Stacks of lumber resting on shelves in a tall warehouse.

Sustainable Building Materials and How You Can Use Them

Sustainable building materials have a lower impact on the environment than standard options. They offer eco-friendly benefits during sourcing and production, construction, maintenance, or everyday use. 

Examples of these materials include bamboo, which is easy to replace because it grows rapidly, and wool insulation, which is natural and lacks the dangers associated with artificial materials like fiberglass. Meanwhile, durable and reusable components, such as steel, limit the need for replacement and are easy to recycle.  

Sustainable building materials are better for the environment, but they provide additional benefits, as well.

  • Reduce costs: Green buildings use fewer resources and are therefore can cost less to operate. Solar panels, for example, lead to lower monthly utility bills
  • Become self-sustainable: Sustainable buildings can help owners achieve a self-sustaining lifestyle. These buildings enable homeowners to lower their reliance on outside utilities and reduce their environmental impact. 
  • Minimize waste: Eco-friendly materials are biodegradable (wool insulation) or recyclable (steel), so they will not end up in landfills. 
  • Improve health and safety: Sustainable elements present fewer dangers to residents. Plastics, fiberglass, and some composite materials have toxic ingredients or traits that may decrease air quality within a home. 
  • Increase the resale value: In markets where the demand for sustainable buildings is high, adding eco-friendly or energy-efficient elements can increase the appraised value of a home. 

If used correctly, the sustainable building materials we are about to highlight can provide similar benefits.

Rammed Earth

Rammed earth is a mixture of soil, clay or gravel, and a stabilizer, such as lime or cement. The mixture is then put under pressure so that it compacts and hardens. 

Rammed earth structures have been around since prehistoric times, and the construction method has seen a recent rise in popularity because of its simplicity, sustainability, and the natural climate-control properties it provides. 

  • Where is it sourced? Rammed earth buildings can use locally available materials that come directly from the ground. This limits carbon output due to shipping or production.
  • Why is it sustainable? It is recyclable and non-toxic and requires 1/40th of the carbon footprint of concrete buildings. The thick walls are excellent for climate control, increasing the efficiency of heating and cooling systems. 
  • What can you build with it? Rammed earth homes are increasing in popularity, and this technique can also work for public buildings. 

There are other compacted materials that you can use for construction, as well. 

Straw Bale

Straw bales are made from farm waste. The straw is packed together tightly, creating a dense, highly insulated building block. Contrary to popular opinion, this material, combined with plaster, has hospital-grade fire resistance. 

  • Where is it sourced? The straw comes from farm waste. It is typically a by-product of grains like wheat, rye, rice, or barley. Grasses that are too tall to be used for other purposes, such as livestock feed, are good for construction materials. 
  • Why is it sustainable? Straw is a by-product, so it is readily available. Since it renews once or twice per year, there is a renewable supply. Furthermore, it has strong insulative properties, making it ideal for reducing climate control costs. 
  • What can you build with it? Straw bales can serve as the building blocks of homes and other buildings. Builders usually cover the bales with plaster. You can also place bales in specific areas of the home to increase insulation. 

Other rapidly growing materials such as bamboo are also readily available for construction. 

Bamboo

Though bamboo is often referred to as a tree, it is technically grass. Some species can grow extremely fast, adding more than three feet to their height per day. Farmers harvest it after two or three years. Meanwhile, trees that provide construction lumber take decades to mature. Bamboo is also quite versatile and pliable, making it useful for different types of projects. 

  • Where is it sourced? Bamboo is native to South America and Asia. It grows in both tropical and temperate climates. Farms also exist in Australia, the southern United States, and Africa.
  • Why is it sustainable? Bamboo is biodegradable and durable. It grows quicker than trees, so you can harvest materials 10 times in the same period it takes for one tree cycle. 
  • What can you build with it? Bamboo is extremely versatile. In addition to serving as a framework or walls for a home, you can use it for flooring, trim, furniture, or roofing. 

While bamboo is versatile, some sustainable materials are much more specialized. 

Wool Insulation

If you have ever owned a wool sweater or a pair of socks, you know that it has excellent insulative properties. Sheep regrow their coats quickly, allowing farmers to harvest the wool multiple times each year. This readily available material can serve as insulation in the place of other composite materials, such as fiberglass, which can be dangerous if inhaled. 

