Based on the news, it may feel sometimes like scientists are the only ones focused on mitigating climate change, but architects and designers hold enormous power and opportunity through design to create a better world. The built environment has a significant impact on the earth, and if left unchecked, buildings become sources of pollution, excess energy consumption, and even deforestation.
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. There is much positive work being done to ensure built spaces are better for the earth. One way is to use sustainable building materials. While many materials can emit carbon and other dangerous toxins into the environment, choosing green building materials can lower greenhouse gases and with low to no toxins, they are the go-to choice for sustainably-minded designers.
Many governments have ambitious goals in place resulting from the Paris Climate Agreement. Within those goals are policies aimed at new construction. Architecture 2030, a non-profit organization, is partnering with many organization in support of these policies. Through Architecture 2030, there are tools and resources available to designers focused on carbon neutral built environments.
The Effect of Building Materials
The numbers are astoundingly high. Buildings have a huge impact on the environment. According to the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), buildings account for over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Obviously, normal building operations contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, however, there’s more than just the finished building that impacts the environment. The manufacture, transport and creation of building materials produces heavy amounts of greenhouse gases. One of the most dangerous greenhouse gases is carbon, which is emitted by the production of materials like cement, iron, and steel. This effect is compounded when these materials are turned into buildings. The USGBC found that buildings produce 39 percent of all carbon emissions, and emission levels are only expected to grow.
It’s clear if the 2030 goal to design embodied and operational carbon out of new and renovated buildings is to be met, that traditional building materials are no longer a conscientious option going forward. That’s why green building materials with low/no embodied carbon have been on the rise. These materials produce little to no carbon or other greenhouse gases and are overall environmentally beneficial.
We’re already seeing the benefits thanks to initiatives like LEED in operational efficiencies. A 2014 study revealed that LEED Certified buildings contributed significantly lower levels of greenhouse gases due to their conservative treatment of water consumption, waste management, and transportation. The attention is now turning to the reduction of embodied carbon in the built environment.
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the most popular sustainable building materials and the evidence behind them.
It’s no secret that we at TerraMai love reclaimed wood, and its eco-friendliness is one of the biggest reasons for our passion. When it comes to sustainable building materials, reclaimed wood is a leader. It’s sustainably and responsibly sourced, harming no living trees and using minimal energy consumption in the process.
From TerraMai: Reclaimed wood can be sustainably sourced from unused structures like this vintage building.
Reclaimed wood is also one of the best materials to use in order to reduce contributions to climate change. Wood naturally sequesters carbon. When wood paneling and flooring are chosen for homes and offices, large amounts of carbon can be stored reducing the emissions associated with the production of other materials. Several studies have confirmed that wood is a particularly beneficial material that produces much lower amounts of greenhouse gases than other traditional building materials. A study from the Journal of Forest Engineering analyzed the use of four building materials: wood, brick and tile, aluminum, and concrete. The study concluded that wood produced the least amount of carbon, with the other three materials emitting noticeably higher levels.
A later study in Forest Products Journal confirmed this fact but noted the importance of sustainability: “use of wood products can help to reduce contributions to GHGs in the atmosphere that increase the greenhouse effect, with the caveat that sustainable forestry continues to occur.” In other words, if new wood is used, there’s still the issue of cutting down living trees and producing the new wood.
Reclaimed wood avoids this problem entirely by repurposing existing wood, which in turn eliminates the processes that accompany the production of new wood. In addition, since reclaimed wood keeps forests intact, it allows those forests to act as natural carbon sinks, further reducing the amount of carbon in the environment. This is one of the biggest reasons why reclaimed wood is so highly sustainable, and it explains why the material is such a popular building material choice today.
Recycled Non-Wood Materials
Over the last several years, some serious progress has been made in the area of recycled material creation. Many traditional building materials, such as steel and tile, can be found in recycled form. The Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA) is one group that’s pushing for adoption of recycled and reused materials. While these materials initially had a negative impact due to their creation and production, reusing them is a great way to keep them out of the landfill and reduce their future impact on climate change.
Many architects are getting creative with using various types of recycled materials. Plastic buckets, bottles, bedsprings, and ice cream containers have all been used for innovative projects that make for some head turning building facades. The very act of reusing materials helps to contribute to carbon emission reduction by extending the lifespan of existing materials while also preventing the harmful production of new materials.
You might not think of the earth itself as a building material, but using compacted earth is an age-old construction technique that’s seeing a resurgence today. Rammed earth is a method of compacting soil in layers to create a surprisingly sturdy and completely organic building material. Naturally, rammed earth is a low carbon option that’s accessible, affordable, and entirely sustainable. Even stabilized rammed earth, which uses small amounts of cement or lime to fortify the soil, is a better alternative to using a material like cement for an entire project.
From WDM Architects: Rammed earth is a great low-carbon substitute for materials like cement
Climate change is an ongoing issue that we need to keep focusing on, and through design, the built environment can minimize its effects and work to prevent further greenhouse gas contribution. Using sustainable building materials is one way to lower carbon emissions. As more architects and designers specify sustainable materials, and with the guidance of organizations like Architecture 2030, Carbon Leadership Forum and Embodied Carbon Network, the built environment will continue to make great progress ––and we and the earth will all benefit.