8 Sustainable Materials to Consider for Your Renovation
Improve the fabric of your home by opting for environmentally kind materials. Let this starter guide inspire you
But with so much information out there and so many options, where to start? How about here, with a simple list of sustainable materials gathered from just a few of our many recent sustainability-focused stories, along with tips on adding them to your home. Let us know in the Comments which you have used or are inspired to try and find more useful articles in our comprehensive Sustainable Renovation Planning guide.
Starting your renovation? Read How to Renovate Sustainably
Cork is a sustainability superstar, and Houzz pros have used it for flooring, kitchen cabinetry and insulation inside and out. This versatile material is natural, incredibly durable, and can be fully recycled or composted.
“If you buy [cork] from an accredited supplier, it should have been sustainably harvested,” Lydia Robinson of Design Storey says.
Nimi Attanayake of nimtim Architects worked on the extension pictured here, which was built with walls constructed from breeze blocks and clad internally and externally with thick cork. She adds that it’s breathable and free from chemicals, synthetic resins and carcinogenic materials, too. As such, it creates a healthy environment inside the house.
“We used cork as an insulating material and exposed it internally,” she says. “This was a cost-effective approach, as it meant we didn’t need to plasterboard, skim or paint. It also has damp-proof qualities and performs well acoustically. If a panel should become damaged, it’s easy to cut it out and replace it with a new one.”
Nimi adds that cork cladding may need treating for fire spread, depending on where it’s used in the building and how much of it there is. “This is something that should be reviewed and approved by the Building Control officer before it’s installed,” she says.
“All of our cork comes from a carefully managed forested ecosystem in southern Portugal known as the Montado,” she says, “which supports many endangered species, including the Iberian lynx, the imperial eagle, wolves and bears.”
More: What Do I Need to Know About Cork Flooring?
Looking to update your home? Find an architect or building designer on Houzz today and ask them about their approach to sustainability.
According to The Guardian, concrete causes 4% to 8% of global CO2 emissions; if it were a country, it would be the world’s third worst culprit after the US and China.
So it’s cheering there’s an excellent alternative. Hempcrete, seen here in a project by Matthew Giles Architects, is a biocomposite material that contains a mixture of hemp, hurds – the coarse part of hemp or flax – and lime (the mineral not the fruit…).
Nimi says she and the nimtim team are excited by hempcrete and explains that it acts as an insulator and moisture regulator, and lacks the brittleness of concrete, so no expansion joints are required. It’s also fairly lightweight. “This can dramatically reduce the energy used to transport the blocks,” she says.
“As we begin to add more insulation to buildings to lower their energy requirements, the volume of insulating material we use is going to rise dramatically,” Nimi continues. “So it makes ecological and financial sense to fill this volume with materials that are renewable, low-impact and, ideally, sourced from waste streams or by-products from other processes.
“[Hempcrete] meets all of these important criteria,” she says, “and compares favourably with conventional insulation materials in many ways.”
More: Which Alternative Materials Could I Use to Insulate My Extension?
The clue to this material’s sustainability credentials is in the title…
“This is one of the most sustainable options available,” says Kieran Hawkins at Cairn Architects, talking specifically about using reclaimed timber for flooring. “It has character, and the level of sanding you carry out can be balanced with the amount of wear from its previous life you’d like to see.”
Reclaimed wood is also warm underfoot, and looks great – plus you can enjoy the fact it has a rich history. “In my own house, I’ve laid a maple floor with boards reclaimed from a school gym,” he says.
Reclaimed wood can also be used in multiple joinery projects – consider old scaffold planks for furniture and worktops, and even old floorboards as work surfaces, like the parquet boards used on this island by ALL & NXTHING.
Rob Cole of Sheffield Sustainable Kitchens says his company uses reclaimed timber a lot. “[It means] you can have iroko or teak from Africa or Asia with no guilt,” he says. The company often sources this in the form of ex-school science lab worktops and even used oak from Belgian railway carriages in one kitchen.
More: Which Sustainable Flooring Should I Choose?
Fast-growing and hardy, this woody grass can be a highly sustainable crop. If you prefer a darker shade, look out for carbonised bamboo.
Bamboo can be used for worktops, flooring, kitchen cabinet fronts and more. The worktop in this kitchen by Sheffield Sustainable Kitchens is made from bamboo ply, giving it a lovely textured front edge and increased durability. (As with wooden surfaces, a bamboo worktop will need re-treating from time to time to keep it watertight and in tip-top condition.)