  • Where is it sourced? Shepherds raise sheep for wool all over the world. Australia, home to 68 million sheep, is a major producer, but people can typically find a place to source wool locally or regionally. It may even be possible to produce wool on a hobby farm. 
  • Why is it sustainable? Sheep wool is completely natural and free of toxic or harmful additives. You do not have to protect yourself with a mask and body covering when installing wool insulation. It is a renewable resource, too, since sheep will continue to supply it throughout their lives. It is also compostable.  
  • What can you build with it? In construction, wool is exclusively for insulation. However, other products, such as wool curtains, provide insulative properties too. 

Good insulation helps limit energy use. Other sustainable elements such as solar panels also increase energy efficiency. 

Solar Panels

Solar panels convert the sun’s rays into energy, which owners can use to power their homes. Standard panels sit on top of the existing roof or in an array somewhere on the property. You can also find solar panel tiles that become part of the structure of the building itself. 

  • Where is it sourced? Solar panel manufacturing is a growing industry and there are producers all over the world. After the initial installation, you source energy directly from the sun.  
  • Why is it sustainable? The sun is an ever-present, renewable resource. Solar panel owners can get energy daily without burning oil, gas, or coal. This reduces pollution and reliance on the electrical grid. 
  • What can you build with it? Solar panels sit on rooftops or in other areas with direct sunlight. They work on both commercial and residential buildings, and it is possible to connect them to the grid to earn credit by supplying excess energy. 

Other roof-mounted elements such as composite shingles also increase sustainability. 

Composite Roofing Shingles

Composite roof shingles are not 100% natural, but they offer a high degree of sustainability because they solve one of the most common (and expensive) issues related to exterior home maintenance. Wood and asphalt shingles crack, leak, and lose their seals. They require regular repair and replacement, whereas composite shingles use a mix of materials to provide longer-lasting performance. 

  • Where is it sourced? Producers use traditional materials like asphalt combined with rubber, slate, polymers, or a synthetic laminate. The resulting products are available from construction suppliers and home-improvement stores.  
  • Why is it sustainable? These synthetic shingles can last up to 50 years, which is much longer than standard asphalt tiles. The long lifespan reduces waste and lowers repair costs for your home. 
  • What can you build with it? Because they work in the same way as traditional options, composite materials work on any shingled roof. 

Other pre-made materials such as insulating concrete forms also provide sustainable benefits. 

Insulated Concrete Framing

Wood home frames are popular, but they have gaps that lower the overall efficiency of the building. Insulating concrete forms (ICFs), however, are precast walls with built-in insulation. The design is airtight, well-insulated, and extremely efficient. 

  • Where is it sourced? Manufacturers make ICFs in different sizes. They are often modular, and builders can place the different pieces together to create a structure.  
  • Why is it sustainable? The airtight nature and built-in insulation make homes with ICFs extremely energy efficient. They use minimal electricity or gas for heating and cooling, thereby limiting pollution. 
  • What can you build with it? Though they are becoming more popular in larger construction projects, currently, most ICFs are for residential homes

Another famously strong material, steel, is also ideal for sustainable structures. 

Steel 

Structural steel has a higher recycling rate than any other construction material. Builders applying for environmentally-friendly LEED certification can earn maximum credit for steel components. This is mainly due to their recyclability. 

  • Where is it sourced? 93% of the steel construction material in the U.S. comes from other steel. Scrap gets melted down and recast. This recycled metal has the same strength and properties as the steel from which it came.   
  • Why is it sustainable? Steel is sustainable because it is not just recycled; it is multi-cycled. Producers can reuse steel again and again without quality compromises.  
  • What can you build with it? Steel is also extremely versatile. Structural steel provides the framework for commercial buildings and homes. It can also provide extra strength for carports, garages, or other outbuildings on a property.  

There are other construction materials that some people may be surprised to learn are sustainable, such as yellow pine. 

Yellow Pine Wood

Yellow pine wood is ideal for construction because it offers benefits such as superior density and wide availability. 

  • Where is it sourced? Yellow pine grows in the southern and southeastern U.S. It is plantation-grown, so it is rarely harvested from the wild. There are currently millions of acres of yellow pine trees growing in the U.S.   
  • Why is it sustainable? Pine is popular in construction because the trees grow quickly and do well in a plantation setting. 
  • What can you build with it? Pine gets classified as soft wood, but yellow pine is denser than other species, making it ideal for use in homes, decks, and boat construction.