How to assess the sustainability of building materials

Building your own home gives you a great deal of choice and flexibility over many aspects of your construction project. From the design of your property to the way in which it’s built, you have full control.

Of course, it is this – and ending up with the home of your dreams – that makes self-building appealing to many people. However, a further benefit is that you can make your house as environmentally-friendly as possible, as long as you’re prepared to do a bit of research.

One of the first places to look if you want to green your self-build scheme is at the materials you’ll be using. Here’s a rough guide to help you decide which the most sustainable construction materials and methods are.


The first thing to consider when it comes to the building materials you want to use is where they come from. Ideally, you’ll be looking for products that are sustainably produced and that don’t need to be transported far.

UK-grown wood and straw bales, for instance, are both great options if you don’t want to increase the carbon footprint of your project, as these materials can usually be sourced locally and therefore won’t have to travel far. They are also green options because, if the crops are managed effectively, they are sustainable, with new trees or plants cultivated as others are harvested.

Are the materials reclaimed?

Another way to reduce your environmental impact when building a home is to make use of reclaimed materials. Typically, this will involve obtaining things like bricks, timber, steel panels and panes of glass from demolition sites.

Currently, very little of the material that could be reclaimed from old buildings is, with much of it being recycled or just going to waste. If you are able to find reclaimed materials from a site close to yours, you can reduce the environmental impact further by cutting the distance they are transported.

Are the materials recycled?

In many cases, products like bricks that cannot be reused following the demolition of a structure are crushed and used as hardcore in other construction projects. These are still important components of a building so, if possible, it is worth using recycled materials where reclaimed ones are not available.

Assess the lifecycle impact

Once you’ve looked at the sustainability of a material from the point of view of its source, you also need to consider how it will perform over its lifecycle – and whether it could help you make your home greener in other respects. For example, using products at the build phase that are also extremely good insulators will mean your home loses less heat in the winter, thereby saving not only energy, but also money on your utility bills!

Look at your construction equipment

If you’ve taken the trouble to source sustainable construction materials, it is worth carrying this ethos over into the rest of your building project. One of the things you should be aware of throughout the construction stages is the machinery you use and its environmental impact. Of course, it is not practical to avoid heavy-duty machinery when you’re working on a scheme of this scale, but there are some steps you can take to ensure the equipment you do use is as eco-friendly as possible.

To give you one example, you can choose to hire an oil-free compressor, rather than a standard model, for the duration of your building project. These machines power a host of pneumatic tools, so it is worth sourcing one that performs well.

The reason why oil-free compressors are more environmentally-friendly than their oil-lubricated counterparts is because they are highly energy efficient, so they use less fuel and are cheaper to run.

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