6 sustainable building materials for a greener future

in Sustainable Design

Sustainability is a wide topic, that concerns every aspect of our life. The design industry is no different and new options are coming up on a daily basis, from furnishings and accessories that are mindful of our planet (opened in a new window/tab) to sustainable building materials.

What are sustainable building materials?

Here is the big question. As it often happens, the answer is not unique, but it includes several aspects.
Above all, a sustainable building material is one that:
 

  • Generates less waste
  • Uses renewable raw materials
  • Is more durable

 
and the list could continue...

Research is currently moving in all these directions and I’m sharing here 6 inspiring examples that really prove the potential of sustainable and circular design and show that there’s good hope for the future if we keep exploring!

The new generation of concrete

One of the most widely used building materials is certainly concrete. To give an idea of scale, the Guardian states that
 

“All the plastic produced over the past 60 years amounts to 8bn tonnes. The cement industry pumps out more than that every two years.”
Cit. Jonathan Watts

 
Concrete has undeniable sturdiness advantages, but these are definitely paired with some disadvantages. For instance, some considerations about the sustainability of concrete (opened in a new window/tab) are the huge amount of water used for production, the air pollution and overexploitation of natural resources coming as consequences of quarries and many more…

There is no fast and easy solution here, but the following projects are all good food for thought!

Circular design: from waste to bricks

Project by: StoneCycling (opened in a new window/tab)

Besides making a lot of buildings, we also demolish plenty. And where do all the demolition debris go? Are those just waste?
Certainly not in a circular design perspective, where they should be looked at as a resource and transformed into something useful.

Crushed demolition debris sorted by colour, that are the the raw material of waste-based bricks.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Different types of demoliton debris. Credit: StoneCycling (opened in a new window/tab)

This is exactly what StoneCycling has done, turning demolition debris into waste-based bricks that can be used in construction again!!!! Their WasteBasedBricks® collection includes plenty of textures and colours that open to all sorts of creative pairings!

Exterior of a building covered in colourful waste-based bricks.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Close-up of the colourful waste-based bricks covering.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
External building covering with WasteBasedBricks®. Credits: Urban Echoes (opened in a new window/tab) - Photo by Stijn Poelstra
Internal wall cladding with _Waste Based Bricks_.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Close-up of the internal wall cladding with _Waste Based Bricks._<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Internal wall cladding with WasteBasedBricks®. Credits: StoneCycling (opened in a new window/tab)

Concrete for biodiversity

Project by: ISDI-Indian School of Design and Innovation (opened in a new window/tab)

Another disadvantage of concrete is that it's pretty distant from all what is natural and it "takes space away" from plants and greenery.
But there’s a new sustainable building material at the horizon that could build a bridge and actually foster biodiversity.
Made of a mix of soil, cement, charcoal and organic luffa fibres (yes the same of bath sponges!), the Green Charcoal bio-bricks (opened in a new window/tab) are very porous and the air they contain allows plants to develop into them!

Close-up of the Green Charcoal bio-bricks.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: ISDI (via Medium) (opened in a new window/tab)

Essentially, these bricks can become the background of a naturally grown green wall and the presence of hollow pockets also makes them able to cool down interior spaces. In short, they help with indoor air quality while introducing a biophilic element!

Close-up of a Green Charcoal bio-brick with plants growing on it.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: ISDI (via Medium) (opened in a new window/tab)

Self-healing concrete

Project by: Technical University Delft (opened in a new window/tab) and Basilisk Concrete (opened in a new window/tab)

One of the top disadvantages of concrete is that is cracks.
We’ve already seen that the design industry is looking into the so-called biofabrication to create living materials that are both beautiful and eco-friendly.
In this case, researchers are experimenting with a sort of living concrete, that is essentially equal to standard concrete, but has bacteria added into the mix. These bacteria wake up when they come in contact with water and oxygen (aka when a crack occurs). They then start producing limestone and essentially heal the crack, leaving only a slight scar on the surface! Is this not mind-blowing?

Sample of self healing concrete.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: EPO-European Patent Office (opened in a new window/tab)
Close-up of the scar left on the concrete surface once self-healing has been completed.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
The scar left when self-healing is complete. Credit: Basilisk Concrete (opened in a new window/tab)

Biobased building materials

Similarly to living concrete, other biobased and sustainable construction materials are coming up. The thing they all have in common is that they're made of organic ingredients. And – in some applications in particular – they would be a brilliant alternative to concrete!

Hemp concrete

Project by: Dun Agro (opened in a new window/tab)

Mix hemp fibres with natural glue and some water, and you’ll get an innovative building material! Its name is hemp concrete (or Hempcrete) and – besides being a sustainable option – it also retains all the positive qualities we look for in building materials. It is indeed sturdy, has good thermal and acoustic insulation qualities and is fire resistant.
And one of its biggest sustainable properties is that of being CO2 negative, namely absorbing more CO2 than the one it emits!

Close-up of a hemp concrete brick.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Dun Agro (via Material District) (opened in a new window/tab)
Interior with walls made of hemp concrete.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Hemp concrete internal walls. Credit: @cobbledtogether (via Instagram) (opened in a new window/tab)

organic circular design bricks

Project by: The Living (opened in a new window/tab)

Hy-fi bricks are a mix of circular design and biofabrication. In particular, they make use of agricultural waste (corn stalks) and mix it with mushroom mycelium into brick-shaped moulds. At this point, mushrooms will take a few days to grow and the result are organic bricks that can be composted at the end of their life!

Making of the mycelium bricks.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Larafge Holcim Foundation (opened in a new window/tab)
Building made of mycelium bricks.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Tower made with Hy-fi bricks. Credit: Larafge Holcim Foundation (opened in a new window/tab)

Brick without mortar

Project by: The Living (opened in a new window/tab)

Similarly, mushroom mycelium has been used to grow bricks that naturally weld together without needing any mortar-like substance. This Voxel bio-welding ensures an extremely strong joint, because the different bricks essentially become one single thing!
I've seen these exposed at Broken Nature as an example of restorative design and I must say they look impressive!

Wood balls held together by Voxel bio welding.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Close-up of Voxel bio welding.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credits: DforDesign

Sustainable design can take many different forms and it’s extremely inspiring to see that sustainable alternatives are growing!
If you'd like to know more about the sustainable options for interiors, you're welcome to check out SforSustainable (opened in a new window/tab) – the sustainable interior design resource where I curate a selection of sustainable products from furniture to finishes!

SforSustainable graphic<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span> (opened in a new window/tab)

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