How Sustainable Materials in Construction Can Help Your Company

By: on June 27, 2019

The construction industry is going through big changes, and now is the time for construction managers to adapt to a growing demand for sustainable materials.

What are sustainable materials?
Sustainable materials are building materials that are environmentally friendly or “green” in that they are natural, durable, reusable or recyclable, and they do not require a lot of energy to extract or transport. Examples of sustainable materials include soil, cork, bamboo, straw, and recycled materials.

A recent report predicts that the global construction sustainable materials market will rise in terms of volume by 12% between 2017 and 2026.

And a recent Software Advice survey shows that the public cares deeply about green construction processes, with more than 80% of respondents saying it was either somewhat or very important for their next residence to use sustainable/eco-friendly construction practices. Fifty-seven percent say they would pay more for such a home.

people who would pay more for a home built with green construction practices

The industry is rapidly moving to sustainable materials, and construction managers must adapt and submit bids that please environmentally conscious clients. Construction managers must:

  • Choose at least one sustainable material that works best for their business
  • Use construction software to track its usage
  • Start implementing the new material within the next six months in order to win more bids by allowing you to tout greener practices

But what sustainable materials are out there, and how in the world do you even begin to implement them in your next construction project? Let’s go through each of your options and determine whether they might work for you or not.

1. Bamboo

We all know bamboo is the favorite food of pandas, but it has important construction attributes. It’s lightweight, strong and—most importantly for the purposes of this discussion—is an entirely sustainable material because it can be grown locally and doesn’t need to be imported.

Bamboo has been used for years in furniture and even utensils, but it has seen growing popularity for using it to create strong and resilient structures. Bamboo has a higher strength than steel by weight, with tensile strength of 28,000 per square inch compared to 23,000 for steel. And while costs vary depending on a construction manager’s individual project, bamboo is almost always the cheaper alternative, experts say.

Alternative to: Rebar and concrete construction

2. Cork

Cork is another lightweight material that is both flexible and resilient, as it’s able to absorb pressure and then return to its original shape. It also muffles noise, which is why it is often used for floor tiles and sub-flooring. There are plenty of other benefits: it’s fire resistant, it doesn’t absorb water (and therefore doesn’t rot), and it can be harvested from trees without killing them.

The downsides to cork are that it can become brittle over time, and that it is often shipped from far-off places like the Mediterranean, which makes it more expensive and less green (since more energy must be used to have it sent to you).

In general, though, cork is a cheaper and greener option when compared to the typical building materials it would replace.

Alternative to: Wood, tile

Cork is a lightweight, resilient material that is a more sustainable alternative

Cork is a lightweight, resilient material that is a more sustainable alternative

3. Rammed earth

Rammed earth is by no means a new construction technology—it’s been in use for thousands of years. However, it has become more en vogue in recent years as the construction industry looks to the past to find a more sustainable future.

Rammed earth involves ramming aggregates like gravel, sand, and clay between flat panels known as formwork. Sometimes, a small amount of cement is used to increase the strength of the structure.

Rammed earth is an especially good option if a lot of the materials listed can be gathered on site or nearby, lessening the amount of energy needed if you had to quarry and transport them. You can even fortify it with bamboo rebar.

Alternative to: Concrete

4. Ferrock

Ferrock is another material with tremendous strength and attributes similar to concrete, and it’s a much more recent invention than rammed earth.

The problem with the cement we typically use to bind concrete is that it causes large carbon emissions because it requires a lot of heat—2,800 degrees Fahrenheit—to process the limestone. Ferrock uses recycled materials like steel dust, and it is also capable of absorbing carbon dioxide as part of its hardening process, making it a carbon-neutral material.

The main downside to ferrock is that as a relatively new technology, it’s unknown whether the material is truly a replacement for concrete in all situations, or just in certain cases. And just because it’s sustainable doesn’t mean it’s cheap: Ferrock may cost more than cement to produce because of its production process.

However, as we noted above, customers may be willing to pay more for a structure that uses sustainable materials, offsetting your costs.

Alternative to: Concrete

5. Timbercrete, Hempcrete, Ashcrete

A number of concrete alternatives have been popping up using a variety of different materials: timbercrete, ashcrete and hempcrete are some good examples of this.

  • Timbercrete is composed of sawdust that is mixed in with concrete, making it lighter as well as more sustainable and less energy-involved.
  • Ashcrete uses fly ash—a byproduct of burning coal—instead of cement, replacing 97% of the typical components of concrete with a recycled material.
  • Hempcrete is a material that is created from the fibers of the hemp plant, which is bound with lime and used to create a strong, light alternative to concrete.

But what about costs? Timbercrete manufacturers argue that costs are similarly priced to traditional materials. However, they note that savings will largely depend on specifications, and it is ideal in scenarios where you would usually use brick.

Similarly, hempcrete will cost about the same as conventional materials in most cases, but you shouldn’t expect to save money with these types of materials. The benefits they provide are sustainability and therefore a more attractive building for the modern buyer.

Alternative to: Concrete

6. Straw bales

Straw bales definitely sound like a throwback to a few thousand years ago. However, they’re great for replacing materials used to construct walls and can be very insulating. Straw is cheap, which is great for the bottom line, and it’s a totally sustainable material.

A straw bale building will typically use stacked rows of bales on a foundation, with a moisture barrier to protect them. Bamboo or wood can be use to bind the bale walls together.

There are some disadvantages, however. The main issues are that it is susceptible to rot, and it takes up a lot of space. Straw bale construction is therefore best in dry areas with a lot of space for you to spread out, and probably wouldn’t be appropriate in more urban areas or areas that see a lot of moisture.

Straw bale homes may actually cost somewhat more to construct than with conventional materials, but a straw bale-constructed building is usually a little cheaper and offers greater energy savings that really pay off down the line.

Alternative to: Concrete, plaster, fiberglass, and other materials used for walls

7. Recycled plastic/wood/metal

Recycled materials themselves may not be sustainable, but reusing them certainly is. You can take advantage of recycled plastics, wood, and metal from sites that have been demolished and give them a second life on your construction site. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions and cuts down on waste at landfills.

The main disadvantages of using recycled material in construction often comes down to cost. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make financial sense to repurpose material that is already cheap. However, governments in some cases will provide subsidies, so check with your local government on any programs they might provide that can lower the cost of the process.

Alternative to: Any materials commonly used for:

  • Insulation
  • Structural support
  • Roofing tiles
  • Fencing

Materials recycled from demolished buildings are a great sustainable materials option

Materials recycled from demolished buildings are a great sustainable material option

Incorporate sustainable materials into your next project

Now’s the time to act: Sustainable materials are widely available, and you should be able to implement them into your next construction project, at least in a limited fashion.

Our survey data shows that customers not only want construction managers to be using sustainable materials, but they may actually make purchasing decisions based on that.

Don’t be afraid to start small rather than jump in with both feet—either way, your next project should at least attempt to incorporate some of these options. Here are some action steps you can take to make sustainable materials a greater part of future construction projects:

  • Sit down with your leadership team and go over these alternatives. Choose at least one that you think might work for your next project.
  • Map out a small pilot program to see if it could work for your firm. For example, if you want to test out straw bales for building walls, use them for the first section of wall you build, and then decide based on that whether to expand to the rest of the project.
  • At the end of the project, evaluate how you used the material, and then have a follow-up meeting to discuss the results: How much did it cost compared to conventional materials? How did your processes change to accommodate this new material? Is this something you should be using regularly or should you look at a different material?

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