Buildings are undoubtedly an artefact of culture. Just think of red-brick houses in suburban centers in the United States, cabins with wood paneling in rural Finland, and complex adobe structures in Western Africa. Depending on where you look, the materials we build with change based on resource availability and scarcity, climate, and culture. The beauty of architecture and construction comes from its design flexibility.
However, some building materials are more sustainable than others, and as the construction industry rushes to reduce CO2 emissions and build more sustainably, new eco-friendly construction materials are here to stay. Using the right building materials helps reduce a structure’s embodied carbon emissions, which is why we’re exploring some of the best materials for eco-friendly construction.
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These are the best sustainable materials for construction
Did you know that bamboo can grow up to 1.5 inches or 3.8 centimeters a day? Due to its fast-growing properties, flexible nature, and abundance in nature, bamboo is top of our list as one of the most sustainable and economical building materials. Bamboo grows on every continent, except for Europe and Antartica, and has an incredible high strength to weight ratio making it a worthy material in projects around the world.
Cork comes from the “cork oak” tree, which is one of the only trees where bark harvesting causes no harm. Cork has its practical application in our everyday lives – think wine corks and cork boards – but it’s also a great recyclable and renewable building material in the world of construction. Not only is cork lightweight, waterproof, resistant to abrasion, and fire-retardant, but it also has immense insulation capacities, which is why its use in internal and external cladding is growing industry wide. In fact, because of its neutral tones, its aesthetically pleasing appearance makes it a hit with designers and architects.
A new concept in construction is the use of carbon-negative materials, those that have a minimal embodied carbon footprint and that go so far as to absorb carbon dioxide over their lifetime.
Hempcrete is one of these so-called carbon-negative materials. Hemp fiber, the raw material behind hempcrete, is similar to timber, except that it replenishes much faster. Combined with lime, hempcrete has a concrete-like shape and strength, with a much lighter weight. Its use in construction is primarily as an insulator since it has great thermal and acoustic properties and is fire resistant
Mycelium may be the most FUN building material on the list. Mycelium, in case you didn’t know, is a network of thin fungal strands called hyphae. Think of it like the root of a plant, but in fungi. While mycelium varies greatly in size, from microscopic to giant, they are playing an important role in Green Construction.
When dried, mycelium can be used as an environmentally sustainable building material that is water, mold and fire resistant. When combined with pasteurized sawdust, mycelium can be transformed into almost any form. Mycelium is still largely in the experimental phase in the construction industry, but there is a growing desire to incorporate this biodegradable material into new and renovated buildings.
5. Precast concrete
Bet you weren’t expecting to see concrete appear in this list; however, precast concrete is indeed a sustainable building material and here’s why. Precast concrete is made off-site in a factory setting which reduces many of the CO2 emissions in ready-mix concrete poured and hardened on site.
With pre-cast concrete, manufacturers can ensure exact measurements, which reduces waste and the amount of energy needed to produce and assemble traditional concrete. Moreover, some new concrete varieties can reabsorb up to 25% of their embodied carbon footprint during their lifetime. Precast concrete is a sustainable alternative for the industry’s most demanded and used material.
6. Recycled glass
Glass is a difficult material to recycle, which is why it’s one of the most discarded materials in landfills. This gives us more of a reason to explore its possibilities for reuse and recyling. In fact, Carbon Upcycling, a cleantech startup, is manufacturing a climate-resistant cement alternative with Cemex made from waste glass and sequestered CO2.
Waste glass can replace natural aggregates like sand, gravel and crushed stone, making it a great option for more sustainable cement varieties.
7. Recycled plastic
Single use plastics are one of the biggest threats to our environment, which is why their reusability is a huge opportunity area eco-friendly construction and promoting a circular economy.
Recycled plastic can be used to create plastic sheets, concrete, bricks, lumber, pipes, roofs, floors, and PVC. Plastic typically has a low recycling rate, so its recycled form helps reduce the amount of waste clogging our waterways and landfills.
8. Recycled steel
You may not know this, but steel is one of the most recycled building materials thanks to its durable nature. Used steel can be just as good as new steel, which is why it’s an age-old reliable construction material. The initial production of steel can be harmful to the environment because of its substantial CO2 footprint during manufacturing.
Therefore, because of the high demand for steel in the construction industry, using its recycled version is a great way to project’s overall carbon footprint. Moreover, this water and pest-resistant material is long-lasting and doesn’t require frequent maintenance, which also helps with reducing operational carbon emissions.
9. Recycled or reclaimed wood
Recycled or reclaimed wood goes beyond just aesthetics! Although it’s the perfect material to create a rustic style charm, recycled or reclaimed wood can help save trees and reduce the amount of wood waste that ends up in our landfills.
Lightweight but strong, reclaimed wood is a sustainable construction material that indirectly promotes biodiversity because it reduces the number of trees required for harvest.
Terrazzo is officially the most unique building material on our list since no finish is like the other. Terrazzo is a composite material used mainly for flooring, countertops, and stairways. It’s made from marble, granite, quartz, glass, and other materials, usually binded with cement or epoxy resin.
Its history goes back more than 500 years to Italy – where workers would scrap materials from upscale projects and reuse them in their own residences and terraces. Using repurposed raw materials is what makes terrazzo an ecofriendly building option. Moreover, thanks to its durability over other flooring options (e.g., carpet), it can lead to less waste and more long-term cost savings.
Cemex Ventures moves into the future by leveraging sustainable building materials
Sustainable and renewable building materials are increasingly being studied and applied in the world of construction; however, their wider application is required for our industry to truly transition net-zero and reduce its negative impact on the environment.
That’s why Cemex Ventures is looking for entrepreneurs with sustainable building products and materials to scale-up and replace traditional heavy carbon emitting materials. Contech startups like our portfolio company Arqlite are helping construction become more future proof with greener manufacturing processes and materials.
Arqlite is a leading recycling technology company that is paving the way for the next generation of sustainable materials. The startup manufactures artificial gravel produced 100% from recycled plastics, which is a 10x better insulator and 3x lighter than mineral gravel. Their innovative recycling system can process otherwise non-recyclable plastics, helping reduce the carbon footprint of various industries, from injection molding to road building.
We’re looking for decarbonization technologies, sustainable materials, new energy sources & solutions, and circular economy business models to bring Green Construction to the forefront of our industry.
Did we miss any sustainable building materials on our list? Contact us and tell us about your startup’s disruptive solution.