Home construction materials and building techniques have changed in the past several decades to become more energy efficient. Many new innovations are less harmful to our environment as well.

By considering your building choices, you can easily increase the comfort, safety, and efficiency of your home without putting undue stress on our natural resources. By making your home “greener,” you help to minimize pollution, protect the natural environment, and create a healthy, comfortable, non-hazardous home for you and your family.

Think green before you begin any construction project. By considering these points, you can choose the most appropriate building materials and construction techniques.

Make sure your project is appropriate for where you live.

Face it – certain materials and methods are better suited for specific geographical locations. Thick adobe walls with heavy thermal mass, for example, will help to modify the drastic changes in temperature that take place in the arid Southwest. That style of architecture suits desert climates well. The same massive style of construction would be ill advised in the humid heat of southern Florida, however. There, lightweight construction designs and screened-in porches that let in cooling breezes are more appropriate.

Likewise, a wall of glass might seem like a wonderful design choice for your new house. But before you have those new windows installed, make sure to consider the physical orientation of your house. If those large windows face south and aren’t properly shaded by an overhang, you may discover your home becomes unbearably hot and difficult to air condition in the summer.

A building plan – and the materials used in that building – needs to be appropriate to the site.

Where possible, build with materials that contain recycled content.

As more people learn to recycle, more and more construction products are being made from recycled materials. Reusing materials instead of dumping them in landfills saves valuable resources; by actively looking for and buying products with recycled content, you encourage the recycling industry.

Manufacturers can find recycled material in three ways:

– Post-consumer material comes from households or facilities that no longer want it for its intended purpose. Examples can range from the glass bottles you recycle at home to old bricks and steel reclaimed from a building being demolished down the street.

– Waste material from industrial processes can be recovered and used in other ways. Fly ash, for example, is the material that remains after coal is burned in coal-fired power plants. It usually is disposed of in landfills. Mixed in with other ingredients like sand and gravel however, leftover fly ash can replace up to 35 percent of the Portland cement needed to make concrete. What qualifies as waste in one industry might be put to valuable use in another.

– Internally recycled material comes from scraps leftover in a company’s manufacturing process. It includes substandard products that are scraped and remade after being rejected by the company’s quality control division. Manufacturers today process small, leftover pieces of wood – material that at one time would have been discarded or burned – to create particleboard and other valuable manufactured wood products.

Many building materials are available in recycled form:

Metals – Steel and aluminum building elements are highly recyclable. Between 50 to 70 percent of the energy and pollution caused by steel production can be avoided by recycling steel. Remelting aluminum avoids up to 85 percent of the energy and pollution of aluminum manufacturing.

Heavy timber – Salvaged and resawed, heavy timber can be recycled.

Plastics – Although most plastics are recyclable, the process is often difficult to accomplish. Different types of plastic must be separated, an expensive and labor-intensive task. Plastic recycling is not yet a viable option for building materials, since they are usually combined with additives, coatings, and colorants. Companies are working to solve the problem, however, and more plastic may be reused in the future.

Glass – Remelting glass offers few energy and pollution savings. As a result, little recycling of glass building products occurs.

Masonry products and ceramics – Recycling concrete, clay, and other similar materials is difficult, but it can be done. Masonry products are often crushed and then reused for granular fill in roads and sidewalks.

As you consider the building materials to choose for any construction project, ask yourself these questions:

Can I build with salvaged materials?

Products such as doors, cabinets, glass, and metal can be salvaged and reused. You can cut your costs significantly by using salvaged materials, and their quality is high.
Are my construction materials available from local sources?

Where possible, try to use local materials. That way you avoid excess transportation and environmental costs.

Am I using materials from renewable sources?

Renewable materials include wood, wool, plant fibers, and other resources that can be replaced within a few decades or less. Sustainable wood products are becoming more readily available.

Have I considered the long-term costs of my materials? Will my maintenance costs be high?

Even though a building product may initially cost more, it may be the least expensive alternative in the long run. Some materials, for example, need to be replaced regularly over time, while others are long lasting and maintenance-free. Paint that is twice as expensive but lasts four times as long may be a better buy in the long run. Make sure that you consider the life-cycle costs of your materials.