In this guide, we explain what sustainable construction, building and housing is, along with providing examples of materials, practices, solutions, and more.
This guide compliments our separate guide on the potential pros and cons of sustainable construction, building, and housing.
What Is Sustainable Construction, Building & Housing?
Construction, building and houses involve the design and formation of different types of structures.
Some of these structures may include dwellings like residential houses, commercial and industrial buildings, as well as other built objects.
In addition to the design and construction of these structures, there’s the operation/use of these structures and dwellings to consider, as well as any maintenance, renovation and eventual deconstruction or demolition.
Some structures have occupants, whilst others don’t.
Sustainable construction, building and housing involves meeting sustainability criteria across the lifecycle of a structure.
Some of the lifecycle factors to consider can include but aren’t limited to:
– The type of structure
– The design of the structure
– The materials used for the structure
– The construction practices used to build the structure
– Operation of, or use of the structure
– Behaviour of the structure occupants if there are any
– Maintenance or changes to the structure over the time of it’s use
– Eventual demolition or deconstruction of the structure
Sustainability criteria might span across the following main areas:
– Environmental Sustainability
– Sustainable Resource Management
– Social Sustainability (including human health, safety and well being)
– Economic Sustainability
How Construction, Building & Housing Might Be More Sustainable Across Different Sustainability Criteria Areas
A few examples across the different sustainability criteria areas include but aren’t limited to:
Reducing environmental pollution that comes from construction waste during the construction stage
Reducing the carbon footprint of building systems like heating/cooling systems, and also lighting, during the occupancy stage
Sustainable Resource Management
Being more efficient with the use of resources like energy, water, building materials and other resources used in the construction stage
Recycling, re-using or finding alternate uses for waste and used resources during the construction stage
Increasing the energy efficiency of building systems and lighting during the building use/occupancy stage
Using building materials and designs that are better for human safety and human health both during the construction stage and usage/occupancy stage
… this could involve using construction materials that are less toxic and less hazardous, and also implementing safer structural and architectural designs
… these things can better protect both construction worker health/safety, and also building occupant health/safety
Using building designs and materials that are sustainable environmentally and from a resource management perspective, but are also cost efficient and/or affordable
Measuring, Evaluating & Assessing Construction, Building & Housing Sustainability
There are many rating systems and tools that have been used to provide evaluations and assessments of different aspects of construction, building and housing.
But, the best way might be a full lifecycle assessment.
A LCA might be carried out for all stages of a structure’s development, use and deconstruction.
Or, a LCA could be carried out for an individual thing like a practice or a material.
Thorough/comprehensive and accurate LCAs can take time and resources to carry out though, and aren’t always feasible.
Sustainable Construction, Building & Housing Still Must Meet Other Criteria Too
Sustainable construction, building and housing shouldn’t sacrifice or compromise on practical and functional requirements too significantly.
Some of the practical and functional requirements may be in the areas of:
– Lead Times
Built structures still need to be able to do what they are designed to do from a performance and function perspective, they need to be practical to build and use, and they need to be affordable and cost effective to build, buy or invest in, and also use, operate, maintain, and make changes to.
As one example, a building or house that experiences the following things may not be practically, functionally, or economically viable:
– Is not durable and the structure starts showing signs of deterioration or major defects a short time after being built
– Lacks performance in the areas of temperature regulation, waterproofing, liveability, and other key performance areas
– Takes far longer to deliver from the date of purchase to occupancy or finishing of build and handover, compared to traditional buildings and houses
– Carries too much of a cost premium over traditional buildings and houses
– Is complex or costly to maintain or make modifications to compared to traditional buildings, systems and devices
Sustainable Construction, Building & Housing Materials – Examples
Before we look at examples of materials, it’s worth briefly considering the criteria used.
