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A six brick module is laid in staggered courses that create twirling vertical stacks at the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre, New Delhi

Materials For A Greener Tomorrow

Selecting the right materials is integral to a green building. We highlight a few key materials that are growing in popularity and rank high on the sustainability chart.

The popularity of sustainable building has increased in recent years in response to growing concerns about climate change as well as the declining supply of renewable resources. By selecting green building materials we make a conscious decision to think beyond the project and consider the environment as a whole.

To evaluate a green product, determining its lifecycle is essential. What is the source of the product and its extraction/manufacturing effects? How and from what distance will it be transported to the building site? How long will the product last and how can it be used afterwards?

The materials also have to be compliant in energy efficiency, water conservation and treatment, waste reduction, and are non-toxic and renewable. All these factors taken as a whole determine the material’s environmental impact. We list a few key sustainable materials that are available to make for a greener tomorrow.

Foundation, Structural Framing and Building Envelopes

Recycled Concrete: Recycled concrete aggregates can substitute for concrete avoiding the extraction and transportation impact of quarrying. A permanent formwork can be developed using rigid plastic foam or aluminium instead of using  wood that is discarded after the concrete sets.

Fly ash blocks at a construction site are a common sight today
Fly ash blocks at a construction site are a common sight today

Autoclaved Aerated Concrete:  This process traps air within the concrete and creates a product that insulates, is lightweight, is more workable than conventional concrete and reduces the overall cement content while offering a high strength to weight ratio. Today, autoclaved aerated concrete blocks are being used even more as compared to common bricks.

Fly Ash: Fly ash, a common by-product of thermal power plants, can substitute for 15 to 60% of Portland cement in a mixture depending on the intended use. Mixtures that contain fly ash can be slower to cure, are stronger and smoother, more durable, water resistant and less permeable.

Compressed Earth Blocks: The compressed earth block process involves compacting moistened earth in specially designed portable presses to form building blocks which are low cost, non-toxic, offer high-thermal performance and are usually created using material excavated directly from the site.

Reclaimed Materials: By reusing materials recovered from demolished or renovated buildings, developers may dramatically increase sustainability by preventing unnecessary production of new raw materials and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Recycled Lumber and Steel: Steel contains up to 95% recycled content. Thus it reduces the need for wood and provides strong interior walls. Open-web joist and truss systems, using fabricated lumber or a combination of dimensional lumber and steel are feasible for construction. Lumber recovered from demolition reduces landfill waste, is non-toxic, recyclable and of better quality than virgin lumber.

Glass: Windows constructed of layered panes separated by sealed, gas-filled compartments provide insulation that conserves energy. Also, low-E glass acts as a radiation mirror, reflecting infrared rays back and helps regulate indoor temperatures.


Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS): SIPS are composed of foam (recycled expanded polystyrene) insulation sandwiched between two sheets of plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) thus combining insulation and structure. These offer significant waste reduction, energy efficiency, time and labour savings and ensure longevity. They can be used for exterior walls, roofs, flooring and foundation systems.

Straw: An alternative to wood-based exterior sheathing is straw panelling, assembled with water-based adhesives and fibreglass tape. It’s non-toxic, biodegradable, energy efficient and long-lived.

Oriented Strand Board (OSB): OSB makes use of smaller, fast growing farm trees. This product can be used in place of plywood in sheathing and subfloor applications.


Terra Cotta Tile and Slate Shingles:  They are durable materials, have very good fire resistance and can be easily recycled, although slate is expensive.

Imitation Slate Materials: These tiles are produced from 100% recycled, re-engineered materials, including rubber and cellulose; are lightweight, add insulating value and have a 100 year life span.


Aluminium/Steel Panels/Shingles: Weatherproof shingles manufactured from recycled aluminium or steel combine the look of wood with the durability of metal. They’re recyclable, lightweight, fire resistant, low maintenance and reflect radiant heat.

Green Roofs: Green roofs can help to moderate interior environments, improve air quality and are an innovative storm water management solution. These roofs may improve the microclimate by cooling and humidifying the surrounding air.


Bamboo: Bamboo is long lasting, rapidly renewable and easy to install. It is finding increasing applications in flooring as well as furniture. Bamboo is a very sustainable building material and an excellent option to using virgin wood.

Cork: Cork, which is removed from the outside of a living tree at intervals, is attractive, natural, very renewable and embodies a distinct character.

Jute Carpeting: Jute is a renewable crop material, with very little energy required in the growth and manufacturing process. It has a long life, biodegrades upon disposal and can be recycled.


Other green flooring options include sisal, eucalyptus, recycled carpet tiles, recycled rubber, linoleum and reclaimed wood.

 Interior Finishes

Low VOC Paints: Low VOC paints are usually odourless and have no chemical solvents, which will improve indoor air quality. For eg. Casein paint is made from natural pigments, milk solids, lime, talcum, and salt.

Sisal: Sisal wall coverings offer a natural, durable, sound-absorbent alternative to paper and vinyl coverings. They are a renewable resource without any toxic pigments.

Thus, these and many more sustainable building materials can be incorporated into present construction techniques that can carve a greener way of  life. It’s only the careful selection of environmentally sustainable building materials that is the easiest way for architects to begin incorporating sustainable design principles in buildings.

Though the off-the-shelf price of a building component can be slightly intimidating, but it represents only the manufacturing and transportation costs. If the social and environmental costs were taken into consideration, the repercussions would be unrivalled.


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