Last edited 10 May 2019

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Buro Happold Engineer Website

Sustainable materials




Constructing with sustainable materials is not only good for the planet and common sense, it can save the client money, help preserve our heritage, respond to planning policies and help get credits in BREEAM, LEED and others environmental assessment tools.

A sustainable material is one that:

  • Does not deplete non-renewable (natural) resources.
  • Has no adverse impact on the environment when used.

In practice, both these objectives are impossible to achieve, but they do show us the direction we should aim.

We can preserve natural resources in many ways:

We can reduce the impact on the environmental of using construction materials by:

Tools and techniques

There are now many tools and techniques for selecting construction materials that are less damaging to the environment. Detailed analysis of the impacts of materials using these techniques can then be reduced to relatively straightforward guidance for the designer or specifier, for example:

Another approach is to tackle the use of materials by adopting a strategic and hierarchical approach to decisions – beginning with the 'best' from an environmental point of view, then the next best, and so on.

For example:

1. Choose materials and construction techniques that progress from:


  • 'Closed-loop' thinking or a 'zero-waste' society: extract, process, manufacture, use, reuse (as many times as possible), dismantle or disassemble, recycle (as many times as possible), then finally, only when no further use remains, throw away.

2. Re-use materials or components in situ:

3 Use reclaimed materials or components with little processing:

4. Use manufactured materials or components with significant and known recycled content:

5. Use natural materials that have low embodied energy and / or environmental impact:

  • Timber (in preference to steel).
  • Concrete reinforced with timber, bamboo or natural fibres.
  • Geo-textiles and other products made from crops.
  • Straw bales.
  • Materials that are accredited as being responsibly sourced (such as FSC timber).

Project management issues

As often with sustainable construction, there are few technical barriers to these many alternatives, but there are other challenges, for example:

These can all be overcome, but require determination and experience.

Sources of guidance

A growing body of guidance is available for those want to make a difference.

Recycling what you find on site:

Reusing a building, in situ:

Reusing the masonry façade of a building, in situ:

Reusing the foundations of a building, in situ:

Sources of recycled materials:

Recycled content materials:




  • WRAP: Guide to the recycled content of mainstream construction products.
  • WRAP: Recycled content toolkit.

Design for deconstruction:

Olympic legacy learning

Responsibly sourced materials (such as FSC timber):

This article was written by --BuroHappold 10:54, 13 August 2012 (BST)

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