Sustainable materials might:
– Have some type of lower environmental impact
– Use resources more efficiently
– Be sourced from a more sustainable source i.e. be produced or grown with more sustainable practices, or in a more sustainable way (such as coming from sustainably managed wood plantations, or, the production process might use renewable energy)
– Come from renewable resources instead of scarce, non renewable resources
– Be sourced locally and have a lower transport footprint
– Have performance traits and properties that lead to greater sustainability in a building or house
– Be able to be salvaged, recovered, recycled, re-used or naturally decompose at the end of it’s lifecycle
– Last longer, or be more durable, and therefore have more years to average out their sustainability footprint over
– Contain less toxic or hazardous chemicals (such as using less carcinogenic chemicals) in it’s chemical makeup, or in any treatment administered to it
Some examples of more sustainable construction, building and housing materials might include but aren’t limited to:
– ‘Greener’ Insulation
Made of more sustainable material (such as recycled denim), or, insulation that regulates temperature more effectively to help save on heating/cooling system requirements (might be thicker insulation, or more sustainable types of insulation)
– Recycled Metal
Such as reclaimed and recovered copper
– Metals That Use/Consume Less Energy During Parts Of Their Lifecycle
Aluminum may in some instances be more energy efficient than steel: ‘Aluminum has [a] 20 percent smaller life cycle energy consumption than steel in transportation [and …] Aluminum is generally a green building material (aluminum.org)
– ‘Green Steel’
This is steel that is manufactured without the use of fossil fuels
It might be made with renewable energy instead, or, with ‘clean energy sources’ such as green hydrogen
– Plastics & Polymeric Materials
At least one report from bbc.com indicates that in some ways, plastic can be more sustainable as a building material.
They indicate that ‘The ecological footprint of a polymeric material [like plastic] is smaller than that of natural materials, which have a sizeable demand on arable land, clean water, fertilisers and regeneration time.’
greenbuildingsolutions.org also indicates that polymeric timbers, made from post consumer plastic and virgin plastic, might help save trees. However, what also has to be considered is that plastic has a production footprint too
– Recycled Plastic
We wrote about the use of post consumer plastic waste in building and construction in this guide.
The use of recycled post consumer plastic in building and construction may be more sustainable in some ways, but not as much in others.
Additionally, it may not be suitable for some building and construction applications, due to potential issues to do with degradation of polymer bonds, cost competitiveness of recovering and processing plastic, and so on.
At this point in time, using plastic waste in construction might have limited uses, with potential to expand in use.
– Using Wood Over Some Other Building Materials
Wood as a material in itself in particular may have lower embodied energy than some other building materials, and a lower CO2 footprint
‘[Some studies] show buildings built primarily with wood will have a lower embodied energy than those built primarily with brick, concrete, or steel’ (wikipedia.org)
‘Wood as building material emit less CO2 than concrete and steel, if produced in a sustainable way’ (wikipedia.org)
Some reports say that some types of wood and timber can be more sustainable in various ways than plastic, concrete and aluminum
– Recycled Or Reclaimed Wood, Or Sustainably Sourced Wood
Reclaimed lumber, and wood from sustainably run plantations or from pre consumer wood offcuts might be examples
– Alternatives To Wood
Such as bamboo. Bamboo flooring might be one use for bamboo in construction and buildings
– Precast Concrete Panels
Can be used for walls
Concrete panels can lead to more efficient resource use, or environmental benefits like a reduced carbon footprint
– Using Packed Gravel or Permeable Concrete Outdoors
Instead of conventional concrete or asphalt to enhance replenishment of groundwater
-Energy Efficient, Better Insulating, & Weatherproof Windows
Can include windows that are energy efficient and insulate or seal more effectively, such as some uPVC windows over some aluminum windows (although, some debate the use of plastics like uPVC).
Double and triple glazed windows can also prevent heat loss.
On the other hand, windows that seal better can also be used as draught proof windows for colder months
– Non Toxic Low VOC Glues & Paints
Anywhere where finishes, or glues and paints are used in buildings and dwellings where occupants will live
– Other Materials
wikipedia.org has a list of sustainable building materials in their ‘Sustainable Living’ guide
Sustainable Building, Construction & Housing Design
Importance Of Sustainable Design Features
Architectural features and other design features can passively contribute to things like heating, cooling, ventilation, energy production, rainwater harvesting, and these passive features can mean less active features are required. Resources can be saved in the process.
The concept and design stage might be where the most impact can be made on not only sustainability, but cost and performance:
Wikipedia.org indicates that ‘The concept stage … is one of the major steps in a project life cycle, as it has the largest impact on cost and performance’.
We have already outlined sustainable design elsewhere in this guide.
But, some sustainable design features and principles can involve:
– Buildings designed with a low surface area to volume ratio can minimise heat loss and also have lower energy requirements
– Siting, and orientating a building or structure in areas and towards directions that can passively make use of solar energy and heating.