If you’re considering something new underfoot, Wayne Hawkes of Simply Bamboo says, “Bamboo as a material is very stable, so it deals with extremes of hot and cold weather much better than some wooden floors.”
Chris Elliott of The Bamboo Flooring Company recommends strand woven bamboo flooring. “It’s durable and can last a lifetime if it’s looked after properly,” he says. “It’s easy to clean and takes very little maintenance. It’s also great for allergy sufferers, as there’s nowhere for pet hair or dust mites to gather and hide.”
More: What Do I Need to Know About Bamboo Flooring?
10 Alternative Materials for Your Kitchen Worktop
Genuine lino, as opposed to plastic imitations, is a natural product made from ingredients including linseed oil, wood sawdust, ground limestone, pigments and cork. It can be used anywhere from living spaces to kitchens and bathrooms, and it’s extremely durable and resistant to wear and tear, comes in many patterns, and can be cost-effective. The smooth surface also makes it easy to clean up any spills.
These kitchen cabinets, in a project by Nicolaj Bo kitchen designers, are clad in a beautifully soft mushroom-coloured lino.
“Marmoleum [a trade name for linoleum] is a sustainable flooring product made primarily from renewable raw natural resources,” Nimi says. “The top layer is linoleum, a bio-based, ecologically produced material made from 97% natural raw materials. Marmoleum is CO2-neutral, without offset, and PVC-free, with low embodied energy, plus and it’s allergy approved.”
Note that, as flooring, it’s not always ideal above underfloor heating, so check with your supplier.
More: Which Sustainable Flooring Should I Choose?
Often chosen as a sustainable alternative to microcement, tadelakt can be used to cover anything from walls and ceilings to showers, basins and vanity units.
This polished lime-based plaster, which has its origins in Morocco, has a soft, gently marbled appearance. It comes in a range of colours, and – with correct finishing – is waterproof and seamless, making it perfect for bathrooms.
The sheen and impermeability come with the finishing process, which involves a specialist polishing stone and the application of wax or olive oil soap.
As with many natural surfaces, original tadelakt requires maintenance, particularly reapplication every few years of the wax or soap to keep it waterproof. The surface may also chip more easily than microcement, which has more flexibility. Dents and stains, however, can be repaired – there are plenty of videos online showing tips and techniques.
Try to use original tadelakt rather than a premixed version, as these may contain artificial additives. Be aware, also, that applying traditional tadelakt is a highly skilled job. An amateur finish can easily compromise the material’s practical benefits and beauty.
More: Would You Use This Stunning Waterproof Surface in Your Home?
While tadelakt is a lime plaster, it has specialist properties and uses. Lime plaster in its broader sense can potentially be used to replace gypsum or cement plaster anywhere inside or outside your home when replastering or rendering. It’s widely considered to be carbon-neutral or negative, and can also be recycled.
Unless you’re renovating an old or listed building, it might not have occurred to you to explore the idea of using the material, which is often associated with heritage projects.
Its benefits? Lime plaster is breathable as well as – depending on the type you choose – totally natural, and allows moisture to evaporate, which can be beneficial in reducing damp. It also helps to absorb harmful gases, is naturally antibacterial and has large, air-filled pockets, so it insulates well. Because it’s a flexible material, lime plaster is also extremely durable.
Using lime-based paints on top, as in this project by Ecospheric, will keep the surface porous, as these share many of the same properties.
We’ve already touched on reclaimed wood, but consider, too, anything in decent condition that gets removed during the demolition stage of your renovation. An old bath may appear transformed with a new panel; your loo could be upgraded with a different seat and flush; that old door could become a headboard, and do you really need brand-new sockets?
It can, of course, be more costly to reuse materials or work with reclaimed items, whether that’s because they need restoring or the reconfiguration necessary adds labour. So when engaging your pro, talk through their approach to reuse: how much of a priority is it for them and their team, and is it an option you could both aim to incorporate to some level, at least?
In terms of ready-made recycled materials, more and more manufacturers are innovating to produce products made from waste. Look out for kitchen worktops made from recycled materials. The terrazzo surface pictured here in a project by RESILICA is made from 100% recycled glass set into a solvent-free resin.
Discarded plastic has become a fairly mainstream raw material and carpets made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles are a great example.
Fresh innovations appear in time for every design fair, too, and “bio-materials” are regularly a big focus, including banana plant fibre, discarded orange peel and drift seaweed, to mention but a few. Watch this space!
More: How Can I Renovate My Kitchen Sustainably?
Which sustainable materials are you tempted by – or have already tried? Let us know in the Comments.