By definition, the word sustainable means something that maintains its own viability by using methods that allow for continual use. Sustainable building materials are born by using existing or quick-to-replace materials, such as quickly growing bamboo, or copper, which doesn't lose its metal properties as it's recycled. Here are 8 sustainable building materials that should make their way into your next home project.
1. Wool Bricks
Wool bricks are made from wool and clay, with a binding material made from a natural polymer found in seaweed. What makes wool bricks sustainable is that wool, seaweed, and clay are found naturally in the environment. And, because the bricks are air dried and don’t need firing, their curing process eliminates air pollution from ovens. The icing on the cake? They're 37% stronger than standard bricks.
2. Cotton Batting
Cotton batting is a form of insulation, like cellulose or fiberglass, made from recycled shredded jeans (yes, the kind you wear), a renewable material that emits no VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
3. Paper Insulation
Paper insulation is a wonderfully sustainable product. Recycled paper and cardboard are mixed into a slurry with calcium carbonate, borax, and boric acid (which are all natural ingredients). It's dried and comes out fluffy and a little clumpy, and then is blown into walls with a special insulation blower. The additives make paper insulation insect and fire resistant. Paper insulation can be used in both new and existing buildings. In existing buildings, holes are drilled into the outside wall at even increments and then the insulation is blown in at those points. After the walls are filled, the holes are refilled with the same plugs that were drilled out.
Cork is a good alternative to bamboo or wood. Cork comes from a tree, but not a tree that's cut down. The cork is actually the outer growth of the tree. Cork is stripped from the tree without doing any damage to the tree itself. A great use for cork is in flooring. It creates a softer feel to walk on and is naturally insect repellent, hypoallergenic, and fire-resistant. Cork also deadens sound and is warmer to the touch than other flooring materials. It’s a win-win.
Concrete is also another product you wouldn’t think of as sustainable -- but old concrete can be crushed, ground up and repurposed into a new driveway or road. You can add crushed glass and wood chips to the mixture, all of which would normally go to a landfill, take unnecessary space, and cause greenhouse gases as it decomposes.
Copper is considered sustainable because it can be used over and over without losing any of its great properties, and it doesn’t diminish in strength. However, copper is expensive. If you can afford to roof your house with copper, the roof will outlast the house -- some experts say a copper roof can last as long as 200 years.
Strawboard is a great alternative to drywall. Although at up to 2 inches thick it's more dense than drywall, it still is available in the same sizes as drywall (like 4x8 sheets) so it makes it easy to use in a conventional setting. It's made from either wheat or rice straw (a byproduct after the grains are harvested). The straw is compressed so tightly that a natural resin within the straw binds the fibers together. The straw is then papered on both sides.
Anything you can do with wood, you can do with strawboard. Drill it, glue it, saw it or route it. It's termite resistant, fire retardant and has thermal and sound insulation qualities. The greatest property of strawboard is that it's renewable every year. Trees, on the other hand, take about 30 years to renew.
Even though bamboo stalks grow as tall as trees, bamboo is actually a grass. This native to tropical areas grows very quickly and can mature within 4 to 5 years, while a standard tree takes around 30 years to mature. Bamboo also produces about 20 times more building material per acreage than trees. As if this isn't enough, bamboo is higher quality than most wood from trees and can be color toned by heating the plant. (Be careful, though; heating weakens the plant's structure.) However, it's great as a flooring or even countertop material. The downside is that the cost of shipping bamboo can be high because of transportation, which also contributes to oil consumption and air pollution.
Sustainable building materials are out there and ready to be utilized. No matter what you choose to take advantage of in your home, the above options all have pluses that conventional building materials don't. Build your home to be sustainable and you will not only be helping yourself, but your grandchildren and even their grandchildren.