How to Source Green Building Materials

green and sustainable building materials
Different types of materials can meet different types of sustainability goals. In this article, we explore green and sustainable building materials through the lens of five categories your project owner may ask you about.

Sustainable building options for your construction projects

Looking toward the future of buildings and the communities they create, sustainable materials are becoming the norm. Designers, builders, and owners are all making decisions—big and small—that can affect the health of the earth and the people who occupy each space. Innovations in energy-saving, recycled, and renewable materials are changing the game for construction companies across the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors.

Different types of materials can meet different types of sustainability goals. At each point of the construction process, green building materials and processes can be implemented. If your goals include certification from USGBC or GBI, then your percentage of environmentally friendly materials counts toward a points accumulation. If your team is working on a federal project, then specific procurement requirements may be designated for sustainability. But for projects that the owner is requesting sustainable building options, here are five categories that can be explored and questions you can ask.

  1. Embodied Energy
    How much energy is used in the manufacturing, transportation, and installation of this material?
  2. Air Quality
    Does this material emit VOCs or other harmful compounds into the air supply?
  3. Recycled / Recyclable
    Is this material made from recycled components? At the end of its lifecycle, can it be recycled in whole or in part? Can it be composted?
  4. Sustainable Harvest
    For natural materials, is this product harvested in a way that doesn’t deplete a long-term supply or cause other negative environmental impact? Is the product fast-growing?
  5. Waste Prevention
    Is the product long-lasting and easy to maintain? Does its manufacturing process produce excess waste?

As you move through your projects’ designs and construction schedules, here are some ideas for green building materials to consider.

Structural Materials

From foundation to framing, there are many ways to design and construct a sustainable structure. Earth bag foundations—an innovation in precast concrete—are made from polypropylene bags filled with gravel, then stacked to create a foundation and backfilled with earth. Innovations like these are cutting down high energy costs, while letting concrete do what it does best—support and insulate. Because it is cured in a controlled environment, precast concrete is also more reliable and doesn’t depend on stable weather to avoid cracks and faults.

State-of-the-art innovations like 3D printed buildings from local soil may still be out of reach, but most sustainable framing materials are easy to source. Wood that is FSC Certified ensures that deforestation is not the result of lumber harvesting and ecosystems are not harmed. This is especially important when using tropical woods like teak and mahogany. For a sustainable wood product with extra strength, consider Cross-laminated-timber (CLT) or Glue-laminated timber (glulam). By using smaller pieces of wood, CLT produces less waste while leveraging the speed of prefabrication.

Reclaimed wood is the perfect material for not only historic renovations, but also interiors where the unique look of an older wood can add value to a building. And while manufacturing new steel is one of the largest sources of pollution in the building industry, recycled steel is an abundant material.

According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, approximately 60 to 80 million tons of steel scrap per year in North America are recycled into new steel products.

recycled steel - green building

Insulation Materials

The insulation component of a building provides temperature regulation and seals air leaks. But as modern construction professionals seek eco-friendly alternatives to fiberglass or spray foam, traditional methods from past centuries are still proving to be useful. Hay bales can be used between studs in the structure to add insulation, and then wool, cotton batting can be used behind drywall. Sheep’s wool insulation also comes with water and fire resistant properties. Recycled insulation made from materials like recycled newspapers and cardboard can be blown into attics.

Taken from innovations in the surfboard manufacturing process, some builders are also using plant-based polyurethane rigid foam, a sustainable building material that has a high R value (a measurement of resistance to heat flow).

Flooring Materials

cork flooring - sustainable building

There are a wide range of sustainable building options when it comes to flooring for either residential or commercial spaces. Depending on the design, there are plenty of FSC certified wood flooring options, as well as materials made from fast-growing bamboo. Cork is another popular approach, with the benefit of a softer surface and higher insulation than most floorings. Flooring made from cork is also biodegradable at the end of its life.

For a high-end designer look, Terrazzo is a material that draws on centuries of recycling technologies. More than 1,500 years ago, Venetian marble workers created Terrazzo was created with small pieces considered waste during the processing of larger marble slabs. Today, small pieces of recycled stone and glass are set in a cement or epoxy substrate, spanning the rainbow for every color preference. Terrazzo floors are low maintenance and highly durable.

Low VOC carpet is manufactured with natural or safe materials that don’t produce high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), or carbon chemicals that can affect human health and environmental pollution. Some low VOC carpets are certified by Green Label Plus or Green Guard to test and ensure low emissions. Certified carpets are made from wool, jute, cotton, sisal or nylon, but remember to also include a low VOC carpet pad and safe adhesive.

Paint and Stain

Another product typically high in VOCs is paint. While interiors are most critical for air quality, exterior paints with high off-gassing can affect the health of painters on your team. Low or no VOC paints are widely available, but double check that the tint is also low or no VOC. Some brands are also biodegradable or compostable, for any paint that is leftover after a project.

When the priority is recycling and reuse, consider a recycled or reprocessed paint. Recycled paints are simply leftover paints that are dropped off at a recycling or paint share facility. These are ideal for small projects where the color doesn’t need to be specific. Reprocessed paint is typically latex paint that has been filtered and combined with other leftover paints, then color adjusted to make a new, useable product.

Lighting and Plumbing Fixtures

LED lighting has become mainstream with its energy efficiency, long life-span, and brighter capacity. There are LED solutions for almost every type of lighting installation, whether in a residential or commercial space. There are even options for specific lighting design such as signage illumination, medical lighting, or lighting inside refrigerated spaces.

To reduce overall water consumption, low-flow or WaterSense faucets use technology to cap the amount of water per use, while providing ideal water pressure for washing hands, washing dishes, or flushing toilets. These products, while popular in commercial settings, are also available in high quality for residential applications. More elaborate water savings can be implemented with products like rain barrels, especially for outdoor watering. Barrels collect storm runoff from roofs and can be directed into a sprinkler system for gardens and lawns.

Pricing for Local Green Building Products

When pricing sustainable construction materials, the most important calculation is lifetime cost. Initial costs for a product may be more than a conventional product, but if you take energy savings, durability, and reduced health risk into account, there is most likely a significant benefit. An LED lightbulb will be more expensive in your estimate on the front end, but over ten years it will more than make up for the initial cost difference and provide long-term value. As a builder, it is your responsibility to detail the options and costs in a way that the owner can easily understand.

With 1build’s construction estimating software, you have access to live and local cost data for thousands of construction materials, including many green building products. This allows for you to quickly get an accurate cost estimate to your client, without calling dozens of suppliers, so they can choose the materials that match their sustainability goals.

1build live local cost data in lincoln nebraska usa

February 2022 cost data for Lincoln, Nebraska.

Pricing can fluctuate quickly, especially for emerging products, so a live database can give your construction company the power it needs to offer sustainable building materials pricing in an efficient way, without affecting your profit margin. To see 1build in action with live cost data for your area, schedule a demo with us.

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