Construction materials can carry significant environmental impacts. Certain materials can deplete natural resources and contribute to habitat destruction. The extraction and acquisition of raw materials can also lead to serious environmental harm.

Sustainable materials are often broken out into three categories: 

Natural Materials

These are materials that occur naturally and can generally be safely disposed of. Examples include wood, clay, and metals. 

Renewable Materials

For something to be renewable, it must be able to naturally replenish at a rate that allows for the resource to be maintained and not depleted over time. The most common example is bamboo.

Harmless and Non-toxic Materials

Many modern materials are manufactured or treated with chemicals that can be harmful to people, animals, and the environment. Yet, there are man-made non-toxic alternatives such as non-toxic paint, drywall, and plaster.

Architects and engineers will design with these materials in mind or renovate and update using sustainable building materials. Selecting environmentally sensitive materials can be the most challenging and rewarding part of the design process. Some of the most common sustainable building materials include:

  • Recycled metal
  • Reclaimed wood
  • Bamboo
  • Cork

Building with sustainable materials not only supports the environment, but it leads to healthier humans through the reduction of respiratory diseases, allergens, and asthma. Choosing construction materials and interior finish products with zero or low emissions also contribute to improved indoor air quality. 

What about cement?

The cement industry is responsible for about a quarter of all industry CO2 emissions. They are also one of the world’s most difficult-to-abate sources of CO2 emissions.

Concrete is the most consumed construction material because of its availability, workability, and durability. In 2019, their production, transport, use, and demolition were estimated to account for roughly 9-10% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, including carbonate decomposition, fuel combustion, and electricity use.

Across the country, new ordinances are being implemented that limit carbon on concrete. So how do we decarbonize cement material? In recent years, the cement sector has progressed significantly in regard to energy efficiency and CO2 mitigation by adopting conventional technology options targeting the thermal efficiency, electrical efficiency, and low-carbon fuel utilization of cement kilns.

Reducing the clinker-to-cement ratio is another conventional low-carbon lever, which has historically been pursued for economic reasons since clinker substitutes cost less than pyro-processed clinker or can enhance concrete’s properties.

Monitoring and Compliance

In California, we have explicit guidelines around what materials can be used in new build and renovation projects for both residential and commercial properties. CALGreen or the California Green Building Standards Code outlines the requirements for sustainable materials and serves as a guideline in the context of code enforcement.

At ID360, we work with those on both sides of sustainable building materials- the architects and engineers designing and building greener buildings as well as those responsible for enforcing CALGreen and other local green code ordinances.

Sustainable building materials and the inspection process under CALGreen can be highly complex but by increasing awareness of logistical impacts regarding plans, specs, permitting, documentation, inspection, and local enforcement we can make the best choices in sustainable building materials.

Committing to use the most sustainable materials available benefits us all. The choices and regulations can seem overwhelming, but at ID360 we are here to help architects, plan checkers, building officials, and engineers navigate the options and make the most sustainable choices for people and the environment.