Safe & Sustainable Chemicals Series
Green Building Materials
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Published: December 2007
For centuries, humans have impacted their environment in ways both large and small. Most of this environmental impact has stemmed from the basic human need for shelter. In creating shelter, mankind has had an effect on the environment—cutting trees, clearing land, and creating waste by-products, as well as bringing about other unintentional environmental consequences. As technology has progressed, so has the environmental impact of humans constructing new buildings.
Today, in the United States alone, buildings account for approximately 49% of the total energy used.
However, most people today do not immediately think of their buildings or homes when considering ways to reduce their individual carbon footprint (the impact of an individual on the environment in everyday life). Instead, people have focused on how they can reduce their carbon footprint through their use of transportation. A common argument for this is that transportation accounts for a large portion of oil usage, as shown in the following pie chart:
While it is true that buildings themselves account for a small percentage of domestic oil usage in the United States, the environmental impact of buildings comes in several different forms, including
- Lack of energy efficiency
- Substantial energy usage (from nonpetroleum sources)
- Construction material degradation
- Construction material energy usage
- Intentional and unintentional habitat loss
- Water consumption
- Air quality depreciation
A number of countries (many in Europe, also Brazil), do not rely on petroleum as much as the United States does. In their attempts to reduce carbon emissions, they have chosen to focus on buildings and how they affect the environment. Builders have begun to look for ways to improve the environment that have not been done before. In addition to new construction methods, they have begun to look at new construction materials that are not only friendly to human health, but also to the environment. This has resulted in a new push for green materials in construction.
In this report, green materials, sometimes referred to as sustainable materials, are those that follow certain criteria, including whether or not they are made by an energy-efficient process, whether their purpose is energy efficient, whether their impact upon the environment is minimized, and whether their health benefits are better than those of traditional building materials.
The market for green buildings has continued to grow for several years globally, especially in China and the United States, where there is a high rate of building construction. As of January 2007, over 400 separate projects were pending approval by the U.S. Green Building Council under its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, amounting to just under 200 million square feet of new buildings. The trend has not only applied to commercial buildings, but also residential buildings. Building owners are just starting to become more conscious of how their buildings affect the environment, and homeowners have begun to apply the practices of their employers to their own homes.