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Sustainable Material Selection Summary

Every building material comes with an environmental cost of some sort.

However, some principles can help guide your choice of sustainable
materials and construction systems. Careful analysis and selection of
materials and the way they are combined can yield significant
improvements in the comfort and cost effectiveness of your home, and
greatly reduce its life cycle environmental impact.
The first step in any strategy to use sustainable materials is to reduce the
demand for new materials. Rather than knocking down and rebuilding a
home, its worth trying where possible to renovate or at least reuse
materials from the existing home. Consider building smaller, welldesigned houses and minimising wastage by using prefabricated or
modular elements, for example, and by avoiding unnecessary linings and
finishes. During design and construction, incorporate approaches that will
make it easier to adapt, reuse and eventually dismantle the building. By
choosing durable, low maintenance materials, you can minimise the need
for new materials and finishes over the buildings lifetime.
The next step is to select materials with low environmental impact. Put
simply, a sustainable material is one that does not impact negatively on
non-renewable resources, the natural environment or human health. Most
products have a net-negative impact on the environment; however, its
important to minimise the negative impacts of any materials you choose.
When looking at the environmental impact of a material or product,
consider all stages of the life cycle the upstream stage (materials
extraction and manufacture), the in-use or operational stage, and the
downstream stage (disposal or reuse).
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a highly detailed scientific analysis that
examines all the life cycle impacts of a product in great detail. An LCA
quantifies the majority of known chemical, physical, resource-based and
energy impacts of a material or product. It provides us with increasingly
more comprehensive and useful assessments of the sustainability
credentials of products and materials, allowing better and easier
comparisons between products.
Although some progressive housing companies and developers are
starting to embrace LCA, a customised LCA may be beyond the scope of
many home building or renovation projects. Selecting products with low
life cycle impact can be complex as there are many issues to take into
account. However, there is decision-making support available.
Eco-product selection databases such as Eco specifier enable you to
access information on the sustainability credentials of a broad range of
materials and products. Product assessment schemes, many of them
based on LCA, allow you to make even more informed comparisons. These
include Eco specifier Verified, BREEAMs Green Guide and Global Green

Tag. Linked to such assessment schemes is a range of ecolabels including

Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA), Global GreenTagCertTM and
the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council).
Informed decisions about materials and construction systems can
significantly reduce the environmental impact of a home without adding to
the cost.
Embodied energy:
Embodied energy is the energy consumed by all of the processes
associated with the production of a building, from the mining and
processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and product
delivery. Embodied energy does not include the operation and disposal of
the building material. This would be considered in a life cycle approach.
Embodied energy is the upstream or front-end component of the life
cycle impact of a home.
Choices of materials and construction methods can significantly change
the amount of energy embodied in the structure of a building, as
embodied energy content varies enormously between different materials.
However, assessing the embodied energy of a material, component or
whole building is often a complex task. Another significant factor in
reducing the impact of embodied energy is to design long life, durable and
adaptable buildings.
Waste minimisation:
Around 42% of the solid waste generated in Australia is building waste. A
lot of energy and resources go into the manufacture and transport of
materials used to construct a home, yet eventually most of these
materials end up in landfill. Minimising and recycling waste can have
significant social, economic and environmental benefits.
The three Rs of waste minimisation reduce, reuse, recycle should be
applied throughout the design and construction process: reduce (or avoid)
demand for materials by renovating rather than demolishing and
rebuilding, and building smaller homes that are better designed for your
needs; reuse existing materials or building components; and recycle
materials rather than sending them to landfill.
Construction systems:
The combinations of materials used to build the main elements of our
homes roof, walls and floor are referred to as construction systems.
They are many and varied, and each has advantages and disadvantages
depending on climate, distance from source of supply, budget,
maintenance requirements and desired style or appearance. Important
factors that may influence your choice of construction system include its
durability, life cycle environmental impact, life cycle cost effectiveness,

