Why construction materials matter

The more holistically we think, the more important materials become. If you had asked people 50 years ago what houses would be made of in 2010, the average answer might have been titanium, aluminum and high-impact plastic. Reality has long since rendered that view obsolete. We now understand that the world has a finite amount of resources available – and that goes for the construction and operation of our buildings and infrastructure as well.


Did you know straw can be used for insulation? photo credit: Special via photopin cc

So, now we may use recycled paper on the building’s exterior, or use straw for insulation.

We may use bricks made of residues taken from wastewater treatment plants, and make roofs of living plants. Or we may choose something completely different. Because a green building philosophy means choosing the building material that is best suited to the conditions at the particular site.

Environmentally sound materials.

Among the most interesting requirements is that materials should be produced as close to the construction site as possible. They should not contain hazardous materials, and they should be produced with minimal effect on the environment. They should be easily recycled – and preferably made out of recycled materials such as paper, recycled aluminum or leftover stone chips. And naturally, materials and products carrying an environmental label should be selected whenever possible.

Another thing about the future: The material should be future-proof. In other words, it should last the entire lifecycle of the building.

Reducing waste and packaging.

Just as important as selecting the correct material is not using too much, or processing it any more than necessary. There are great environmental savings to be made by minimizing excess.

First off, of course, resources are saved that would have been spent producing the material. But this approach also reduces the transport of material, and thereby the emissions – first to the building site, and then away from the building site, carrying all the leftover materials and waste. Another way to reduce waste is to deliver materials and installations, such as appliances and other machinery, without packaging.

Using less material and packaging saves a lot of resources. And if you like to watch the bottom line, you’ll soon see that less material also means lower costs.

Recycled paper can be used in many ways. Richlite is a material used for exterior wall systems – it’s made from recycled paper and natural fibers from environmentally certified forests.

Eco Bricks, sturdy blocks made out of plastic bottles filled with non-recyclable waste and include water treatment residues can replace traditional bricks in many projects

Paper Stone is a surfacing made from recycled paper, cashew nut oils and water-based resins. It was used when retrofitting the 32nd floor of the Empire State Building.

Recycled truck tires make terrific flooring for outside play areas at schools.

Lastly, on top of all these environmental materials, Skanska has also constructed with the Living Building Challenge (LBC) in mind. LBC is widely considered the world’s most rigorous building performance standard. A Living Building generates all of its own energy through clean, renewable resources; captures and treats its own water; incorporates only non-toxic, appropriately sourced materials; and operates efficiently and for maximum beauty. A building must perform as designed for one full year of occupancy and pass a third-party audit before receiving certification as “Living.” See how we made Seattle’s Bertschi School Science Classroom come to life.

Myrrh Caplan

Myrrh Caplan

Skanska USA National Program Manager - Green Construction

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Albert February 22, 2014, 12:55 am

    A highly informative post. Eco-friendly constructions really is the need of the hour. One needs to evaluate the quality of material to be used before using and check for its implications. Liked the idea of using steenstrips (bricks) made out of the left over taken from waste water treatment plants, and make roofs of living plants. There are so many things that can be recycled to use it in the most environment friendly manner. The article is a must read for all who believe in Green Revolution and strive towards it.


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