A Beginner’s Guide to Green Building Materials

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The issue of sustainability is becoming increasingly important as consumer awareness of the environment grows. Increasingly, consumers are demanding products that are produced in a sustainable fashion. They want products that minimize damage to the environment, support biodiversity, and have as low a carbon footprint as possible. This extends to the materials we use to build our homes and furnishings.

As the world’s population increases, so too does the demand for building materials. There is a risk that the demand will out-strip the supply, especially of such materials as conventional hardwoods and northern softwoods. These woods take far too long to grow to be truly sustainable. Alternatives need to be found.


New materials often come at a cost, however, typically a higher economic cost. This limits the availability of these materials to those who need it most. It is important, then, to develop sustainable building materials in a way that the people in developing nations can afford them. When we are talking about materials such as wood and bamboo, cost effectiveness comes with efficiency, and efficiency usually comes about from farm-style techniques and plantations of trees.

There are some sustainable wood products currently available, woods like rubber wood, kiri wood, and bamboo. For other sustainable products, though, we need to look to artificial materials. In this instance, we are looking as sustainable products as having a low energy cost to manufacture, are easy to use, long-lasting, and can be recycled.

sustainable wood


While brick has a high energy cost associated with it, is has a number of other factors that make it a good building material. It has a high thermal mass, which means it absorbs and releases heat slowly, helping to keep a home cool in summer and warm in winter. Bricks need no paint, are very durable, and can be easily reused or recycled. Bricks made from recycled materials, with a lower energy cost, are available in some areas.


If renewable energy sources are used in the manufacture of concrete, it is a very sustainable material, as the main ingredient is limestone, the most abundant mineral on earth, and the rest is sand and gravel. Though concrete is not a good insulator, is has a high thermal mass, even better than brick. Concrete is extremely durable, yet it can also be recycled as aggregate for further concrete manufacture. To top it off, it is fairly inexpensive as well.


Odd as it may sound, straw bales make a very effective building material. They provide extremely good insulation, and are fairly inexpensive to purchase. The straw bales themselves may provide the structural support for the structure, or they may be combined with a frame that can take a higher load, useful for regions that receive heavy snowfalls.

We spend a great deal of time, and money, on our homes. They are an extension of us, the part of ourselves that we show to the outside world. Homes make a statement. For an increasing number of people, they want the statement made by their homes to be “I care about the world my children will inherit.”

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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