role in improving thermal performance, and reuse or recycling potential,

as well as local availability of materials and skills needed to construct the
Lightweight framing:
Lightweight framed construction is the most popular construction system
in Australia. Steel and timber, the two most commonly used framing
materials, can contribute to the comfort, appeal and environmental
performance of a home. By assessing environmental impact, structural
capability, thermal performance, sound insulation, fire resistance, vermin
resistance, durability and moisture resistance, owner builders can come to
a decision on what is the best option for their situation.
Brickwork and blockwork:
Bricks and blocks are components of durable masonry construction. They
consist of high mass materials with good compressive strength formed
into units that can be lifted and handled by a single worker. Materials used
can include brick, stone (e.g. marble, granite, travertine and limestone),
manufactured stone, concrete, glass, stucco and tile. They vary in
environmental impact, structural capability, thermal performance, sound
insulation, fire resistance, vermin resistance, durability and moisture
resistance. Of the many kinds of bricks and blocks used in modern
Australian house construction the most common are made from concrete
or clay.
Cladding is a non-loadbearing skin or layer attached to the outside of a
home to shed water and protect the building from the effects of weather.
Your choice of cladding has significant implications for the environmental
performance of your home. Initial environmental impacts such as
embodied energy, resource depletion and recyclability must be balanced
against maintenance and durability appropriate to life span. Many
different cladding options are available, some best suited to specific
Concrete slab floors:
Concrete slab floors come in many forms and can play a significant role in
thermal comfort due to their high thermal mass. Slabs can be on-ground,
suspended, or a mix of both. Often a slab will need insulation in order to
perform satisfactorily. Polishing or tiling a slab allows for better utilisation
of its thermal mass. Conventional concrete is responsible for high
greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from the production of Portland cement
and the mining of raw materials. However, this impact can be significantly
reduced through the use of cement extenders (e.g. fly ash, ground blast
furnace slag and silica fume), new cements (e.g. geopolymers,

magnesium cements), and alternative forms of concrete (e.g. hemp

Insulating concrete forms:
Insulating concrete forms (ICFs) are proprietary modular units in the form
of interlocking blocks or panels, made from polystyrene or polyurethane
foam and filled with concrete. Substantial thermal mass and structural
support is contained within easily stacked and joined insulation. The
sealed nature of the construction and the high levels of insulation make
these units particularly suited to projects seeking to achieve very high
levels of thermal performance, and they have been used extensively in
Europe for homes that meet the passive house standard.
Autoclaved aerated concrete:
Autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC) is concrete that has been
manufactured to contain many closed air pockets. It is lightweight with a
moderate embodied energy content and performs well as thermal and
sound insulation, due to the aerated structure of the material and its
unique combination of thermal insulation and thermal mass. AAC is light,
does not burn, is an excellent fire barrier, and is able to support quite
large loads. It is relatively easy to work with and can be cut and shaped
with hand tools. AAC comes in the form of blocks, storey-height wall
panels, and floor or roof panels.
Precast concrete:
Precast concrete offers durable, flexible solutions to floor, wall and even
roof construction in every type of housing from individual cottages to
multi-storey apartments. High initial embodied energy can be offset by its
extended life cycle (up to 100 years) and high potential for reuse and
relocation. Common production methods include tilt-up (poured on site)
and precast (poured off site and transported to site). Each method has
advantages and disadvantages, and choice is determined by site access,
availability of local recasting facilities, required finishes and design
Mud brick:
The ideal building material would be borrowed from the environment and
replaced after use. There would be little or no processing of the raw
material and all the energy inputs would be directly, or indirectly, from the
sun. This ideal material would also be cheap and would perform well
thermally and acoustically. If used carefully mud bricks come close to this
ideal. Basic mud bricks are made by mixing earth with water, placing the
mixture into moulds and drying the bricks in the open air. Straw or other
fibres that are strong in tension are often added to the bricks to help
reduce cracking. Mud bricks are joined with a mud mortar and can be

used to build walls, vaults and domes. With its low embodied energy, this
ancient construction method has much to commend it.
Rammed earth:
Rammed earth walls are constructed by ramming a mixture of selected
aggregates, including gravel, sand, silt and a small amount of clay, into
place between flat panels called formwork. Stabilised rammed earth is a
variant of traditional rammed earth that adds a small amount of cement
to increase strength and durability. Most of the energy used in the
construction of rammed earth is in quarrying the raw material and
transporting it to the site. Use of on-site materials can lessen energy
consumed in construction. Rammed earth provides limited insulation but
excellent thermal mass.
Straw bale:
Straw has been used as a building material for centuries for thatch roofing
and also mixed with earth in cob and wattle and daub walls. Straw is
derived from grasses and is regarded as a renewable building material.
Straw bale walls are surprisingly resistant to fire, vermin and decay.
Finished straw bale walls are invariably rendered with cement or earth so
that the straw is not visible. The final appearance of rendered straw bale
can be very smooth and almost indistinguishable from rendered masonry,
or it can be more expressive and textural.
Green roofs and walls:
Green roofs and walls are building elements designed to support living
vegetation in order to improve a buildings performance. Also known as
living roofs and walls, they are emerging as important additions to the
palette of construction techniques for creating healthy, ecologically
responsible buildings. They can contribute to thermal performance,
stormwater management, biodiversity conservation and local food
production. A green roof is a roof surface, flat or pitched, that is planted
partially or completely with vegetation and a growing medium over a
waterproof membrane. They may be extensive and have a thin growing
medium with groundcover vegetation, or intensive and have soil 200mm
deep or more supporting vegetation up to the size of trees. Green walls
are external or internal vertical building elements that support a cover of
vegetation that is rooted either in stacked pots or growing mats.
Green Materials Basics:
When considering the environmental properties of materials, look for
materials that are abundant, non-toxic, have low embodied energy, and
meet or exceed regulations.

