What Makes Alternative Building Materials Eco Friendly? (Plus Seven Great Examples)

by Owner on June 14, 2011

Popular building materials tend to include wood, brick, concrete, glass, as well as other trimmings, such as aluminum, foam, glue, and plastic. The way these materials are often gathered or manufactured are, however, almost entirely bad for the environment.

There are alternative building materials that can be much more sustainable and eco friendly, and which possess many of the characteristics we desire in good building materials. Some of these eco friendly building materials can even include the more popular resources themselves, but obtained in more renewable ways.

So what makes for good green building materials?

The main requirement is that these green building materials be “resource efficient”.  That means that they fit into at least one (but preferably many) of the following categories:

  • materials that are recycled from something else, such as post-consumer products;
  • extensively renewable in nature, meaning that it grows quicklyk–or if referring to wood, that it is certified as sustainable, rather than forested in an unsustainable and habitat-destroying way;
  • efficient in terms of manufacturing (or items that do not use a lot of energy or waste to make);
  • local, so as to eliminate the need for long distance transportation and associated wasted energy;
  • reusable after the material’s lifetime is over, or repurposed in an entirely new way;
  • durable, or expected to last an extremely long time, so that there will be no need to expend additional resources to replace it anytime soon; and
  • non toxic and harmless to health.

So, what are some alternative building materials that meet these criteria? Here are seven great examples:

1. Recycled metal – All kinds of metal can be stripped down, reshaped, and used for other purposes. One extreme example is the recent trend of using shipping containers, which are gaining popularity among alternative builders. A shipping container provides a modern, easy, pre-made space, that can be turned into a chic home.

2. Recycled glass and bottles –  Recycled glass can be used for just about any purpose as ordinary glass. It can also be used for all kinds of creative purposes (check out these gorgeous recycled glass countertops, for example.) Recycled glass bits can also be incorporated into walls as decoration.

3. Repurposed wood – Unwanted or unused wood can come from many places, from the beams off an old barn to a sunken boat at the bottom of a lake. Repurposed wood is increasingly being used as a gorgeous substitute for new wood for anything ranging from flooring to furniture. Repurposed oak beams and the like are also being used for structural purposes.

4. Bamboo – Not only is bamboo nearly as strong as steel once laminated, it grows so fast in its natural environment that it is considered a highly sustainable resource. It also regrows itself from the roots after cutting, whereas trees will never grow back once chopped down. (But beware some of the environmental effects of current bamboo manufacturing methods. Know where your bamboo comes from and how it has been treated.) It can be used for flooring and other purposes that require wood.

5. Recycled Plastic – Anywhere that needs the use of plastic can benefit from recycled plastic instead. Even better, recycled plastic can be made to resemble other materials ranging from wood to cloth. I have seen tshirts made of recycled plastic, and they feel almost the same as regular cotton. Items like recycled plastic adirondack chairs are a good example of how a wood substitute can be used.

6. Cob – Nope, it’s not cob of corn. Cob is a special mix of clay, straw, sand, dirt, and water, which is both inexpensive and very structurally sturdy.

7. Adobe – Similar to cob, adobe is a mix of sand, clay, water, and some kind of organic material for structural support (like cob’s straw, or even sticks). It is somewhat less durable than cob, since cob is one solid mass, and adobe is built in bricks. However, it is still immensely durable.

Want to see what some innovative companies are doing to create new alternative building materials? See this video:


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