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  • Bricklayer installing bricks

    Which Building Materials are the Most Energy Efficient?

July 2019

Are bricks better than weatherboards? Windows better than walls? We dive into the complex world of energy efficient building materials to help you plan your build with a green conscience.

Building a house can be very exciting (and a little scary!). You’ve got a chance to create the house of your dreams – and for many people these days, the dream home is also a green home.

Yet choosing the most environmentally-friendly building materials can be tricky. How do you know which building material is going to be the most energy efficient over the long-term? Are some building techniques more energy efficient than others?

Here, we look at some of the common principles of sustainable building so you can plan, design and build a home that is as energy efficient as possible – both during the construction process and when you live in it.

The role of embodied energy

Before we take a look at some of the more energy efficient building materials, it’s important to touch on the concept of embodied energy. This is “the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and product delivery.”1

For example, a hardwood timber harvested from a renewable source close to the city you live in would have a very low embodied energy compared to granite imported from overseas.

These days, many look beyond the embodied energy of a building material to also consider its performance within the home and how easy it is to recycle or dispose of at end-of-life. As you can see, it starts to get pretty complicated pretty quickly!

Choosing energy efficient building materials

There is no simple answer to the question, “What is the most energy efficient building material?” It can depend on things like your location, climate, size of home, where the material has come from, how it is going to be used and so on.

If you’re serious about using the most energy efficient building materials, then you may want to engage an expert to conduct a life cycle assessment (LCA). Another alternative is to use an eco-product selection database. At the simplest level, you can follow the three Rs:

  • Reduce – build a smaller home that uses less materials
  • Reuse – from windows to sinks to framing timber, you could find all the materials you need on community websites
  • Recycle – choose materials that can be recycled, whether it’s leftovers during the construction process or down the track when the building nears end-of-life

Sustainable building materials

Sustainable building materials are generally thought to come from renewable sources and use less energy in their manufacture. Beyond the build, they also contribute to a home’s comfort and thermal energy (which means you spend less on heating and cooling each year).

Some of the more energy efficient building materials available today include:

  • Mud bricks
  • Rammed earth
  • Insulating concrete forms
  • Autoclaved aerated concrete
  • Precast concrete
  • Renewable timbers

You can learn more about these materials and others, as well as their pros and cons from an energy-efficiency perspective, on the Your Home website.

A cleaner, greener construction process

Builders can become more environmentally friendly, too. About 20 million tonnes of building and demolition waste was generated in Australia in 2014-15; with 35% of this going to landfill.2 Shop around for a builder that commits to reducing waste on the building site and takes responsibility for recycling or reusing as many building materials as possible.

The final word

Choosing the most energy efficient building materials isn’t easy. There are many factors to take into account – from where the building material has come from, to how it will contribute to the ongoing energy efficiency of the home. Seek advice if you can, because an energy efficient home can pay off in the long-run if you get it right at the start.

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