Sustainable materials: The cost-effective home building guide

Sustainable materials


The benefits of green building are limitless. The global report from McGraw Hill construction on World Green Building Trends clearly demonstrates that, out of the 62 countries in the world, South Africa is in the top 10 countries that stand out in their efforts to adopt and develop more green buildings. With our dire levels of GHG (Green House Gas) emissions, this gives hope for an expected increase in future sustainable practices and our attempts to reduce our carbon emissions.


What are sustainable materials?

Sustainable building materials
refer to natural or reused resources which offer better performance, yet have a fraction of the impact that more traditional resources for building, have on the environment. These materials may either be grown naturally or gathered from recycled or waste materials, they contribute towards creating thermally efficient buildings and, in some cases, make for more cost-effective building. They should in actual fact positively contribute to the environment and the safekeeping of it i.e the production and transportation thereof should not entail the emission of greenhouse gases and should enable the creation of houses, which run more efficiently.


From an environmental perspective, using what’s already there is a step in the right direction in terms of sourcing sustainable building solutions, as our landfills are filling up and increasingly contributing towards levels of toxicity in the air. Ensuring that waste materials that can be reused do not land up in landfills, will be a much more sustainable practice, alleviating the strain our existing landfills are experiencing. The distinguishing factor between the building materials which are not sustainable and those that are, is relative to the amount of embodied energy the product or material has. The embodied energy is determined by the amount of energy that’s required to mine, manufacture and transport the material. The lower the level of embodied energy the material has, the more sustainable it is for use.


Benefits of going green

The largest benefits involved with going green are associated with:

    ● Its environmental benefits and the manner in which abiding by green building principles positively contributes towards preserving our planet.


The following benefits have been highlighted in the green building guide:


Factors of sustainable materials

Types of sustainable building materials:

Rubble (broken bricks from construction sites)

Recovering rubble from demolished buildings or old construction sites is one way of procuring materials with which to build a more sustainable home and will contribute towards a greener rating. The Green Building Council South Africa rates buildings according to its level of sustainability and the manner in which operations are run efficiently. Using reclaimed ‘waste’ materials (especially reusing concrete in the way in which Cape Brick is currently using concrete bricks from demolished sites) is a prime example of how you can take something which has high levels of embodied energy and transform it into something which has less of a negative impact on the environment.

Recycled steel

Steel is largely used in construction and there tends to be a lot of waste on these building sites. Using the debris of this steel in other projects can pose much value and prevent excess cut-offs from landing up in landfills. As a lightweight product, it can be easily transported and lifted in place - it doesn’t require heavy weight-lifting machinery that may negatively affect the environment. As mentioned before, reusing what’s already there is the kind of thinking that needs to be adopted when sourcing sustainable and environmentally-friendly building materials.



Hempcrete is illegal in South Africa but, with the usage of hemp as a sustainable building solution, proposals have been put forward to government which are now seriously being considered. The rolling out of hemp as a sustainable industrial material and for the development of other products is in a commercial incubation research trial phase, conducted by the department of health which is set to conclude in 2015. The industrial use of hemp has been underway for a number of years now and in some countries never stopped at all. It’s not a fad, nor a trend. The industrial use of ‘hemp’ holds many ecological and economic benefits and is a highly sustainable building alternative.   


From an environmental perspective the plant grows easily and the growth of the crop alone is beneficial as it emits biomass into the environment, which absorbs carbon dioxide making it carbon negative. As with the usage of straw bale being less expensive for development purposes, hempcrete too is relatively inexpensive as it grows quite easily and has multiple uses - not only can it be used industrially but there are a number of other products that can be made from it as well. Furthermore, it’s being considered as an opportunity to expand the textile industry too.


There are a number of other sustainable resources that are available to us. Machinery is now available to mould sustainable bricks from adobe and hydraform, thus being able to rework recycled materials for reuse. However, it’s important to remember that the more machinery and energy is involved with the making of these products, the less sustainable they all become.


Sustainable design

The way in which your home is designed and constructed will have a direct impact on your energy consumption and you should bear a few of the following suggestions in mind:

At the initial phases of the design process, the position at which you have your home built is crucial:

    ● Make sure that the longest side of your home faces north as this ensures that your house gets a desirable amount of sun.

    ● Ensure that your roof overhang is, at the very minimum, 40-60 cm in length. This ensures that windows are adequately shielded in summer when the sun is pelting down, but also allows the sun’s rays through in winter, when the sun shines at a lower angle.

Is green building cost-effective?

Real estate and property development can be an expensive business at the best of times, the amount of money spent on building a new home or making extensions, is the very reason why home and buildings cover is necessary. The home insurance premium that we pay on a monthly basis for the safety and security of our homes is a small price to pay, to protect the asset that we’re most likely to invest the most in.


This guide on the sustainable alternatives available, as opposed to the more traditional mediums for building and construction, may ease your concerns somewhat. These materials will still enable you to develop the work of art you had in mind, ergonomically designed and developed, with the added feature of being eco-friendly and sustainable. We’re all trying to find environmentally smarter ways of doing things. This is why, as a consumer, you may be interested in comparing the pros and cons of using sustainable building materials as opposed to using more traditional resources.

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