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Laying the foundations for sustainable construction

28/04/2010

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Reclaimed and sustainable construction materials could lead to a more eco-friendly building sector. By using such materials developers can reduce emissions and save energy.

If Europe is to meet its goal of reducing emissions and energy consumption by at least 20% by 2020, the sustainability of current construction practices must be addressed. According to the European Commission, energy use in residential and commercial buildings represents approximately 40% of Europe’s total final energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Improving the sustainability of building practices is directly related to the issue of resource efficiency. All sectors – including construction – must manage their resources sustainably to reduce environmental impacts.

Resource efficiency – a driving force of the Environmental Technologies Action Plan (ETAP) – is one of the crucial tenets of the Europe 2020 Strategy, and is set to underpin Europe’s aim to stimulate green growth, innovation and jobs. To this end, the Strategy highlights ‘Sustainable Growth’ as a priority, and has created the EU flagship initiative: ‘Resource efficient Europe’.

The amount of energy required to manufacture and transport traditional building materials (embodied energy) has prompted developers to search for alternatives. By using sustainable materials the overall embodied energy of buildings can be reduced.

Through the use of sustainable materials the European construction industry can become more resource efficient, and ultimately generate more value with less environmental damage. Improving resource-efficiency by 20% in the EU would boost economic growth by 1%. Furthermore, the uptake of sustainable building materials could help stimulate job creation through green growth – a key goal of the Europe 2020 Strategy.

Building sustainably brick-by-brick

Alternative masonry techniques can increase the sustainability of the construction process. By moving away from using materials with high levels of embodied energy – resulting from extraction, production, manufacturing and transportation – developers can begin constructing truly sustainable buildings.

The Compressed Earth Block (CEB) process involves compacting moistened earth in specially designed portable presses to form building blocks which are low cost and environmentally friendly. As the blocks can be produced from soil available on the building site, emissions associated with transporting the materials are avoided.

The blocks produced are ideal for sustainable building as they offer high thermal performance, thereby increasing energy efficiency. Furthermore, like adobes (bricks formed from sand, clay and organic material) CEBs are non-toxic materials, produced without using chemicals.

The use of reclaimed materials in the construction process is another sustainable technique being adopted by eco-friendly developers. By reusing materials recovered from demolished or renovated buildings, developers may dramatically increase the sustainability of the construction sector.

SustainableBuild.co.uk believe that using reclaimed materials, carefully garnered from dismantled buildings, could reduce environmental impacts and save up to 95% of the embodied costs by preventing unnecessary production of new raw materials, and reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill.

Bricks, roof slates, tiles, fireplaces, doors and windows can all be reused in new developments. In addition to diverting materials from the waste stream, the use of reclaimed materials also has practically no environmental impact.

Insulating sustainably

The use of petroleum-based insulation materials, such as fibreglass and foam, is not compatible with sustainable growth. Moreover, many insulation materials contain chemical fire retardants and adhesives, and have high embodied energy levels. Fortunately there are a number of sustainable insulation alternatives on the market. Hemp and lime solid composite, flax fibre and wood fibre, are just some of the greener insulation options on offer.

Two other alternatives, sheep’s wool and cellulose are energy-efficient and avoid the negative environmental impacts of traditional materials. Sheep’s wool insulation for example requires less than 15% of the energy required to produce fibreglass insulation.

Sheep’s wool can absorb and release moisture from the surrounding air without compromising its thermal efficiency. During the winter, the wool releases energy in the form of heat while absorbing moisture. In the warmer months, the wool naturally releases this moisture creating a cooling effect in the building.

Cellulose, which is made from recycled news print and other paper sources, can be blown into cavity walls to act as insulation. The production of this material requires far less energy than fibreglass or foam products, and has lower embodied energy. The Canadian Building Magazine believes fibreglass uses at least 10 times more embodied energy than cellulose.

These green alternatives are by no means the only eco-friendly options available for the construction industry. They merely represent the variety of suitable replacements for traditional materials. The implementation of such eco-materials by the European construction industry could undoubtedly reduce the sector’s current energy consumption and emission levels.

More information

Related information on the EcoAP Website