Design like this can help naturally heat a house (also called passive solar heating), and help with the energy efficiency of the house, in addition to saving on heating/cooling requirements.
– Designing a dwelling or building to have more windows and transparent exterior surfaces on sides where sunlight is strongest or shines for the most time, whilst reducing glazing on sides of the house that would increase heat loss
– Incorporating wind breaks like trees or fencing, or not having open ventilation on sides of the house where cold winds can come through in the colder months.
– Understanding the impact of different roof designs
The roof of a building can have a significant impact on sustainability
Roofs on domestic houses can be responsible for housing solar panels, and can also have reflective surfaces installed to reflect heat and minimise heat absorption in the hotter months
Roofs on commercial buildings can be built with space for solar panels, gardena and vegetation, rain water collection, and grey water collection for re-use, amongst other considerations
– Specifically designing a commercial or industrial building with space to install solar panels on the roof or sides of the building
– Designing designated garden areas or places on or around the building
Vegetation and plant life can be grown in these places to contribute to oxygen production and carbon sequestration
Sustainable Construction, Building & Housing Practices & Solutions – Examples
Apart from the design, materials and other aspects of construction sustainability discussed in this guide, some examples of practices and other potential solutions might include but aren’t limited to:
– Considering The Entire Lifecycle Of A Building, & Not Just The Construction Stage
Energy efficiency over the entire life cycle of a building is the most important goal of sustainable architecture (wikipedia.org)
– Consulting Sustainable Building Consultants
Some consultants may specialise in sustainable building design, and clients and architects and engineers may employ these consultants at the conceptual and design stage for advice and input
– Construction Managers Moving To Digital & Paperless Management & Admin
Those managing and overseeing the admin of building projects can use digital documents over paper documents where possible
– Living In Smaller Or More Space Efficient Homes
Smaller homes not only require less building material to make, but have less space to that requires heating and cooling, and also have a smaller land footprint (which may be more land efficient and allow more occupancy from the same block of land)
Space efficient homes may be designed specifically to fit more internal building features like storage areas and appliances into the same square area as a bigger home
– Pre Built Houses
Pre built houses come in all types and forms
Some can lead to greater efficiencies of resource use because processes can be optimised and/or automated off-site
– Building Printing
From wikipedia.org ‘ … building printing is making it possible to flexibly construct small commercial buildings and private habitations in around 20 hours, with built-in plumbing and electrical facilities, in one continuous build, using large 3D printers’
In 2021, the first, both low-cost and sustainable 3D printed house made out of a clay-mixture was completed (wikipedia.org)
– More Sustainable Passive Building Design, Engineering & Architecture
We’ve outlined design examples in the ‘design’ section above in this guide
– Designing/Engineering & Constructing Buildings To Last Longer
The longer a building lasts, the more years it might have to average it’s sustainability footprint across
Design is important to this, as well as materials, and also the construction practices used
– Enforcing & Regulating Safer Construction Practices, & The Use Of Safer Materials
There’s a range of safe construction practices that can be implemented, such as the use of safer working techniques, the use of PPE, safety planning and safety plans before starting work, and so on
An example of regulating safer construction materials is regulating the use of asbestos based materials i.e. phasing it out for non asbestos containing material
It may also involve regulating the use of toxic coatings, glues, and other building substances
– Other Building Designs & Features To Improve Health & Well Being For Occupants
Such as choosing finishes with zero or low VOC emissions, and having adequate ventilation features in a building, to have good indoor air quality for occupants
Certain flooring, surfaces and interior finishes may also be less prone to storing dust and other particles that can be inhaled, and, and be easier to clean.
– Using Resource Efficient, Or Sustainably Sourced Materials In The Construction Process
One example might be using concrete that is more energy efficient to make, and/or has a lower carbon footprint
Another example could be using materials that are re-used, recycled, reclaimed or that come from certified sustainable sources
– More Resource Efficient Construction Stage Practices, & More Sustainable Management Of Construction Stage Materials & Waste
Such as producing less waste, wasting less off-cut material, or finding uses for material waste such as send it to waste to energy facilities.
