Top 3 Rapidly Renewable Materials to Consider

Alex Martin's picture
Alex Martin
December 3, 2013

Not all rapidly renewable materials, or materials with a harvest cycle of 10 years or less, actually have a reduced environmental impact.  These three choices have known environmental benefits and have advantages over their conventional counterparts.

Bamboo takes seven years to mature and releases 35% more oxygen than other trees its size.
Bamboo takes seven years to mature and releases 35% more oxygen than other trees its size.
Credit: Pingin via Flickr

While many people who are concerned about climate changes and ecological problems may be focused on automobiles and fossil fuel consumption, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that the majority of greenhouse gases are actually emitted from commercial or residential establishments (about 31%), not cars and trucks (about 28%). Indeed, conventional building construction can be an ecologically costly affair.

However, an increasingly large percentage of building construction is focused on using green or sustainable building materials and eco-friendly construction methods. For example, a new study by McGraw Hill Construction suggests that green building construction is taking off rapidly in retail and hospitality industries. This year, green building projects in the retail industry increased to 38%, up 18% from 2011, and are expected to make up 52% of retail construction by 2015.

It’s important that green construction continues to grow and remain a trend, because according to a report by Worldwatch Institute, an organization that analyzes critical environmental issues, one-fourth of world's wood resources and one-sixth of the world’s water are utilized in building construction. This situation is expected to get worse as the world's population grows, requiring more housing. Therefore, it’s critical that construction, renovation and remodeling projects source materials that have a limited impact on these resources. 

Rapidly renewable materials are one such example of building materials that may have a limited environmental impact.  These are defined as materials that have a short harvest cycle, usually 10 years or less.  Since these materials take a short amount of time to grow, it typically means that they also require less water, fertilizer, and other feedstocks, which makes for a small environmental footprint.

LEED 2009, the previous version of the popular international green building rating system, specifically awarded construction and renovation projects an additional point for using rapidly renewable materials.  It listed bamboo, cork, strawboard, wheatboard, wool, cotton insulation, agrifiber and linoleum as examples of materials that are typically harvested in 10 years or less. 

However, LEED v4, the newest version of the rating system, no longer includes this credit.  This is likely because the US Green Building Council, the creator of the rating systems, commissioned a study on rapidly renewable bio-based materials.  The study found that rapidly renewable materials may not, in fact, be any more sustainable than materials with longer harvest cycles.  In particular, the study found that corn, soybeans, and cotton are energy-intensive to produce and often use a lot of pesticides and fertilizers.

Despite these findings, the study did not declare all rapidly renewable materials to lack environmental benefits.  Here, I will recommend three types of rapidly renewable materials that do have a reduced environmental impact and therefore are ideal for green building.

Wheatboard

Wheatboard is one rapidly renewable material that is known to be more environmentally friendly than many of its long-cycle counterparts.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) performed a life-cycle analysis on the material and found that it captures more carbon than it produces in its manufacturing and transportation processes.  In fact, wheatboard was ranked #1 on a list of 230 building materials that the organization assessed for environmental impacts.

Wheatboard is typically used as a substitute for medium-density fiberboard (MDF), but is often made without urea formaldehyde.

Cork

Cork is a great alternative for building materials because not only is it rapidly renewable, but it’s typically recycled.  The majority of cork is harvested for wine bottle corks, and the waste scraps are reused in building materials, making it an even better choice. 

Cork can be used for flooring or for carpet underlayment, and has several advantages in comparison to other material choices.  It is easy to install, comes in many colors, and is great for acoustics.  Plus, it’s naturally anti-microbial and resistant to insects, mites and mold.  It’s also highly durable and resistant to denting, and can last well over 50 years as a flooring material.

Cork flooring can be more expensive than conventional flooring, costing about as much as a ceramic tile floor.  Plus, it should be treated so that it does not swell when exposed to water. 

Bamboo

Bamboo is a durable and earth-friendly building material that can be used for flooring, millwork and veneers. Bamboo is stronger than concrete and lighter than steel.  It’s easy to install, though it should be adapted to your local climate to ensure durability.

Bamboo only takes 7 years to mature and can grow three to four feet per day, which means that it can produce 20 times the amount of timber than other trees of the same size.  It uses no fertilizer or pesticides and very little water to grow. Plus, during its growth, bamboo absorbs carbon dioxide as much as other trees do, but can produce 35% more oxygen than other trees its size.  Bamboo is eligible for certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, which means it can be harvested sustainably.

Apart from Europe and Antarctica, bamboo is available in every continent, which can reduce its transportation costs and impacts.

Overall, it’s important to investigate the environmental impacts of a building material before choosing it for construction.  Do not simply assume that a manufacturer’s claims are correct.  Check reputable sources, such as USGBC or NIST’s BEES Software.

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