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What construction businesses need to know about sustainable building materials

A great way to make trade businesses be more sustainable, there are a lot of natural building materials to consider. Although not every option may be relevant to your trade,

Buildings account for a significant portion of the UK’s total carbon emissions and the construction process is a major factor in that total figure. Much like other trades, there’s now a drive to raise sustainability in construction. That means tradespeople also need to think about their impact on the environment.

The materials used during the build process are no exception to the efforts of homeowners and other businesses. Most manufacturers are now producing greener products to limit the amount that ends up in landfill or incinerators.

Customers are becoming increasingly conscious of their purchasing habits and how they affect the environment. As such, it makes sense for businesses to be aware of the alternatives out there and how they can replace traditional approaches.

Read on as this guide takes you through everything you need to know to start building greener. The more you know about sustainable building materials, the more you can play your part.

What construction companies need to know about natural building materials

Natural building materials use less energy when being produced. They will also be made of recyclable products, or be re-usable or bio-degradable at the end of their life. They are also less likely to emit toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which ate harmful chemicals found in traditional building materials. VOCs are linked to a number of health effects, such as Sick Building Syndrome.

It’s rare to find housing developments made from only natural materials. But it’s possible to swap out many traditional materials in place of more sustainable ones, which can help to lower the amount of ‘embodied’ carbon in a build. This is the emissions total that’s calculated from all the energy used during construction.

How can you build more sustainably?

It’s not difficult to prioritise sustainability into your building design plans, so long as you start planning from the start. Through the careful choice of building materials and construction methods, you will be able to build greener homes that bring a number of benefits.

It’s a common issue for buildings to be built with too little insulation, so be sure to use enough. The more insulation you incorporate into the structure of a home, the more heat it will retain. That means the walls, roof and floor, making it more efficient when occupied.

Fill the gaps

Your building design should also factor in airtightness. Fewer gaps and cracks in a home’s structure means less heat is lost. Many natural building resources also offer good insulation and should be used as much as possible. This will improve thermal performance and is less hazardous when compared to fibreglass-based products.

Choosing greener materials is a simple way to raise sustainability when building, or updating, a house. Using natural build materials will make a more environmentally friendly house but are often overlooked. While sometimes more expensive, they typically perform on par or better than more traditional options so it’s worth doing your research first.

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What are the types of sustainable building materials?

Wholly natural building materials include:

  • Timber
  • Clay
  • Wool
  • Cob
  • Straw bale
  • Cork
  • Hemp
  • Reclaimed materials
  • Lime
  • Stone
  • Marble

It’s important to note that things like iron, aluminium, glass and concrete aren’t classified as ‘natural’ despite being made from naturally occurring materials. This is because it takes so much energy to turn them into something useable.

How to build with more sustainable materials

Free guide to building with more sustainable materials

As part of the Government’s plans to bring the UK to net-zero by 2050, eventually, all businesses will be required to report emissions on transportation, distribution, and waste from their operations.

Are you a tradesperson looking to meet increasing homeowner demand for more environmentally sustainable home renovation solutions? Or simply cut down on your own carbon footprint? We’ve created a guide to help you on your way to becoming green retrofit experts.

How to build with more sustainable materials

 

Sustainable materials in construction

There is an impact of all human activity, and that includes construction of homes as well. As humanity becomes more and more aware of our environmental impact, more and more architects, contractors, and self-builders will be looking to make sustainable choices where possible.

Opting for sustainable building materials can be a great way to minimise the knock-on effects, both in the short and the long term.

Here are some of the key natural building materials to consider:

Timber

Timber is the most commonly used natural building material and is incredibly versatile. It has widespread application beyond the timber frame of your build. It can also be used for cladding and joinery, as well as for all kinds of internal finishes and flooring. It’s durable, structurally strong and surprisingly fire resistant.

Timber can sustain very high temperatures without collapsing and is very effective for absorbing loud sounds – consider this when building in densely populated areas.

