10 Cutting-edge, Energy-efficient Building Materials

10 Cutting-edge, Energy-efficient Building Materials


The drive for energy-efficient building comes down to a quest for the so-called tight envelope. In builder lingo, the better a structure keeps out the wind and the rain, the tighter its envelope.


And if you can achieve that tight envelope while using some kind of renewable, recycled material, then that’s all the better. But while many new energy-efficient products enter the market each year, some builders shy away from them because of higher costs. In many cases, just adding a layer of insulation or a specially glazed window can increase the cost of materials by 20 to 30 percent.

Let’s take a look at some of the latest energy-efficient building materials on the market right now.

Recycled Steel

If you check out the material produced by the Steel Recycling Institute (SRI), you might want to skip the wood beams when building your next house.

According to the SRI, builders are simplifying the framing process by ordering customized steel beams and panels to fit each specific design. The SRI touts the durability of steel in areas subject to high winds and earthquakes. Further, it reports that while a 2,000-square-foot (186-square-meter) house requires 40 or 50 trees to build, a frame from recycled steel would require no more than the material that comes from six scrapped cars


Insulating Concrete Forms

The Portland Cement Association, one of the top makers of concrete forms, defines them as “cast-in-place concrete walls that are sandwiched between two layers of insulation material.” Concrete is poured into forms that serve as insulation layers and remain in place as a permanent part of the structure. The technology is used in freestanding walls and building blocks.

Plant-based Polyurethane Rigid Foam

After the No. 1 maker of surfboard material went out of business and was fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for using a toxic chemical, a surfboard maker in San Diego started producing a foam material that comes from plants.

Ned McMahon, chief operating officer of Malama Composites, is manufacturing the foam from materials such as bamboo, hemp and kelp.


Straw Bales

A home built primarily from bales of straw can be stronstraw-bales-726977_1280ger than you may think.

Ever build with LEGOs? Then you can build a house. That’s the philosophy of Mark Jensen, who supervises the building of straw bale houses for Native American communities. Straw is a byproduct of the grain industry that often would be burned otherwise.

According to the California Straw Building Association, straw, if kept dry, can last for thousands of years. Straw bales bond well to stucco and plaster walls, and they provide good insulation


Cool Roofing

The Cool Roof Rating Council explains it like this: If you want to stay cool on a hot day, it’s better to wear a white T-shirt than a black one because it reflects rather than absorbs heat. A cool roof is like that white T-shirt: It reflects heat from the sun and stays cooler, thus transferring less heat into the building.

In the past, the roofing materials themselves needed to be light-colored for this concept to work. But new treatments allow consumers to choose darker materials that will reflect heat back into the atmosphere, as well.


Structural Insulated Panels

Insulating panels made from foam can help save up to 50 percent in energy costs over other materials.

Think of an Oreo cookie, and you’ve got the idea about a structural insulated panel (SIP). SIPs are made from a layer of foam insulation that’s sandwiched between pieces of plywood, strand board or cement panels.

Ever wonder where those plastic bags go? If you’ve recycled them, they may turn up in the construction of your next deck or on the local playground.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, this 50-50 combination of wood fibers and waste plastics is more durable and less toxic than conventional treated lumber. The material is also more rigid than pure plastic lumber because the wood fibers add extra strengtaterial was used in less than 2 percent of new homes.


Low-E Windows

Low-E windows can help regulate the temperature inside a home.

The “E” in low-E stands for emissivity, and a clear coating of metallic oxide on these windows keeps the heat inside the house in the winter and outside in the summer.

Typically, this coating is used on external storm windows in houses that don’t have double-pane windows. The technology comes in soft coatings and hard coatings. The soft coatings go between layers of glass, while the hard coatings go on the outside.


Vacuum Insulation Panel

In a 1-inch (2.54-centimeter) panel, the vacuum insulation panel (VIP) provides as much as seven times the insulating protection as traditional products [source: NAHB Research Center]. This technology may well be the ultimate insulation panel. However, it’s currently only available for commercial industrial refrigeration and specialized container systems.

The VIP looks like something out of the old NASA films about spacecraft technology. It’s a textured silver rectangle that holds a core panel enclosed in an airtight envelope. Manufacturers can make the panels iEarth

If you want to build with walls of rammed earth or adobe, the great advantage is that the material is abundant, free and doesn’t have to be transported to the job site. The downside is that you’ll have a hard time finding specialized craftsmen who know how to build with dirt.


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