You also need to ensure that the material has the right physical properties
to get the job done and that it wont drive up costs.
Tools for Green Material Selection:
Having access to good materials data is critical for making these tradeoffs. The Eco Materials Adviser tool, available as part of Autodesk
Inventor, helps inform material selection early in the design process. It is
based on a comprehensive materials database from Grant Design and
provides data about a materials embodied energy, embodied CO2,
embodied water, cost, RoHS compliance, and physical properties.
Embodied Energy of Materials:
A materials embodied energy is the energy that must be used to extract,
transport, and process the material. For a product that doesnt require
energy during use, like a chair, the materials embodied energy is often
the biggest source of carbon footprint and environmental impact.
A great way to reduce embodied energy is to specify recycled materials
for your designs. For example, using recycled aluminium can cut
embodied energy by 90%. If youre using recyclable materials, youll also
want to design your product to ensure those materials can be recovered
at the products end of life.
Health Impacts of Materials:
Materials can sometimes also have negative health impacts, and some
materials are regulated for this reason. For example, electronics sold in
Europe need to meet the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive
(RoHS). You can avoid health impacts by avoiding toxins, clearly labelling
them when they are used, and designing-in product safeguards like childproof lids.
Tools to Identify Environmental Properties of Materials:
To find data on the environmental properties of materials, you can use
databases published by companies like Grant Design. The Eco-Materials
Adviser tool within Autodesk Inventor has an Eco-Impact dashboard which
displays data from Grant Design on embodied energy, carbon footprint,
embodied water, end-of-life options, and RoHS compliance.
Lifecycle Assessment for Materials Analysis:
Conduct lifecycle assessment (LCA) on your design to dive into more
detailed analysis that can help inform material choice. While more timeconsuming, LCA usually includes more nuanced data on variables like

ozone layer depletion, air pollution, water acidification and eutrophication,

land use, Eco toxicity, and carcinogens.
Every pound of material that you save in your product saves much more
waste and material upstream. Material Inputs and Ecological Rucksacks
are closely related concepts that provide a tangible short-hand for
understanding this larger ecological impact of the products and materials
around us, and can help understand the importance of light weighting.
An items Material Input (MI) is the total quantity (in kg) of materials
moved from nature to create a product or service. For example, you have
to dig up and dispose of about seven kilogram of material to make one
kilogram of virgin steel. The Ecological Rucksack is the Material Input
minus the actual weight of the product, and highlights the hidden material
These figures are based on a life cycle approach from the cradle to the
point when the product is ready for use. They seek to quantify material
inputs derived from raw materials use (including minerals, fuels, and
biomass), earth movement, water, and air.
This concept originated with Friedrich Schmidt-Bleak from the Wuppertal
Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany.
Basic Material Input Data:
Industrial products often carry rucksacks that are about 30 times their
own weight. So only about 5% of the non-renewable natural material
disturbed in the ecosphere actually ends up in a technically useful form.
For example, the ecological rucksack of a personal computer is about 200
kg per kg of product (Schmidt-Bleak, Man stein, & Gerhard, June 1999).
The table below contains Material Input factors for some common raw
materials used in industrial products.
Using Material Input Data:
To calculate the Material Input of your product, multiply the mass of each
material you use by its Material Input factor, and then sum these values.
Considering the Material Input per Service Unit (MIPS = MI/ S) is a good
way to compare the resource consumption of different solutions that
produce the same service. The metric you use for the service unit (S)
depends on your product, but could be hours used or distance travelled.
To improve the resource productivity of the solution, you can either
increase its service lifetime or reduce its material input.
Physical Properties of Materials:

To select greener materials you need to consider the materials

environmental, cost, and performance impacts on your design. A
materials performance depends on its physical properties, and optimizing
this is the most important way to reduce your products environmental
Energy use often causes the biggest environmental impact for products
that consume much energy during their use, like refrigerators and cars.
Creating a lighter weight car can save far more energy than reducing the
embodied energy of its materials.
Tools to Identify Physical Properties of Materials:
The Eco-Materials Adviser within Autodesk Inventor includes a materials
database that is searchable by properties such as strength, stiffness,
density, price, and thermal conductivity.