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Sustainable Materials Guide: 4 Building Alternatives to Cut Carbon Emissions

 MATERIALS & PRODUCTS 


From mass timber and bamboo to low-carbon concrete and mycelium, here are the materials that are set to rule the sustainability game in 2024.


By Shivani V K

4 Mar 2024



Objects made of Finite, a new form of concrete made using desert sand | Image Courtesy of Finite


As we near the 2030 deadline set by the Paris Agreement to cut global carbon emissions in half, the urgency to combat the climate crisis has never been more pressing. The building industry, a very significant contributor to this problem, must work on going green — and doing so quickly. Promisingly, a silent revolution seems to be underway in the realm of material research, presenting alternatives to conventional options that are widely in use currently. Here’s our selection of four materials that are set to play a big role as architects, designers, and the construction industry hope to turn over a sustainable new leaf. 


Mass Timber 

While wood has long been a staple in construction, its role is now evolving into that of a leading sustainable material. Mass Timber, a family of engineered wood products, is swiftly gaining traction as a viable alternative to steel and concrete. Available as cross-laminated timber (CLT), glue-laminated timber (Glulam) and more, mass timber boasts strength akin to steel while sequestering atmospheric carbon, making it carbon-negative. Its insulation and fire resistance properties further add to its appeal, allowing for varied applications.



A render of the C6 building in South Perth, Australia, soon to be the world’s tallest timber tower building | Image Courtesy of Grange Development


Architects and engineers have been actively exploring the material's potential, pushing its boundaries to realize ambitious projects, including high-rises in different parts of the world. The world’s tallest timber tower, for instance, will soon be constructed using Glulam in Perth, Australia, achieving a height of 191.2 meters. 


Bamboo

Bamboo, an ancient building material, continues to find relevance in modern construction due to its easy availability, low cost and high strength. Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth, offering exceptional renewability and a strength-to-weight ratio comparable to steel. Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia, known for challenging the conventional limits of design with bamboo, calls the material the “green steel of the 21st century,” predicting that it will soon replace other materials too. 


Casamia Community House, Vietnam, designed in bamboo by Vo Trong Nghia Architects | Image by Hiroyuki Oki; Courtesy of Vo Trong Nghia Architects


While bamboo is traditionally utilized for partitions and furniture, its application is evolving with innovations like structural laminated bamboo lumber (LBL), made in a process similar to that of cross-laminated timber. Companies like MOSO today offer a range of bamboo products, from cladding to structural members, expanding its architectural possibilities. Its laminated bamboo tubes, for instance, were used by American architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) for the design of a new terminal at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru, India, exemplifying the material's adaptability and suitability for diverse applications in modern construction.


The design of Terminal 2 at Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru, India, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) showcases the extensive use of laminated bamboo tubes | Image Courtesy of Studio Recall


Concrete Alternatives 

Concrete, which contributes to 4-8% of global carbon emissions, continues to be pervasive in construction. One big reason: it offers architects, engineers and designers a sense of familiarity, highlighting the need for a concrete-like material with a reduced carbon footprint. One promising solution is a material called Finite. Developed by post-graduate students Carolyn Tam, Hamza Oza, Matteo Maccario, and Saki Maruyama at the Imperial College London, Finite addresses the global issue of sand depletion — sand is one of the key components of concrete — by using desert sand, which is otherwise too smooth to be used in concrete. The material is now being tested for construction and is set to cut concrete’s CO2 consumption by half.