Ecological Building Materials: Towards a New Economy

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  • The world’s most primitive building materials are being used to create the most advanced buildings.
  • In light of an environmental crisis, architects have shifted their efforts to better design built environments for people and the planet.
  • The results may often seem ‘greenwashed’, failing to address the root of ecological distress. Environmentally responsible architecture must aim not to reverse the effects of the ecological crisis, but instigate a revolution in buildings and how we inhabit them.
  • Essays from the book The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, Future envision a shift that will be a philosophical, moral, technological and political leap into a future of environmental resilience.

The construction industry appears to have its head in the past, the effects of the industrial revolution still playing out. Often under the pretext of rationality, industrialized building materials continue to be used excessively, inching society towards climate change. The manufacturing of industrial materials is an agent of environmental pollution. Some materials, even if marketed as sustainable, require lots of energy to create or maintain them. Waste production may also vary among building materials, the environmental impact of which can be substantial.

© Haiting Sun

Public health is also threatened by industrial materials and their manufacturing processes. Even “natural” materials may inherently be unsafe to use. Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral and an identified carcinogen, is responsible for deaths of thousands across the world. Building materials impact health during various phases of the Building Life Cycle – from manufacturing and occupation to demolition and disposal. Unfortunately, most building products with harmful chemicals are cheap, flexible and easy to apply and maintain. The industry is heavily subsidized, thus sustaining the use of such materials.

Carbon tax imposed on the building sector aims to financially persuade builders to move away from the use of harmful conventional materials. While there are merits to this approach, there remains an urgent need to promote more natural and ecological building materials, rather than materials that cause the worst pollution and affect public health. What the construction industry – and society at large – requires is a social and economical shift that puts the planet first.

An Andean man rows a boat next to the shores of Uros islands at Lake Titicaca in Puno November 5, 2014. Credits: Enrique Castro-Mendivil / @castromendivilphoto

In his book, Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, environmental analyst Lester R. Brown highlights the necessity to design ‘a new materials economy’ using existing technologies on natural materials like earth, thatch, bamboo and wood. “Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it doesn’t not allow prices to tell the ecological truth”, he states.

© Petr Polák

Towards Green Capitalism 

Green capitalism, or eco-capitalism, recognizes that capital and profits are equally dependent on environmental protection and sustainability. The construction industry can pave the way for green capitalism by adopting models that put people and the planet alongside profit. The use of ecological materials has a ripple effect on the design of buildings and cities, tackling environmental issues at the unit scale. Achieving all the benefits of green architecture along with functionality and profitability however, requires a strong level of design integration.

Green materials also have a crucial role to play in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) mission of reducing global CO2 emissions. Naturally sourced materials do not require energy-intensive manufacturing methods, unlike industrially produced ones. Their negligible carbon footprints help control energy consumption, develop renewable energies and build local circular economies.

© Jeevan Jyot

For a shift towards green capitalism, a deep understanding of natural materials is required, especially in their local contexts. New materials are being supplemented by rediscovering ancient ones like rammed earth, straw bales, bamboo, and stone – all non-toxic, safe, durable and versatile. Alongside, the ancestral skill of generations of builders needs to be re-examined to provide a foundation for an appraisal of vernacular building practices.

Photo courtesy of WASP

Towards a Circular Economy 

Circular building is a trendy word- every material producer nowadays claims to be circular. However, in practice recycling rates worldwide are below 9% , with nowhere near enough secondary material to meet demand. A circular economy redefines the way the world consumes and produces goods and services. It’s an economic, but also a societal framework that seeks a shift from the consumption of finite resources and looks to eliminate waste and pollution. A transition to natural architecture has taken center stage in design conversations, emphasizing the reuse, repair and recycling of materials.

Environmental challenges are prompting research into the use of resources gathered locally and sustainability to encourage the reuse and recycling of materials. The inherent energy saving and respectful practices of natural architecture may also be hybridized using technology to optimize material properties. The potential of the latest generation of bio-based building materials will fuel transition to a carbon neutral, healthy and circular built environment.

Societies need to preserve and strengthen local architectural cultures, and promote a diverse range of building solutions that can be used in multiple contexts and scales. This requires an overhaul of our economic and social model, revising the relationship between humans and their environment. Natural materials not only demand an ecological way of building but also a new way of living.

© Pedro Bravo, Sofia Hernández, Francisco Martínez

Towards a Social Paradigm Shift 

The present-day ethos of ‘green’ architecture is narrow, manifesting as technological attempts to enhance a building’s energy efficiency. This social paradigm, especially in architecture, seems fixated on the modernist movement that built decontextualized structures detached from the environment. The bygone harmony between humans and nature remains a relic of the past, when it could navigate a societal shift into an ecologically balanced world.

A coherent vision for the future of civilization guides thinkers like earth architect Romain Anger, and green architecture plays a strong role in it. Anger stresses a need to return to our older worldviews of humans as an integrated whole of the biosphere. “Buildings of the future must be alive, made from earth – the product of a circular economy, consuming its own waste and refuse just like any living ecosystem”, he writes.

© Hasan Çalışlar, PAAF, Metin Çavuş, Dilara Demiralp, Aram Tufan

© Hasan Çalışlar, PAAF, Metin Çavuş, Dilara Demiralp, Aram Tufan

The role of architecture in the fight against climate change goes beyond controlling building emissions or using sustainable materials. As Winston Churchill famously quoted, ‘We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us’. Architecture forms a framework around how we live, our actions, our health and our social relationships. To stimulate a shift in societal values, it becomes vital to change the architecture that determines our everyday behavior.

The green revolution will see a change in economic and social structures, and thereby influence the built environment. Ecological architecture is not a single miracle, but one element in a broad range of strategies. A truly green form of architecture can and must contribute to the upcoming paradigm of environmental transition.


This article was first published in ArchDaily and is republished with permission.

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Green Building Africa promotes the need for net carbon zero buildings and cities in Africa. We are fiercely independent and encourage outlying thinkers to contribute to the #netcarbonzero movement. Climate change is upon us and now is the time to react in a more diverse and broader approach to sustainability in the built environment. We challenge architects, property developers, urban planners, renewable energy professionals and green building specialists. We also challenge the funding houses and regulators and the role they play in facilitating investment into green projects. Lastly, we explore and investigate new technology and real-time data to speed up the journey in realising a net carbon zero environment for our children.

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