New sustainable building materials like wool and old favorites like aluminum are greening up the industry.
With the push to become more sustainable in every element of our lives, why shouldn’t that principle extend to include how we construct buildings? Environmentally-friendly architectural materials aren’t exclusive in their benefits. In fact, many sustainable materials on the market are also a good economic choice and have longer lifespans than conventional building supplies.
With architectural design becoming more creative each day, here are the sustainable building materials keeping up with the pace.
Known in short as CLT, cross-laminated timbers are super strong, ultralight sustainable building materials that could revolutionize the way architects use wood in construction. CLT is a prefabricated material that has performed well on seismic, fire, and thermal tests. Easy to manufacture, CLT generates almost no waste during installation (everything is cut to size at a factory pre-shipment) and has a low environmental impact.
CLT will play a key role in the design of the Laurentian University School of Architecture, a unique exercise in sustainable design in Northern Ontario, Canada. CLT wood panels will team up with steel cross beams to create a robust and sustainable example for the architects in waiting. Currently processed in a few key Canadian factories, the School of Architecture hopes local timber mills will soon learn to produce the value-added product.
While wood in and of itself is not a new building material, the way it’s being used in construction projects is more sustainable. Composite techniques such as CLT are getting the most press, but there is also an architectural trend that transforms entire trees into trusses and beams. As strong as steel, solid unmilled wood construction requires less than two percent of the energy needed to produce concrete and steel. That, and it’s entirely renewable.
Another Canadian university has been recognized as a leader in all-wood architecture. The University of British Columbia has won awards for its Earth Sciences Building, a structure made entirely of laminated strand lumber and other wood sustainable building materials. The building also upcycled wood from trees that were killed by pine beetles, carving the remaining wood in such a way that it provides natural light and ventilation.
Like CLT, aluminum is a lightweight but strong building material. It can be used in virtually every part of construction, including roofing, windows, doors, and other aesthetic features such as decorative wall panels. Unlike many other building materials, the aluminum used in construction projects is estimated to contain at least 50 percent recycled content.
One of the most notable buildings to use aluminum construction is also one of the world’s most famous towers. The Empire State Building was the first major building to use aluminum for interior structures and its famous rooftop antenna spire. That was in 1930! Aluminum remains a go-to material for the building today, and more than 5,000 aluminum window frames were installed in 1994, replacing deteriorating steel frames.
Aluminum production continues to become more sustainable as the years progress. The amount of energy required to produce sustainable building materials like aluminum has shrunk by more than a quarter in the past 20 years, and the industry as a whole continues to improve its environmental track record.
Recycled steel puts to use all the scrap cars and cans discarded each year. A report from the U.S. Geological Survey says that more than 14 million tons of steel were recycled from scrap cars in 2013. While still consuming energy, recycling scrap steel requires much less energy than producing new products from iron ore.
Recycled steel is just as versatile as aluminum, and common uses include steel ducts, perforated panels, studs, decking, and doors. The David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh features a shiny steel exterior. Fitting, since Pittsburgh is known as the Steel City thanks to its more than 300 steel-related businesses. The building is the first convention center in the world to receive LEED certification.
Who knew that the material you make sweaters with could also be used with such success in home construction? Wool bricks entered the sustainable building materials market about five years ago. The unfired bricks are created by mixing wool fibers and seaweed polymers with the clay before it dries. This addition makes the bricks up to 37 percent stronger than their unfired pure clay counterparts.
Wool bricks are reported to be more resistant to cold climates and are more environmentally friendly than fired bricks and concrete. To date, wool bricks have been primarily developed in the United Kingdom and use locally available materials.
Saint Mary’s Regional Health Center in Lewiston, Maine is the most prominent example of a public building utilizing wool bricks. That hospital was recognized with the Brick Industry Association’s Silver Brick in Architecture Award for its unique use of the sustainable architectural material.
Locally Sourced Architectural Materials
Just as buying local food will help reduce your carbon footprint, so too will using locally sourced structural materials. No matter how sustainable the production of a building material, those efforts will be made null if a supply must then be shipped thousands of miles to its final destination.
Sustainability organization Landscape for Life recommends checking in with local landscape firms who have pursued LEED certification. These are the groups most likely to know what materials will be locally sourced. To be classified as local, materials should be grown or extracted, harvested, and manufactured within 500 miles of the construction project.
The team behind Smith College’s Bechtel Environmental Classroom in Whately, Massachusetts took locally sourced materials into account from the very beginning. To ensure the use of regional materials, the project managers sourced all building materials themselves rather than outsourcing the job to the construction team.
As researcher Rob Hollis explains in his report on the classroom, the structure’s lighting posts “were sourced from a local farmer who lived only one mile from the site and the countertop was quarried in southern Vermont less than 30 miles away.”
Are you inspired yet? With the above choices and more, there’s no reason why your next construction project can’t be a sustainable one.
Shane Strowski is the president of Artisan Panels Inc., a design and manufacturing firm specializing in the creation of decorative perforated panels used to enhance exterior and interior spaces.