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What are Sustainable Building Materials? Characteristics & Benefits

What are sustainable building materials? 

In building design, the selection of materials is an essential and critical element of the actual designing of the physical building; The aim is materials that fulfill the built assets design goals within certain financial constraints The selection of green materials however has recently taken center stage in this process with a view at creating green buildings with minimal environmental impact without an exponential increase in the costs. Thus, the systematic selection of sustainable building materials begins with defining the building’s characteristics through design requirements, for example, the ability to insulate.  

To begin with, the designer or architect needs to have a comprehensive knowledge of the features of the construction materials and how they work under the pressure of the regional environment. In harsh climates such as Saudi Arabia, there needs to be considerable consideration on aspects of heat resistance, corrosion, mechanical capability, thermal conductivity; in short, these parameters are what constitutes the “sustainability of the product” and this might differ in other climates or regions.

Today, existing built assets are suffering the consequences of using short-lived building materials that are negatively impacting property owners. It is because these materials are cheap and readily available in the market that ideal and long-lasting materials in comparison seem more expensive and are often not chosen; Cheap materials do not necessarily mean less expensive assets. 

How do you select building materials?

The selection of materials is a tricky business. Not only does one need to understand the composition and specifications of the item and how it fulfills the design goals, but one also needs to keep in mind the logistical costs involved in receiving it.

This causes many developers to forego quality products in favor of inexpensive materials. The poor choice of building materials does indeed make it easier to complete construction and sometimes the value of the work based on certain materials may be equal or greater than the value of the material itself. While this shaves off cost initially, in the long run, material deficiencies end up costing more in maintenance and upkeep; While your CAPEX costs might be suppressed, OPEX costs will balloon considerably.

Poor quality is a major detriment in the life span of the building. Over time, the deficiencies in building materials surface and corrode the building under the pressure of the external environment. This is why the choice of building materials during the design process affects the long-term impact of the building, which is largely reflected in the performance of the building. 

For example, the construction materials for the external walls of the building play an important role in determining the performance and energy consumption. A good facade regulates the exchange of external heat or cold and ensures efficient energy usage inside the building. Poorly selected construction material also impacts the interior. Finishing materials such as paints, insulators, adhesives, may contain a large proportion of volatile chemicals that pose a threat to people’s health. This is an even greater cause of concern as most people spend the majority of their time indoors, especially in the Saudi heat. 

Supporting sustainability in the provision of building materials

 In modern cities, the urban environment constitutes man-made structures and physical objects that positively or negatively influence the surrounding environment. Sustainability can be integrated into the urban environment by applying green building foundations, which will mitigate negative impacts and enhance positive impacts.

In the construction process, structural materials are extracted from nature and manipulated to be used in construction. Each of these materials has unique roots, chemical compositions, and different life cycles, whether at the level of extraction, manufacture, and use, and all the way to either a landfill or for reuse and recycling. It also takes a significant amount of energy for the process to come full circle and it leaves a negative impact on the environment. All of these elements are important considerations to the price and composition of durable materials.

Sustainable buildings or green buildings are built with sustainable methods and materials that facilitate green practices, allowing for durable and long-lasting lifestyles.  Green construction, operation, and maintenance have few impacts on the land, with better economic returns and being healthy, and maintaining human public health.

In order to achieve sustainability in building materials, the efficiency of products and building materials must be measured on the three sustainability components to achieve the minimum line of sustainability, and some of the main characteristics of sustainable building materials can be deduced by identifying some of the main characteristics of the materials through the following:

Environment

A sustainable building is built in a way that helps create as little negative impact as possible on the surrounding ecosystem (even no impact in the case of Net Zero Buildings). It encourages the strengthening of the ecosystem by integrating the physical element into the local environment to instill a positive impact. 

Sustainable manufacturing or the use of local materials and tools such as The McCaN reduces carbon generation resulting from manufacturing, supply, construction, and disposal processes after consumption in landfills. 

The two ways this can be achieved is by the consumption of domestic materials contributing to reducing carbon from logistics; it reduces the distance and energy needed to transfer the materials from the source to the project area, and the consumption of recycled materials that reduces the amount of carbon generated by the raw material manufacturing processes and also reducing the natural demand for raw materials.

Some building materials may be considered sustainable through recognition from international organizations that are in accordance with specific conditions. For example, In some countries, certain types of timber are considered sustainable if they have a sustainable forest management certificate. The basic idea of this recognition is that timber was grown using sustainable forest management, addressed using sustainable energy transported through sustainable transport, etc. Forests reclaimed by humans are allocated to be relied upon in woodland operations without compromising the nature and raw materials found in nature.

This is when a Life Cycle assessment is conducted on the material to understand its extraction, manufacturing all the way through to transportation, and the end method of disposal. The prototype of the material is evaluated in stages with planning, design, and implementation. As a result, materials are selected based on longevity, renewal, and performance efficiency. Analysis of the product’s life cycle ensures that positive values are recognized in line with environmental, economic, and social impacts.

