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4 Trending Materials for Sustainable Building Construction

10/14/2021 Blog

Most contemporary architects, designers, contractors and construction professionals aim for sustainability. While technology has helped optimize some sustainable construction techniques, such as through the use of IoT to integrate automated building systems, the most direct path to sustainability involves choosing the correct materials.

To this effect, many construction professionals may not have a firm understanding of exactly what makes a building material sustainable. The EPA defines sustainable materials as “materials that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle, from layout to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.” A sustainable material will have any or all of the following characteristics:

• Minimize resource consumption during construction and throughout the building’s lifespan.

• Provide ample recycling or repurposing options once no longer needed.

• Be fabricated from recycled or previously used materials.

• Protect the natural environment.

• Be free of harmful toxins and pollutants.

• Provide a high-quality, long-lasting build.

After considering all of these factors, the following four building materials score extremely high for sustainability and can help projects that prioritize sustainable building construction.

Metal Siding

Siding plays an important role in securing the building envelope. It can help provide an initial layer of insulation and protect the building against impact damage from inclement weather and debris. As a frontline material, siding will be subjected to significant wear and tear, with low-quality siding requiring frequent maintenance, upkeep and replacement to keep it functioning as intended.

Therefore, to ensure a sustainable building envelope, craft professionals should consider the benefits of metal lap siding. Metal siding is a top choice for durability. It is rated to last 50 years, but in all likelihood, it will remain in top condition indefinitely. It offers elite protection against fire, impact, water and insect damage, requiring very few resources for upkeep and maintenance. Finally, contemporary metal siding is fabricated in a wide array of colors that maintain a pristine appearance as the siding ages, presenting a welcome contrast to traditional wood and brick siding that must be frequently sealed, painted or treated to maintain their curb appeal.

Bamboo Plywood

Wood has traditionally been a staple building material, and the demand for the natural, earthy appearance that wood provides to a structure is unlikely to wane. However, while there are movements within the construction industry to work with sustainability-sourced timber, the reality is that the production of lumber in many areas of the world leads to massive deforestation concerns.

Other factors that can cause wood to score low for sustainability include:

• High energy requirements for cultivating, harvesting, processing and transporting lumber.

• Knots, rot and other imperfections can cause some sections of trees to be unusable for construction, leading to waste.

• A long growing cycle, with some timber species requiring decades to replace recently harvested crops.

For those professionals looking for a more sustainable option, bamboo plywood fits the bill. Once processed, bamboo veneer is nearly indistinguishable from traditional hardwood products, making bamboo a strong choice for flooring, cabinetry and shelving.

Despite bamboo fibers being 2-3 times stronger than wood, they are considerably lighter and easier to work with. Bamboo fibers are consistent in size and appearance, allowing for greater efficiency in processing than wood. Finally, although it looks and performs similarly to wood, bamboo is technically classified as a grass, with crops becoming harvest-ready in as little as three years from the time they were planted.

ICF Framing

Hurricane Ida ravaged coastal areas of the United States, causing massive damage to communities that will require billions of dollars to restore. While some damage in the face of such a powerful force of nature is inevitable, construction professionals can reduce future restoration requirements by replacing traditional wood-frame panels with a more durable insulated concrete form (ICF) construction.

In addition to elite durability in the event of inclement weather or natural disaster, ICF offers the following sustainability benefits as a framing option:

• Elite thermal mass to help regulate interior temperatures.

• Resistant to mold, fire, water and insect damage.

• Tilt-up construction that allows panels to be poured and set on-site, requiring fewer workers and less heavy machinery to maneuver into place.

Foundational Insulation

Finally, while it is no secret that superior insulation is a vital component in securing a building’s energy efficiency, much of the insulation focus has traditionally centered around wall and ceiling insulation. However, roughly 20% of a building’s heat is lost at the perimeter and slab of the foundation, making below grade insulation an important component of creating an energy-efficient building.

When choosing foundational insulation, look for products that offer the following features to help guarantee sustainability:

• Stable, long-term R-value to ensure that the material retains its insulative properties over time.

• Moisture-wicking technology to allow for quick drying and minimize the risk of mold buildup and water damage.

• Ability to handle heavy loads, with compressive strengths of up to 60 psi being ideal.

Sustainable Materials to Use in Construction 

As society becomes increasingly conscious of the effects of climate change, construction professionals must find ways to build using sustainable practices, with sustainability beginning with the correct materials. There are many factors that can make a material sustainable, such as its ability to lower energy requirements, be reused for new purposes, and withstand heavy trauma. With this in mind, products such as metal siding, bamboo plywood, ICF framing, and foundational insulation are four of the best materials to consider for sustainable building construction.

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