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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, 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.
People working in the high-tech green building materials space could make low-e windows even more beneficial with their discoveries. One team created low-e windows with an optical stack measuring less than 300 nanometers thick.
The most significant detail is that individuals can tweak the windows to make them either absorb or reflect heat. The researchers figured out how to do this without making aesthetic changes. That achievement could make these inventions become staples on future homes, particularly if the manufacturing is efficient enough to make the process sufficiently cost-effective.
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 contains 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.
Researchers working on new green building materials also developed a wood-based plastic that features a high fiber content and breaks down at the end of its useful life. The team envisions recycling wood fibers to make the material, gradually reducing the construction industry’s reliance on less eco-friendly methods.
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.
Sometimes, researchers take inspiration from nature when designing sunlight and temperature-responsive roofs. One example comes from a team that designed a roof coating by studying how Africa’s Namaqua chameleon changes its color to cope with temperature shifts. It reflects more sunlight in warm temperatures and absorbs it more readily when it’s colder. The team’s invention reflected up to 93% of the sunlight once the engineered coating reached a specific temperature.
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. The plant even releases over 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.
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.
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.
People have been using solar panels 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.
Research indicates households that install residential solar panels can save water, too. That’s primarily because of the water consumption associated with fossil fuel power sources. A study suggested that solar-powered homes in certain areas of the United States could achieve up to 1,000% water savings with rooftop solar installations.
However, households wouldn’t see the change in less-expensive water bills. Instead, the difference would happen because fewer homes depend on fossil fuels and the associated water usage. The researchers acknowledged that solar panel manufacturing uses water, too. However, it happens across just a short period of a solar installation’s life span. Fossil fuel-related water consumption is ongoing.
Cork is another appealing and natural material that serves as an excellent insulator in homes and other buildings. Although cork trees don’t grow as fast as bamboo shoots, 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 — use 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.
One of the more “out there” green building materials is mycelium, which is the root-like structure of a 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. One project involved a team growing pure mycelium sheets from renewable organic waste. Their pioneering method creates a paper-thin material that does not damage the mycelium’s filament network. The researchers hope their invention could provide better fireproofing because of its plastic-free nature. The mycelium will not produce the heavy smoke and toxic fumes that plastics can.
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 have been 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 poised 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 was originally published 2/21/17 and was updated on 9/25/23 to expand the topic to cover more green building materials.
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Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She manages the sites publishing schedule, SEO optimization and content strategy. Emily enjoys writing and researching articles about how technology is changing every industry. When she isn't working, Emily enjoys playing video games or curling up with a good book.