately one percent of the United States’ total energy supply. Recent breakthroughs and advancements surrounding the technology are hoping to change that.

Active solar panel installations, which are by far the most common, are available in sizes and capacities that accommodate everything from households and homesteads to commercial skyscrapers and even alternative energy power plants. Passive solar design, a trend that has seen increasing use over the past few years, takes advantage of the sun’s natural positioning in order to provide structures with heating, shading or any combination of the two.

Cork

Cork is another appealing and natural material that serves as an excellent insulator in homes and other buildings. Cork trees don’t grow as fast as bamboo shoots, but a single cork tree can live for two centuries or even longer.

The advantage of cork over other building materials that require cultivation and harvesting, is that one needn’t chop down or otherwise harm a cork tree to harvest usable material. Instead, cork products from wine stoppers to house insulation uses the bark of the tree only.

Cork trees see their first harvest in their 25th year, but then they aren’t stripped for bark again for another nine years at least. Consequently, maintaining cork farms and making regular harvests require deliberate timing. But these trees provide good insulation material that’s far easier to install than blown-in or fiberglass insulation. Cork is delivered in sheets or blocks and is simply placed where it needs to go, such as between an outer and inner wall.

Insulated Concrete Form Foundations

One of the newest and most recent innovations on our list, insulated concrete forms, or ICFs, involve encasing concrete walls within two separate layers of foam insulation. Fashioned in the shape of interlocking or interweaving blocks, these pieces are then arranged and stacked within the walls of a building.

ICFs have numerous advantages over traditional forms of home insulation. Firstly, they are highly useful in regions of extreme weather due to their ability to withstand the elements better than other construction materials.

These blocks can also affect how much you pay for monthly utilities. According to some sources, a home properly outfitted with ICFs can reduce its energy bills by half when compared to a similar home with standard insulation.

Fungi (Mycelium)

One of the more “out there” green building materials is called mycelium, which is a type of fungus. Maybe it sounds unorthodox, but it’s becoming more and more common to use a specific type of fungus, called Trametes versicolor, to build natural bricks for use in construction.

The process at its most basic involves encouraging mycelium to grow and surround another material, such as straw, ground glass or rice hulls, place the mixture in a form or mold, and then bake it to form brick shapes or whatever else the design requires.

This is an important building material in part because of how much rice the people of the world consume: some 480 million metric tons of it. Rice hulls are plentiful, cheap and contribute to this zero-carbon fabrication process. Glass waste is very common as well.

In addition to being a great way to reduce our waste and create building materials using a carbon-neutral process, “fungal bricks” are also fire-resistant and termite-resistant. They can improve our collective safety and comfort immensely while reducing the cost of maintenance over time.

A Growing Industry

Although the green building sector is still in its infancy, its potential to affect a real change regarding the environmental sustainability of modern construction methods is tremendous. While traditionalists and critics are quick to highlight the added costs of green building and the difficulty in obtaining such materials, such issues were solved in recent years.

With interest in incorporating sustainable design into construction projects, the use of these and other efficient green building materials will soon become standard.  Not only is eco-friendly construction currently on the rise, but it’s also staged to become the next significant innovation in the industry.

Are there any green building materials that you use that I didn’t list above? Let me know in the comments below!

This article originally published 2/21/17 and was updated on 8/6/19 to expand the topic to cover more green building materials.
11 Green Building Materials Used Today
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2 comments

  1. Thanks a lot for this wonderful article, its a great help for civil engineering students who are looking for some innovative changes and thanks a lot for these type of information because it gives great insights to some challenging and innovative work. going to bookmark this site.

    Reply
  2. Wow, it’s really interesting to read that about 50 percent of steel is used for construction projects everywhere. I can definitely understand why using recycled steel would make such a big impact on this industry. Honestly, I’m kind of interested in learning more about how this steel can be recycled. Not only that, but it could be cool to learn more about how many buildings are built entirely out of recycled steel.

    Reply

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.