There is a growing emphasis on “green” materials and practices in today’s building industry, and for good reason. There are over seven billion people on our planet, and we all have to share a limited amount of resources. If you’re contemplating building a new home or starting a renovation project, you have the opportunity to make a lasting environmental impact through your choices in sustainable building materials. But what does the average homeowner—or prospective homeowner—need to know about sustainable homes and their building materials? Read on to find out.

Drywall. One of the main components of drywall—also known as wall board or Sheetrock—is gypsum, a naturally occurring mineral. The gypsum can be reused, so if drywall is set aside during demolition and recycled rather than taken to a landfill, it can be stripped of its paper and backing materials and reprocessed to produce more drywall. This lessens the need for additional gypsum mining. Homeowners interested in recycled drywall and constructing a “green” home should also be aware of some of the problems with conventional—and even some recycled—types of drywall. Conventional drywall contains a host of toxic chemicals that aid in the binding process of the gypsum to the paper and backing. The good news is that while there certainly are drywall products to watch out for and avoid—drywall that has been treated with biocides or manufactured with synthetic gypsum, for instance—there are several nontoxic, “green” options currently on the market. Ask your contractor about these safer alternatives.

Insulation. Today’s homeowners and homebuilders have countless options for home insulation. Although many consumers are accustomed to pink fiberglass insulation that comes in large rolls, there are other forms of insulation that may be more sustainable. Traditional fiberglass insulation is manufactured with petroleum-based products and toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, but the newer, more sustainable fiberglass products on the market today are made from sand and recycled glass, and they don’t contain dangerous chemicals. Another excellent, eco-friendly insulation option is mineral wool fiber—usually called rock wool or slag wool. Made from molten rock or molten industrial waste, respectively, rock wool and slag wool both provide thermal and acoustic insulation.

Flooring. Regardless of the type of flooring you plan to install in your home, you’ll find a wealth of sustainable options. If hardwood is your preference, consider floorboards that have been reclaimed or salvaged from the demolition of old buildings. If perusing salvage stores and websites just isn’t for you, try to select sustainable new materials. Stick to sustainably harvested wood and resources, like bamboo or cork, that are rapidly renewable. Many carpet manufacturers now make “green” carpet and padding products that are made from recycled materials. If you’re in the market for resilient, easy-to-clean flooring, choose linoleum over vinyl. While vinyl flooring is a synthetic material made of petrochemicals, linoleum flooring is made from naturally occurring, renewable materials.

Lumber, brick, and other materials. Using lumber, brick, tile, and fixtures from remodeled or demolished buildings plays a small part in reducing the resources that would have been used and the emissions that would have been created in the production of brand-new material. Searching out reclaimed lumber, in particular, often saves money and gives you the option of using woods that are now rare or prohibitively expensive. Salvaged brick can sometimes be cleaned up, but some people prefer to maintain the patina developed through the years. In either case, old bricks should be inspected carefully—if they crumble or seem structurally unsound, they should be discarded. Be judicious in your use of old plumbing fixtures since they may not meet current efficiency and water use requirements. Recycled or reclaimed light fixtures should be carefully inspected and, in most cases, will require rewiring. If you love the piece, however, the relatively modest cost of rewiring may be worth it. Some reclaimed elements may, however, prove to be more costly than their conventional counterparts. Antique tile is beautiful and adds character to a space, but because tile rarely survives demolition, it can be expensive and difficult to find. For a more affordable, modern, and sustainable alternative, consider tile made from recycled glass.

It is much easier to find “green” building materials today than several years ago, and homeowners will find that current design trends even incorporate the use of reclaimed, recycled, and other eco-friendly building materials. If you choose new building materials, opt for products that are manufactured relatively close by to minimize the environmental impact of transporting those materials to you. Try to think about the lifespan of your home. What will happen to its materials and components when you or future owners are ready to tackle a renovation? What can be recycled, reused, or repurposed? Regardless of whether you’re embarking on a remodeling project or making decisions in the construction of your brand-new home, choosing sustainable building materials will result in a beautiful, comfortable space that is easy on the environment.

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Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Construction & Demolition Recycling Association; EPA;;; Knauff EcoBatt Insulation; North American Insulation Manufacturers Association; This Old House.

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