Building materials are the key to sustainable construction

Photo: Powerhouse Telemark, Norway by Moelven Wood is Breeam Excellent certified.

Major environmental impacts, and also social ones, are embodied in materials
«What we choose to buy, and to use in our designs, has decisive consequences for climate, for environment and for societies around the world. Environmentally certified products can be found, though hardly at all in many countries. Even in Norway they are not well known in the building trades. Everyone has a responsibility – from consumers to manufacturers, from architects and engineers to public procurement”, says Chris Butters, GAIA architect, author and researcher, in this article.

We know that the construction industry is the cause of around 40% of all anthropogenic climate emissions. That is more than the industrial sector or transports. Both professionals and the public are increasingly aware of the challenges, but it is urgent to make clear to people what is most important.

The first point we in typical European countries need to realise, is that fully half of our energy consumption and climate impacts – our total ecological footprint – is “hidden” in all the goods that we import – from food and clothing to oil, furniture, cars, everything. Research showed that over 60% of the climate impacts of an average Swedish person’s consumption comes from imports (Nilsson 2012). The energy used to make those goods, and resultant pollution, now often takes place in countries like China – but it’s our consumption.

Correcting misleading calculations

There is tons of research about this. Until recently, climate emission calculations were based on the energy and emissions that we produce in our own countries. The new method, called consumption based accounting, looks instead at what we consume. Including in imports. This gives a truer picture of our responsibility. The richer countries have in recent decades outsourced much of the “dirty” production industry to other countries – who also get the resulting pollution.

Sadly, this also means we have lost many of our own manufacturing jobs. It is our perverse economic system that dictates this: one goes where labour costs are cheapest and regulations are least strict. And this also has a vital social dimension: we accept goods that may be produced with child labour, or destroying the livelihood of rainforest dwellers, or in unhealthy factories that are poisoning local people.

As designers, politicians, manufacturers, builders and consumers, we have to see the true picture – and know what we can do about it.

The materials are most important

In recent years there has with good reason been a huge focus on the energy we use, not least in buildings, both due to the resultant pollution and the climate emissions. This operational energy used to comprise 80-90% of a building’s environmental impacts. But in today’s extremely low energy buildings, the manufacture of the construction materials takes more energy and causes more climate emissions than all the energy we will use in the building during its whole lifetime.

This is an entirely new perspective. Hence a few organisations such as Greenbuilt are focusing on materials and promoting solutions that are environmentally friendly. It is a complex task; one must evaluate the impacts at every step from mining to manufacture, transport, use, and eventual demolition. So solid documentation is essential, for there are many materials that claim to be “natural” or “green” with no scientific justification. Just as the many green labels on consumer products are often confusing and not always reliable.

In the building supplies stores one can seldom find products that are completely eco-friendly. However, things are moving slowly in the right direction; and product declarations are becoming more common. Major policy moves in the European Union include the Ecodesign Directive and the Products Legislation. Environmentally aware clients and designers are refusing to choose products that provide no certification of their contents and impacts.

Further: whilst there is much focus on the global impacts of energy and materials, we need focus on the damage to individual and public health. Many modern synthetic materials contribute to unhealthy indoor conditions; there is a huge body of medical science about indoor environment. But designers of healthy buildings are still rare.

And finally, we must not forget that the impacts of our choices are not only environmental, they may also have very serious social impacts, often in countries far away and on the poorest people.

The “passive house” experts placed a narrow focus on the operational energy used in buildings; we urged a wider, holistic understanding in our book “From Passive House to Healthy House” (Fra passivhus til sunne hus, Butters + Leland 2012), Healthy as well as environmentally friendly materials have been a key focus for us since the 1980s. Bjørn Berges book, The Ecology of Building Materials, is still often referred to in international scientific journals. Hence GAIA’s design credo has always been: buildings that are healthy for people and for the planet. Greenbuilt is at the forefront of this today.

What can we do to implement sustainable solutions ?

The UN’s “Code Red” warning about our planet must be heeded.

1. Learn from others, use their experience, build networks

2. Make your own home or business green in a systematic manner

3. Demand recognised environmental documentation of your products, partners, products and projects

4. Make public your environmentally successful and certified projects

5. Lobby for government and industry measures for environmental quality control

Biblio and sources

Berge, B. (second edition 2009). The Ecology of Building Materials. Architectural Press, Elsevier, London.

Butters, C. (2012). A holistic method of evaluating sustainability, in: Haas, T. (Ed.), Sustainable Urbanism and Beyond, Rizzoli, New York. Les også om Verdikartet på

Butters, C., Cheshmehzangi A., Sassi, P. (2020). Cities, Energy and Climate: Seven Reasons to Question the Dense High-Rise City Journal of Green Building Vol. 15, No. 3 ch.11 pp.197-214.

Nilsson, A. (2012). Consumption-based Carbon Accounting for households in Sweden and Stockholm EIO-LCA. [Pdf] Department of Industrial Ecology, KTH, Stockholm.

Peters, G.P. and E. Hertwich E. (2006). The importance of imports for household environmental impacts. Journal of Industrial Ecology July 2006  10 (3), 89-109.

Wallhagen, W., Glaumann, M., Malmqvist, T. (2011). Basic building life cycle calculations to decrease contribution to climate change – Case study on an office building in SwedenBuilding and Environment 46

Xiaocun Zhang, Fenglai Wang (2015). Life-cycle assessment and control measures for carbon emissions of typical buildings in ChinaBuilding and Environment 86;89-97.