Be sure to carefully specify the timber for your build as this will ensure it’s sustainably sourced from properly managed forests. To identify sustainably harvested timber, look for the FSC mark.

When you need a surface finish, look for natural paints and stains made from plant-based resins, oils and dyes. These will biodegrade when disposed of, and little energy goes into their production.

Timber cost increase

Cob

Cob is a mixture of sand, clay, and straw, bound together into a material which can be used to sculpt a home. It is pressed in such a way that there are no gaps or cracks, and it can be applied over a concrete or stone foundation.

Cob is virtually a zero-carbon home build, with the only emissions coming from the fuel for a digger. Walls made using cob can be really thick, which means it’s not an ideal build method for a small plot, but it does result in a very thermally efficient home.

Straw bale

Straw is a by-product of agricultural production and of low value. What’s more, building with this material is quick and easy as well as having the added benefit of being fire-resistant when treated.

Straw can also be used as an infill material to work alongside a timber frame and provide highly efficient insulation.

Straw can be used in a similar way to bricks, or as a supportive material for the roof. It’s generally finished with lime render and lime or clay interior finishes, creating a breathable fabric that regulates indoor air quality and keeps damp at bay.

Cork

Cork is a naturally occurring material that is sustainably produced, and is already used for many internal applications such as flooring, as well as eco-friendly cladding. More and more, cork is  starting to be used as a building material for walls and roofs.

Hemp

Hemp is easy to grow, so can be used abundantly at a low cost. This material is generally used for walls, floors and roof structures. It’s also used to form hempcrete which is emerging as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional concrete. Hempcrete is made with fibres from fast-growing plants mixed with lime, resulting in a strong but lightweight alternative.

Reclaimed materials

There are lots of waste materials that are left unaccounted for within the construction industry, but these can in fact be reused for building projects.

Resources that come under this category include salvaged wood, materials from doors and windows, piping and chunks of concrete.

Lime

Lime is a durable material that can be used for plasters and renders. Unlike cement, it’s breathable and can be an effective finish or binder for other natural building materials. Old lime putty, plasters and renders can even be removed, soaked, remixed and reused.

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Innovative sustainable building materials

The UK government has set a target of an additional 300,000 homes a year to meet growing needs. But this also needs to be done with ‘net zero’ emissions targets in mind. Unsurprisingly, this is driving innovation in the sustainable building materials market.

Wood

An obvious choice of naturally occurring material, did you know wood can also now be treated and compressed to become transparent? This creates a strong and environmentally friendly alternative to glass and plastic, and has the strength of lumber but is much lighter. This method is also ideal for improving levels of light inside a property.

Discarded cigarettes

These are another interesting development. They account for a high volume of the UK’s waste each year, but researchers have found they lower the amount of time and energy required to bake bricks ready for construction. The cigarettes are added to the brick mixture before the baking process, resulting in a lighter material with better insulation properties.

These developments may sound insignificant, or even bizarre, but they are the types of small improvements needed to chip away at construction’s overall environmental impact.

How to grow construction business

Sustainable construction methods

Long term construction isn’t limited to just using sustainable building materials. It also involves adopting better methods of working and some of these include:

  • Cutting materials carefully and precisely to reduce waste
  • Controlling waste management by separating and recycling waste
  • Constructing green buildings
  • Adaptive re-use projects, for example those that transform old buildings
  • Managing construction sites to improve the environment
  • Conserving energy
  • Selecting sustainable and recycled materials

FAQs

What are sustainable building materials in construction?

The use of natural, renewable, low-carbon materials for buildings. These include natural fibres and abundant mineral resources. For example, straw, timber, cork and cob are used as structural fabric, insulation and finishes in buildings, both in retrofit and new build.

What building materials are most sustainable?

Timber is often regarded as the most sustainable building material within the construction industry. Possessing a low-carbon footprint, it can be used as a replacement for steel and, in some cases, concrete.

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