Sustainable Materials In Construction:
What And Why?

From the construction of family homes, offices and apartment blocks, to state-of-the-art sporting, educational or healthcare facilities, there is an increasing need to use and develop sustainable building materials that not only have less of a negative impact on the environment, but also that will improve the energy efficiency of buildings, and are more cost-effective.

Architects and building-owners alike are keen to meet sustainability goals in order to hit ‘green certification’ targets, as well as catering to the public interest in “healthy” buildings – but there is more to it than that…

A sustainable material is one that can be used without being completely used up or destroyed, or destroy natural resources and that will last for generations. The word ‘sustainability’ has become a bit of a buzzword in construction circles in recent times, but why should it be one of our top priorities when it comes to buildings?

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the construction industry has a huge environmental impact. The equipment involved more often than not relies heavily on fossil fuels, and the production and shipping of materials contributes hugely to carbon emissions. The 2018 Smart Market World Green Building Trends reported that the UK has a moderate level of green building activity, and that 40% of construction firms expect the majority of their projects will be green by the end of 2021. Of the 60% who haven’t made such claims, 40% have reported that the main thing holding them back from adopting sustainable construction practices is the cost.

However, with 34% of clients now demanding such practices, it’s easy to see why some construction firms – particularly smaller ones – feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place as far as demand Vs cost goes.

Despite the challenges that countless construction companies face to compete with those who are giving the people what they want – sustainable, environmentally building options – the reasons to get on board and invest in sustainability are numerous and varied.

Responsibility

Reputation is everything, and certainly something that can be bolstered by being one of the ‘good guys’ when it comes to using sustainable materials. With the UK set on achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, construction companies need to play their part or be faced with large fines on top of suffering from potential reputational damage.

As a building firm, taking up sustainable practices shows the public that you are aware, responsible, and mindful of the environment. Demand for construction is at an all time high thanks to rapid urbanisation and population growth, and there is a school of thought that says as it’s construction companies who will benefit financially from this, they should be doing what they can to reduce the impact their work has on the environment in return.

Building Something To Last

It sounds obvious to say, but a building that will last longer means lower maintenance costs and less up-keep, saving on time and money – both incredibly valuable commodities to architects, project managers, and building owners alike. This reason alone should be enough to convince anyone to use sustainable materials in the field of construction!

Low-flow plumbing, aluminium constructs – such as the Cobalt Hybrid balcony, solar panels, reclaimed wood, cork flooring, are just some examples of sustainable options that can save more than just money.

Let’s take balconies for instance (as they’re our area of expertise!), which have traditionally been primarily constructed of concrete. Concrete is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to pollution caused by the construction industry; in fact, it contributes to 8% of all carbon pollution produced globally. That’s huge – just imagine the positive impact on the environment if we were to replace all of the concrete balconies in London with our strong, durable and 100% sustainable Cobalt Hybrid version.

Workforce Demand

Labour shortages in the construction industry have been rife in recent years, especially before the pandemic hit. Attracting the next generation of workers could be made easier by employing new environmental and social practices. Younger generations are becoming more environmentally aware and conscious, and could certainly consider a company’s impact on the environment important when looking for employment.

It might not be a point you’ve ever considered, but by using sustainable materials, reducing waste and, in turn, reducing your firm’s carbon footprint, you could stand out favourably from other employers in the industry.

Saving Energy

Using sustainable building materials conserves energy on two levels. First of all, by using more efficient materials in the construction of buildings – we’re talking green insulating materials, on-demand water heaters, smart thermostats, low-flow toilets etc. Second of all, energy will be conserved on an even larger scale due to the fact that the manufacturing process of sustainable building materials results in less waste products, and therefore contributes less to the world’s landfills. 32% of all landfill waste comes from construction – with 13% of products delivered to sites going directly to landfill without even being used.

The use of sustainable materials within the building industry could cut those numbers dramatically over time.

Health Benefits

The main function, of course, of most buildings is to house human beings – either as an abode, a place of work, of research, of care, of learning….and a sustainably constructed building is going to be much healthier than one that isn’t.

Sustainable materials emit very few – if any – toxins, such as carcinogens, mould spores or volatile organic compounds (VOC’s)

It’s even possible to include materials into your build that can improve a building’s air quality. For example there are laminates available that don’t use toxic glues, insulation that will prevent mould, and natural wool carpeting.

Giving The Client What They Want

Despite the fact that the level of green building in the UK is ‘moderate’, client demand for green buildings is growing fast and is expected to continue. Over 80% of those surveyed said that it was ‘important’ or ‘very important’ that companies design environmentally conscious products, and for the construction industry this includes how materials are sourced, manufactured, and packaged.

A huge portion of this is down to companies becoming increasingly aware of the impact healthy buildings can have on the wellbeing and productivity of their staff. Businesses see this as an ‘invest now, see a return later’ type scenario, and are becoming more and more likely to seek out sustainable building practices in the construction of their offices and workspaces.

As more and more people become aware of the health benefits of green buildings, we can only assume that demand for environmentally sound building practices when it comes to the construction of new schools, hospitals, apartments and houses will follow suit.

However, cost is just as much of an issue for the client as it can be for construction companies; although 95% said that they would be willing to pay more for sustainable materials and environmentally conscious building practices, 66% of those surveyed did admit that cost is what would impede them.

Minimising Waste

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the more we reuse products, the less we deplete resources and waste energy manufacturing new ones, and a lot of sustainable building materials use reclaimed or recycled materials in their production.

Even just using a few sustainable materials in the construction of buildings – a Cobalt Hybrid balcony here, an LED light bulb there… can make a big difference to our carbon footprint and minimise the construction industry’s environmental impact.

The construction industry is currently in the position to be a real forerunner of social change, and the growing demand for construction means that how we now move forward could be incredibly influential. Despite the fact that cost appears to be an obstacle for both companies and clients, there is room for manoeuvre, with potential customers expressing a willingness and a desire to pay more for sustainable choices.

Heading into the future, bylaws (local, if not national) are going to mean that companies will need to adhere to better environmental practices within the construction industry today, or risk being left behind tomorro.

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