The Environmental Impact of Building Materials

by Amanda Winstead

The Environmental Impact of Building Materials

As the effects of climate change have become more apparent around the world, sustainability is a major talking point in every industry. In the realm of architecture and construction, the materials we use matter to the natural environment, as well as our own health.

Many common building materials, from lumber to naturally sourced stones and minerals, can cause great harm to the environment. Other materials, even those marketed as sustainable, require far too much energy to create and/or maintain. Energy consumption and waste production may also vary among building materials, the environmental impact of which can be substantial.

To reduce your carbon footprint and improve the health of the planet, considering the environmental impact of a building project is thus crucial to the process. The energy needs of the completed structure are another aspect of the overall picture, and alternatives to toxic fossil fuels, such as highly efficient solar energy systems, are readily available.

Here’s what you need to know about green building, as well as the environmental and economic benefits of choosing eco-friendly materials, whether you’re building or planning a sustainable single-family home, commercial building, or another type of structure.


Sustainable Building Materials and Methods

Despite the push towards reducing pollution on a global scale in recent years, sustainable architecture is nothing new. Throughout history, the natural environment has always been a part of the building process. Early builders sourced materials from the surrounding environment, with cob and stone structures among the world’s oldest.

What’s more, ancient builders looked to minimize waste while also prioritizing efficiency throughout the process, including maintenance. As natural building materials deteriorate over time, they require work to maintain structural integrity, undermining their potential environmental benefits. Modern builders face environmental challenges of a different sort — even as we have access to every possible building material, whether sourced or manufactured, natural resources are dwindling worldwide.

Buildings have a significant carbon footprint. Reports indicate that buildings are responsible for a significant chunk of the world’s energy usage, by a wide margin. On average, 41% of global energy consumption can be attributed to buildings and structures. Buildings also produce dangerous emissions that pollute our air, and the construction industry generates more than 170 tons of debris annually. By opting for sustainable building materials over those that may harm the environment and produce excess waste, you can help minimize the environmental impact of any construction project.

When choosing your construction method, keep in mind that some materials are more energy-efficient than others. For instance, the material you use for your roof will likely affect the amount of energy required to heat or cool your house or commercial building. Further, as technology continues to evolve, sustainable energy systems are more affordable and more efficient than ever. Try to think like a renewable energy engineer or similar professional, and strive to incorporate alternative energy into your design plan.


Potentially Hazardous Building Materials

It’s important to note that even “natural” building materials aren’t inherently safe to use. For example, the mineral asbestos occurs naturally in nature but is hazardous to human health as well as the health of the environment. According to the United Nations Environment Program, asbestos mining dates back thousands of years, and negatively impacts the environment to this day. Asbestos is a known carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, and is also harmful to wildlife, inhibiting plants from growing and polluting water sources.

Although the use of asbestos in construction projects was all but eliminated by the late 1970s, plenty of the material still exists in older structures. When remodeling an existing structure, look for potential sources of asbestos exposure before getting started, paying especially close attention to basement and attic spaces. For example, plumbing systems installed between 1950 and 1980 are likely to be wrapped in asbestos insulation, which was commonly used to protect pipes from extreme heat or cold.

Fortunately, modern builders have numerous sustainable options when it comes to insulation materials, including bamboo, wool, and upcycled cotton. And in some cases, locally sourced materials offer an additional benefit in reducing building costs. In terms of logistics, fewer miles traveled between building material providers and consumers equate to a reduced carbon footprint and lower product price. That cost reduction is related to a decrease in fuel needed for product transport, and the elimination or decrease of shipping and packaging costs.


The Importance of Sustainability, in Construction and Beyond

In recent years, sustainability has evolved from a trendy buzzword to a way of life, and every industry has been affected. Curbing the negative effects of climate change has become so important that many governments now mandate the use of sustainable materials in new construction projects. Green building standards in the U.S. consider such factors as water and energy efficiency, emissions, and materials and resource use.

Generally speaking, green construction codes and mandates apply to all types of building projects, from new construction to additions and remodels. No matter the scope of your sustainable building project, or if you’re looking to invest in a pre-existing energy-efficient home or commercial property, reducing your environmental impact starts with mindful material selection.


Amanda Winstead is a writer from the Portland area with a background in communications and a passion for telling stories. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on Twitter.


Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash


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