Last edited 21 Feb 2018

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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:

  • Avoiding using scarce (non-renewable) materials, such as peat and weathered limestone.
  • Creating less waste.
  • Using less; by not over-specifying performance requirements, by designing minimum weight structures and by matching demand to supply (such as supply balancing cut & fill).
  • Using reclaimed, rather than new materials.
  • Using renewable materials (crops).

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:

  • A linear approach to using materials: extract, process, manufacture, use, demolish, throw away.


  • '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:

  • Reuse a whole building, upgrading it as necessary.
  • Reuse part of a building such the structural frame, masonry façade or foundations.
  • Build upon the existing ground floor slab of a previous building.
  • Reuse an existing retaining wall or embankment.

3 Use reclaimed materials or components with little processing:

  • Steel beams and columns from a dismantled building.
  • Demolition arisings (such as crushed aggregate) can be used for landscaping or backfilling excavations.
  • Crushed glass can be used as a bedding material for paved or block surfaces.
  • Reclaimed paving stones or slabs.
  • Railway sleepers or telegraph poles.
  • Steel tube from the oil industry can be used as piles.
  • Recycled black-top.

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

  • The Recycled Content (RC) of entire construction works can easily be more than 20% (this was achieved at the London Olympics site) and this can gain LEED or BREEAM credits.
  • Concrete made with Recycled Crushed Aggregate (RCA - typically up to 40%, depending on the source). For example using demolition arisings or 'waste' from quarries.
  • Concrete using cement replacement materials such as Pulverised Fuel Ash (PFA) or Ground Granulated Blast-furnace Slag (GGBS - 5-15% RC).
  • 'Recycled Roads'.
  • Precast concrete blocks, paviours, kerbs, etc, made using RCA (more than 60% RC).
  • Concrete pipes, drains, etc. made using RCA (more than 60% RC).
  • Plastic street furniture (bollards, barriers etc.) made from 100% RC plastic.
  • Decking, furniture etc made from 100% RC 'plastic lumber' that looks like timber.
  • Plastic drain or soil pipes made using recycled plastic (50-100% RC).
  • Cast iron drain pipes made using recycled cast iron (up to 96% RC).
  • Tarmac with crushed glass fill, up to 30% RC.
  • Geo-textiles made from 100% RC plastic.
  • Any 'forest product' using 'waste' timber, such as chipboard, blockboard and some glulams.

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

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:

  • Reuse of Foundations for Urban Sites: A Best Practice Handbook BRE (2006).
  • Reuse of Foundations for Urban Sites: Proceedings of the International Conference BRE (2006).
  • Reuse of foundations CIRIA Report C653 London, (2007).

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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