Other examples can include pre-fabrication of certain materials as opposed to measuring and cutting/building on-site, and this allows waste to be minimised
There may also be better ways to sort and manage construction waste on-site for landfill, recycling, re-use, and, specific management of chemical waste and other forms of potentially hazardous or polluting waste
– Better Waste Management For Commercial & Industrial Buildings
Good waste management systems for commercial and industrial buildings can help with sustainable waste management
This can involve companies having a dedicated waste plan, and having allocated bins and processes for dealing with different types of waste
– A Building That Uses ‘Greener’ Energy Sources
Some energy can be sourced off-grid, from sources such as a solar panel setup
Optimising orientation, latitude (and angle), and efficiency of the solar panels can help optimise overall energy absorption of the solar panel setup, and the climate of course plays a role too
Solar water heaters can also be used specifically for hot water systems
Geothermal energy may also be an option in places with the natural resources to use it
For on-grid power needs, using a ‘greener’ energy supplier over an energy supplier that heavily uses fossil fuel energy sources can be more sustainable
– A Well Insulated Building That Is Also Weatherproof
Buildings that use adequate and effective insulation in the ceilings, walls, floor and roof, as well as weatherproof and climate proof windows and doors, can be more energy efficient by regulating temperatures in the building more effectively without as much need for active heating/cooling systems.
Double and triple glazed windows can help with insulation compared to single pane glass windows.
– Smarter Building Systems
Cooling, heating, lighting and other building systems can be made with software or features like sensors, timers, and other smart or automatic features that manage loads as well as when systems turn on and off
This leads to these systems operating more effectively, reducing average and peak loads, and/or using less resources.
– Appliances & Building Systems That Are More Energy Efficient
Can include systems and devices like heating/cooling systems, lighting, washer/dryers, stovetops and ovens, hot water heaters, and so on
Lighting for example might have sensors and timers that trigger them coming on and turning off to save power
We’ve previously written a guide about what activities, systems, devices and appliances use the most electricity in the average home.
We also wrote guide on both heating and cooling a house:
For heating, we put together a guide about how to heat a home using what might be more sustainable methods.
For cooling, we put together a guide listing what might be more sustainable ways to cool a house.
Separate to electricity use, windows, doors and ventilation points can also help with energy efficiency … windows, doors and sealable vents can also help conserve energy if they can be open and closed (or covered with blinds) to let in heat and cool breeze in different months of the year, and powered heating and cooling systems don’t have to be used as much.
– Appliances & Building Systems That Are More Water Efficient Or Conserve More Water
Can include outdoor sprinklers and water systems, showers and baths, taps/faucets, and so on
We’ve put together a few guides about how the average home uses water, and how the average home might save water.
Rainwater harvesting via tanks is an option to make use of ‘green’ water sources.
Some buildings even collect grey-water, and use it to water gardens (but this water shouldn’t be used for certain uses like bathing in or drinking)
Another option suitable for some buildings might be a composting toilet that doesn’t require plumbing
– Fixing Water Leaks In Buildings
Water leaks can be a major source of water loss in buildings, so fixing them can help save water
– Rating Systems, Schemes, Certification Systems, & Other Tools & Incentives
There’s a different range of systems, certification programs, and incentivisation schemes that cover different aspects of sustainable design and construction to help people understand sustainability in building, and also incentivise it’s use
There’s also tools sustainable designers like architects and engineers can use to conceptualise and quantify sustainable building design and materials, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM)
– More Sustainable Management Of Demolished & Deconstructed Buildings
Might involve greater consideration of whether some resources can be recovered and recycled from demolished buildings, rather than mostly going to landfill
Good wood, good stone, and usable doors, windows, and hardware may be example of materials and goods that can be recovered from buildings scheduled to be demolished
– Investing Money Into Research, Development & Education On A National Level
To encourage developments in sustainable construction and building
– Other Building & Housing Features
Some features aren’t related to the building itself, but are related to the people living in it
Growing food or herbs/spices, using a compost system for food and organic scraps, and other features can lead to a more sustainable lifestyle for building occupants.
– City Planning
This is more to do with planning than construction itself, but, there’s a range of things that can make cities and urban areas more sustainable
To decrease the carbon footprint in particular, some data suggest building up, instead of urban sprawl and building outwards, and building living spaces closer to infrastructure and other essential services like shops, work, schools, etc. to allow for more efficient and sustainable living
Some exceptions to this can include but aren’t limited to self sufficient ‘off grid’ type homes with smaller sustainability footprints