Want to use green building materials in your home? There are many products that are genuinely greener options, perhaps because they are made from renewable resources, are created with recycled materials, or improve the indoor air quality of your house.
But there are also options that claim to be green while offering very little environmental benefit, which can make it difficult to choose a truly eco-friendly item.
To help you, we’ve put together a guide to the green building materials available for your green renovations, explaining why they’re a greener choice.
Green Building Materials: A Guide
Some options are better for our well-being and that of the planet. Overall, healthy building materials contain less embodied carbon and are less likely to emit toxic VOCs (volatile organic compounds), thus ensuring better air quality inside our homes. They are also likely to be recyclable or reusable.
Our guide lists green building materials to look out for when buying lumber, insulation, flooring, roofing and more.
When building a home or addition, look for sustainably sourced wood, whether it’s part of the internal structure or plays a more obvious role, such as in wood-frame buildings or for the wooden cladding.
Find the Forest Stewardship Program (opens in a new tab) (FSP) when buying wood. The non-profit FSC sets standards for forest management around the world with the goal of meeting today’s needs for forest products without compromising the health of the world’s forests.
Another option for woodwork and joinery is to reuse it, by visiting salvage yards or architectural antique shops. It’s also a great way to add character. And also consider the reuse option for siding: you may be able to source salvaged wood siding materials from building supply stores and salvage yards.
Cob and straw bales
Some architects and home builders specify cob buildings, which is subsoil containing clay and straw. Although it is labor intensive, it contains almost no carbon and the walls are very thick, which means that the thermal efficiency inside is good.
Similarly, straw bales can be used not only with wood, but also as a load-bearing material that can support a roof structure. These are usually finished with a lime plaster (see below) to create a breathable fabric.
Be sure to check with the local building department if you need a permit if you plan to use any of these eco-friendly building materials.
Versatile and natural, lime has been used in the construction of almost every surviving old building in Britain to form the binder for mortars, plasters, renders and whitewashes. Today, lime-based materials are becoming mainstream with low-carbon building systems.
“Lime-based materials allow structures to breathe and move smoothly, which is essential for old buildings,” says Douglas Kent of the Society for the Protection of Old Buildings. (opens in a new tab). “It helps them maintain their natural balance, controlling moisture and humidity, providing health benefits and internal comfort.”
Cork is another renewable, recyclable and biodegradable natural material. What is used is the bark of the cork oaks, which is carefully harvested from the trees; the long-lived trees themselves are not felled and the trunks are not damaged. The bark is renewed and it will not be harvested again from an individual tree for nine years.
Think of cork for floor coverings but also as thermal and acoustic insulation. UK based specialist builder (opens in a new tab) recently used a cork-based lime plaster on the interior face of all exterior walls of a large historic house as a kind of eco-coating.
‘Cork additive provides an extra layer of thermal performance and increases U-value [the level of thermal transmittance] of the wall,” says director Tim Molding.
As discussed above, cork is one of the green building materials that can be used as insulation, but there are a plethora of other options. Products derived from materials such as wood, wool and hemp, as well as cork, can be used in place of conventional insulation. Keep in mind that all green insulation options can be more expensive than their unnatural cousins.
Wool is one of the most popular: the advantage is that it is 100% recyclable, whereas most plastic insulation ends up in landfill. Wool also outperforms plastic when it comes to acoustics, thanks to its high density and soft fibrous quality, and can also retain heat better than plastic and mineral wool. This means it can absorb heat, addressing a concern that as the planet heats up, homes that aren’t designed to withstand rising temperatures will overheat.
Insulation made in part with soy is another greener option for insulating a home. Soy is a renewable resource and the insulation has a high R-value or thermal resistance.
Cellulose insulation is made from shredded newspapers and therefore uses recycled materials. It is treated to make it flame retardant. It can be used for both attics and walls.
Insulation made from a high percentage of denim and cotton recycles these materials, keeping them out of landfills. It is a good acoustic and thermal insulator and easy to handle.
Plastic bottles can also be recycled to help create insulation for a home, helping to keep them out of landfills and oceans.
If you want to reduce the environmental impact of your roof, several options are available to you.
Planted with dense vegetation, green roofs have many ecological benefits, including insulation, rainwater harvesting, and stormwater retention. It can also mean longer life for the roof.
As with other woods, consider FSC certification if you opted for wood shingles for the roof to ensure that the wood comes from sustainably managed forests.
Look for shingles made from recycled materials such as plastic, which prevents these materials from being landfilled and reduces the use of new materials. A long life also makes it a greener option.
A metal roof can be made from recycled materials, and can be recycled at the end of its life, which is long.
Slate or reclaimed clay
Use reclaimed slate or clay tiles to complete the architecture of a home and reuse what might otherwise become waste.
Shingles made from recycled materials, including rubber from old tires, utilize waste materials and are a durable roofing material.
Cork (see above) might already be on your list as a renewable natural material for flooring. The same goes for wood, and again consider FSC-certified products from well-managed forests, or opt for reclaimed wood floors to add character.
And there are other eco-friendly options for flooring when you renovate:
You might be surprised to find that unlike vinyl, linoleum is made from natural materials including linseed oil, pine resin and wood flour. It is one of the most eco-friendly flooring options available.
Bamboo flooring may look like wood, but it’s actually fast-growing, long-lasting grass.
Metals can be recycled to create floor tiles, so invest in this as flooring helps keep materials out of landfills.
Choosing eco-friendly paints made with water rather than solvents means lower levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can have adverse health effects and lower levels of chemicals which harm the environment.
Since not all eco-labeled paints are created equal, it’s worth checking what they’re made from. The more eco-friendly options are made only from natural ingredients and have low levels of VOCs.
Adhesives, sealants and caulks
If you need caulks, adhesives and sealants, just like paints, be aware of VOC levels and go for zero or low levels to avoid pollution.
What other green building materials should you look for when renovating? Recycled glass can be used for tiles and countertops; if you choose wallpaper, you can select those made from paper from sustainable forests and solvent-free pulp; and you can opt for drywall made from agricultural waste.
What is the most ecological building material?
The answer to what is the greenest building material depends on the definition you use, but bamboo is number one for many experts. This is because it grows fast; it has high strength and is very durable; and it is light to carry.
“Consider using bamboo in flooring and countertops, as well as lumber and veneer,” suggests Lucy Searle, global editor of Homes & Gardens. “Keep in mind, however, that the use of bamboo flooring in a bathroom is generally not recommended, and you should not use it in other areas prone to excess humidity. moisture as it may be damaged.”
Other top choices if you want to be as eco-friendly as possible include cork and sheep’s wool for various elements in your home.
Is wood ecological?
Wood is an environmentally friendly material, provided it comes from well-managed forests. It is a renewable resource and it can also be recycled at the end of its life. Manufacturing wood products can also be done with very little waste.
“All goods are made with raw materials extracted from the Earth. By far, the use of wood has the fewest negative aspects and, in fact, actually has a range of positive impacts,” says Bill Cook, Michigan State University Extension (opens in a new tab).