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Green Building 101: Sustainable materials and resources

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Need a quick refresher on green building basics? This is our "Green Building 101" series that we'll publish throughout the month. We'll visit topics that form the foundation of our understanding of green building today.

Setting goals for using sustainable materials and resources is an important step of the green building process. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” may seem like a critical component of this work: clearly, reducing consumption is critical, and reusing and recycling waste are important strategies.

But green building requires rethinking the selection of materials as well. Ideally, the materials and resources used for buildings not only do less harm but go further and regenerate the natural and social environments from which they originate. To evaluate the best options and weigh the trade-offs associated with a selection, teams must think beyond a project’s physical and temporal boundaries. Life cycle assessment can help a team make informed, defensible decisions.

What are the main areas of focus around materials and resources choices?

  • Conservation of material. A building generates a large amount of waste throughout its life cycle. Meaningful waste reduction begins with eliminating the need for materials during the planning and design phases.
  • Environmentally preferable materials. Locally harvested, sustainably grown, made from rapidly renewable materials, biodegradable, free of toxins. All these designations demonstrate awareness for sustainability.
  • Waste management and reduction. The goal is to reduce the waste that is hauled to and disposed of in landfills or incineration facilities. During construction or renovation, materials should be recycled or reused whenever possible. During the building’s daily operations, recycling, reuse, and reduction programs can curb the amount of material destined for local landfills.

Why is this important for buildings?

Materials and resources are the foundation of the buildings in which we live and work, as well as that with which we fill them, the infrastructure that carries people to and from these buildings, and the activities that take place within them. The ubiquitous nature of materials and resources makes it easy to overlook the history and costs associated with production, transportation, consumption, and disposal.

The “Story of Stuff,” as this process has become known from the popular YouTube video and subsequent book by the same name, often begins as raw materials from around the world. They are transported, refined, manufactured, and packaged for sale. In a conventional system, stuff is purchased, consumed, and discarded, often in a landfill. But in reality, there is no “away” and each step in this process of production, consumption, and disposal has significant environmental, social, and economic consequences.

Ready to learn more?

Become a green building expert—make a beeline for the Core Concepts Guide!

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    Tiffany Coyle made 10 contributions in the last 6 months

Tiffany Coyle

Digital Marketing Specialist U.S. Green Building Council

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