3 Nov 2010

Best sustainable building materials in Australia

Tips and Advice
Best Sustainable Building Materials in Australia

Sustainable Building Materials

Sustainability is a term that is often used in relation to buildings and building materials, with more and more people wanting sustainable homes. But do you really understand what sustainable building materials are?

You might initially say ‘Of course I do, they are materials that assist in making my home energy efficient and therefore more sustainable’, but it is possible to build an energy efficient home without using sustainable materials. That’s because the two terms relate to very different things.

When we talk about sustainable building materials we need to consider such things as the acquisition of those materials – where do they come from, how were they gathered and/or manufactured or refined, how much energy was used in digging up, cutting down or manufacturing that material and is that practice sustainable, is the source renewable.

Take bricks for example. Where did the material come from that is used in making each brick? How much fuel was used in extracting and transporting that material? How much energy was used in the process of turning those materials into each brick? You might be surprised to know that making bricks is typically a very energy intensive process.

You also need to consider the ‘lifecycle’ of the materials you choose. Any materials you use will have required electricity and fuel to extract, manufacture and transport, but if the material is long lasting then the energy and fuel used to make that material might be offset by the fact that you won’t need to replace that material for many years.

The ability to recycle the material is another consideration in terms of sustainability. Materials like bricks are very hard to recycle whereas timber can often be easily recycled. If a material can’t easily be recycled then its ‘sustainability’ credentials must be called into question which leads me to the next point – disposal.

If you can’t recycle a particular material then it will need to be disposed of. We then must consider what’s involved in that. What impact will disposing of it have on the environment? Is there an environmentally friendly way to dispose of the material? Will it break down over time and return to the environment in some way? What about the amount of fuel/energy involved in its removal and disposal?

A further environmental consideration is the required ‘treatment’ of the materials used. Do they need to have a protective coating applied? Is that coating harmful to the environment, both in a broad sense of the world’s environment as well as the living environment within the home? What raw materials are used in making those treatments and how sustainable is the practice of making the product itself?

Of course in considering which building materials are to be used you also need to consider their role in energy efficiency within the final design of your home. Materials that don’t offer much benefit in the way of insulation will ultimately result in higher electricity usage in the running of your home, offsetting any sustainability benefits in the construction of the material itself.

So what are the best sustainable building materials?

Well, there are a number that perform well, but obviously, those that are less energy intensive, tend to be the most labour intensive.

For example, Straw bale, Mudbrick and Rammed Earth (or stabilized rammed earth) are all examples of environmentally friendly, sustainable building materials. Each is made from natural resources and requires little if any electricity to create. However, this advantage needs to be weighed up against the fact that they are very labour intensive. And, in the case of Mudbrick and Rammed Earth, they are not always effective in terms of insulation. They do score highly however from a recycling point of view.

But what about more common materials, how do these stack up?

Well, steel is actually quite good for two reasons – firstly it lasts a very, very long time and secondly, it is easy to recycle. Making steel does use a lot of energy, but you don’t need to replace it very often and it can be used for everything from the framework to the actual walls of your home. In fact, steel homes can look very stylish. It’s also comparatively inexpensive to transport because it’s relatively light in weight.

Timber, whilst frowned upon in some circles, can also be considered high in the sustainability stakes, provided you know where it comes from. Timber that is plantation grown is very sustainable, whereas timber from old growth forests is not sustainable at all. The advantages of timber are that it is long lasting and it can also be reused in many cases.

So as you can see there are many things to consider if you’re looking to build a sustainable home. There’s a lot more to it than simply choosing materials that are energy efficient. If you would like to explore sustainable materials for your new home or renovation, simply contact Dion Seminara from dion seminara architecture (07 3899 9450) and let us show you how.

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Est. 1993

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