Bamboo Forest

With today’s urgent focus on climate change and caring for the planet, responsible architects, designers, and construction companies look for more sustainable building materials.

What Is Sustainability?

According to Investopedia:

“In the broadest sense, sustainability refers to the ability to maintain or support a process continuously over time. In business and policy contexts, sustainability seeks to prevent the depletion of natural or physical resources, so that they will remain available for the long term.”

So, in the construction industry, sustainable means using more renewable raw materials or recycled products. Scientists and manufacturers have continued to discover new ways to use materials that we can easily regenerate, invent new environmentally friendly building products, and improve recycling processes. Keeping up to date on the latest sustainable building material trends can be challenging.

Some current building materials with environmental advantages include bamboo, recycled foam insulation, concrete from seashells, straw bales, hempcrete, wood insulation, and recycled steel.


You see bamboo used today in everything from cooking utensils and cutting boards to building materials. It’s sustainable because it grows fast and reaches full maturity in three to eight years. When the material is harvested, the plant doesn’t die. Instead, it continues to grow without needing to be replanted. As a building material, bamboo can be used for permanent or temporary structures. It’s flexible but strong, shock absorbing and lasts a long time. There’s also no waste or pollution connected to using bamboo.

Recycled Foam Insulation

Recycled foam insulation can be created from recycled plastic products like bottles or unused foam insulation from other projects. Often leftover foam insulation at building sites ends up in the landfill. Recycling it by reforming it into new foam insulation is a great, green alternative.

Tabby Concrete and Sea Stone

Every year, the seafood industry disposes of 7 million tons of shells. While some are recycled and used for fertilizer, much of it ends up in landfills. Getting rid of seashells costs companies a lot and damages the environment.

When crushed and graded, seashells can replace other aggregates in concrete. Doing so cuts the amount of quarrying and mining to collect aggregates. Such mining depletes irreplaceable natural resources and has negative environmental impacts like increased erosion. In early American history, the colonists used the shell-based concrete for fort walls in the Carolinas, and there’s been a resurgence of the practice in recent years for certain kinds of concrete products.

Because the shell bits are irregular, some experts think the resulting concrete doesn’t stand up as well, but such concrete is excellent for landscaping uses like retaining walls and statuary. Several companies are working toward perfecting the shell grinding processes for future uses.

Ground shells can also be combined with non-toxic binders to create “Sea Stone”. Sea Stone designers add textures and natural dies for color to make small decorative items and tabletops. The product is more sustainable and can function as a slightly less strong alternative to concrete.


Another alternative to concrete is hempcrete, also known as hemp line. Hemp concrete is made from the hemp hurd or shiv, the woody core of the hemp plant, water, and a lime binder. With its high silica content, the plant’s center binds well with the lime and creates a lightweight material like concrete. It weighs six to eight times less and works well for insulation and some construction. The material can be sprayed as insulation or comes in blocks.

Hempcrete, like Sea Stone and tabby concrete, lacks the strength and density of concrete, so it doesn’t work alone for load-bearing walls. Builders are nevertheless finding uses for it because it’s fireproof, affordable, lightweight, mold-resistant, insulating, durable, and environmentally friendly.

Straw Bales

Straw is a renewable resource, and builders use stacked straw bales covered by concrete or stucco to build walls. The practice started in the 1800s but was rediscovered and revamped in the 1990s. Straw bale walls are more common in dry climates like the desert Southwest region of the United States because, in arid areas, mold doesn’t present as much of a problem.

There are advantages and disadvantages of straw bale walls. Benefits include their insulation factor and sustainability; disadvantages include the need for a larger lot and problems with local building codes. The technique shouldn’t be used in wet climates, and amateurs will need to learn new techniques, but some Nebraska houses built with these walls have stood up to over 100 years of harsh weather.

Wood Fiber Insulation

Wood Fiber insulation was used in Germany as far back as the 1930s, and it’s making a resurgence. Wood-fiber insulation, is made from softwood chips, like cellulose insulation is made from paper. The product, available from multiple manufacturers, comes loose for blow-in applications, or as fiberboards, external composite systems, tongue-and-groove roofing products, and rigid wood fiberboard.

Wood fiber insulation uses no artificial additives, making recycling easy and safe. Like all wood products, it’s safe and renewable. The suppliers also only harvest wood from sustainable forests.

Recycled Steel

The last on our list is recycled steel, and it’s not new, but with over 80 million tons of steel recycled each year in North America, builders use more recycled steel today than ever before. The process has become more efficient in recent years, and by recycling one ton of steel, we don’t use 2500 pounds of iron ore, 120 pounds of limestone, and 1400 pounds of coal.

Beams from old torn-down buildings, scrapped cars, appliances, and cans are melted down, reformed, and reshaped to be used again in new construction. Steel can be recycled multiple times without losing any strength.

Saving the planet has become a priority for many companies, and builders want to use sustainable materials whenever possible. With new sustainable materials coming to market and recycling processes improving every year, it’s important to keep up to date with the available products and advantages and disadvantages of each.


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