Economy

Economic sustainability aims to increase the economic efficiency of products, growth, and employment opportunities in the local market. In other words, it seeks to target better-performing materials with fewer negative economic impacts on both individuals and society. 

Mechanical or structural materials are essential elements of sustainable design therefore, their use in construction processes contributes to reducing the total cost of the project. For example, sustainable materials use some natural additives, reducing the adverse effects of a harsh local environment. Iron or steel is commonly used in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Much of the steel on the domestic market contains a large proportion of recycled components that have made steel an economically competitive material because recycled parts are more affordable than something made from scratch. Therefore, the choice of a sustainable solution in steel is financially feasible compared to raw steel and can further reduce the operating costs of the building. 

Sustainable concrete in the outer walls can be an ideal choice in reducing energy consumption and the need for cooling within the building. This is thanks to the presence of natural, environmentally friendly sustainable materials that are involved in the formation of concrete that contributes to raising the thermal efficiency of the material to work on insulation more than standard concrete, thereby reducing the overall demand for energy for cooling processes within the building. This will have a positive economic impact on the performance of the operational building and reduce the operating cost. 

Environmental impact can also be shared with the economic impact of providing solutions that contribute to reducing both effects. For example, common cement consumes large amounts of energy in its production, but fly ash from coal-fired power plants and pollutants from cement plants (all cement production residues) are used at specific proportions in cement, resulting in high-pressure and cost-saving cement.

Society

Sustainability contributes to a better life for all. An individual spends most of his time in the internal environment and sustainability can reflect this by supporting building materials that maintain human health and reduce the risk of volatile substances in the internal environment.

The quality of air in the interior is achieved in several design methods such as shape, nature of the ocean, and its relationships with open outdoor spaces, and daylight and natural ventilation. These are critical components of sustainability in buildings so they make most of the natural elements and reduce reliance on industrial elements. 

Some components of the internal materials include toxic and biologically accumulated substances, persistent organic pollutants, volatile pollutants, and some heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, all of which are particularly dangerous to health. 

Although the interior decoration and furniture industry consistently offers more environmentally friendly and indoor alternatives, many of these compounds are found in used timber products, paints, dyes, and sealants. Due to the extreme difficulty in identifying chemicals, organic matter, and gases involved in the formation of building materials and finishes, several databases and analytical tools in some websites can identify the void and appropriate sustainable building materials. 

Similarly, some organizations dealing with sustainable materials give certificates of recognition that the substances do not contain toxic substances or contain a proportion of chemicals that are not harmful to health. A third-party analysis of sustainable materials can also help obtain similar results.

The building materials market in Saudi Arabia is witnessing remarkable development and rapid expansion in adopting sustainability features in building materials. Certificates and recognitions of sustainable materials are already available and play a vital role in the decision-making of many entrepreneurs and projects. 

To properly support the sustainability chain, the supply and demand system in the domestic market is the primary driver in determining the economic status of building materials. Adopting local products is a supporting link in the sustainability chain of building materials. It reduces the carbon footprint in the logistics chain and also reduces and also encourages the recycling and reuse of the materials until it is retired to the landfill. It also provides a sustainable internal economy that enhances the contribution of individuals and entities in achieving Vision 2030.

In conclusion

Based on the above, some key points that contribute to sustainability can be summarized by supporting the main pillars of sustainability: the environment, the economy, and the society, to promote the concept of using sustainable, environmentally friendly building materials at a low economic cost, and maintaining public health as follows:

  • Take into account the essential characteristics of the materials. This is done by determining the building’s correct and standard design requirements;
  • Get sustainability information. Knowing the essential qualities of sustainable materials can play a significant role in decision-making, especially in a harsh working environment such as Saudi Arabia;
  • If the information of the material is not readily at hand, consider life cycle assessments or Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). The environmental, economic, and health effects of the product can be determined by the life cycle of the material from extraction, manufacture, use, and final disposal;
  • Take into account the energy required in the life cycle. This has a significant impact on the total cost of the material;
  • Priority selection. Often for materials coming from local sources, the adoption of materials with abundance in the local market reduces the project’s total cost;
  • Consider your options. Use products with recycled components from another product, and make sure to recycle waste;
  • A healthy indoor environment. This reduces extraneous substances and finishes, building materials containing toxic chemicals, volatile and semi-volatile organic substances, gases, and compounds that harm public health;
  • Choose building materials that produce few pollutant emissions during and after installation;
  • Consider the source of the product—the need to determine whether product extraction harms the surrounding environment;
  • Select the correct specifications through design specifications that have a long-term impact on the performance of the building;
  • Sustainability does not mean expensive building materials. They do not contain standard specifications that are difficult to obtain, but they greatly support the financial product and encourage the support of the national economy;

If you are interested in ensuring that the materials for your next project are durable and sustainable, reach out to us on [email protected]!