Green Building Materials, and the Evolution of Normal

For the first few years of my life, I lived in a brick house and as far as I was concerned, all houses were made of brick. When I was six years old, our family moved to a wooden-frame house and I discovered that houses could also be made from wood. Eventually we settled into a modern concrete house, and I slowly began to understand that a house is defined by its function, not how it’s built. However if I suggested that a house could be made out of paper, or a car could be made out of hemp-fiber, you may think I’m dreaming. We have a natural tendency to define and limit what we consider to be normal, and it takes imaginative minds and innovators to break those preconceptions.

Despite the idea that the twenty-first century is seeing a green building revolution, many traditional building materials were inherently green, as most homes were built with locally sourced materials without energy intensive manufacturing methods. Mud brick, adobe or cob, cut stone, and timber have all been used for thousands of years around the world. It was a desire for increasingly large, dense, durable, and architecturally unique structures in the twentieth century that led to the development of modern and energy-intensive building materials such as steel, concrete, and glass.

While it is unlikely that we will start building our homes and offices out of quarried stone again, there have been significant advances in incorporating recycled material into modern buildings. For the average consumer, however, it is the choices that can be made inside the house that will matter most. From counter tops and paint, to wallboard and tiling, there are many options for reducing our carbon footprint.

green building material is defined by a number of characteristics: a certain percentage of recycled content, renewable and locally sourced raw materials, an energy efficient manufacturing process, and a durable and long-lasting final product. Even packaging, marketing displays, and choice of transportation can be factors. Examples of green products include:

  • Wood flooring made from bamboo, a durable wood that grows rapidly, ensuring sustainable production
  • Counter tops made from 50-100% post-consumer recycled paper mixed with resin can have the same strength, durability, and look as quarried stone
  • Paint that is certified as low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) releases fewer chemical compounds into the environment
  • Recycled gypsum, the natural material often used in wallboard, can be added to new wallboard products, avoiding the need for further energy-intensive resource extraction
  • Glass tiles can be made of pre- and post-consumer materials, including manufacturing scrap, and glass bottles
Recycled glass tiles
Recycled glass tiles

The challenge is making these kinds of products normal – that is, when the average consumer decides to renovate, the choice of product should be green by default. Shifting to this way of thinking has been hampered by the most common criticism of green building practices: an assumed cost premium, however this is an oversimplification. As manufacturers, suppliers, and contractors become more knowledgeable about and comfortable with green materials, demand will increase and initial costs will inevitably fall. Combined with the long-term energy efficiency savings of green buildings, the net cost savings are undeniable. The role of the consumer in driving demand is crucial, and awareness of our options is the first step.

Unfortunately many champions of low-carbon initiatives who decorate their homes with niche green products are derided as elitist, but this characterization ignores the fact that the use of green materials and technology benefits everyone, through increased energy efficiency, lower emissions, and local economic growth. Regardless of your politics, the drive to a low-carbon, cost-effective, and efficient economy starts at home. The first step can be as small as choosing your brand of paint.

(Feature photo courtesy of, glass tiles photo courtesy of Interstyle Ceramic and Glass)