From plastic to hemp: five innovative and sustainable building materials

By Natasha Bougourd and Catrin Jones05 May 2022

In time, sustainable materials could make up the structural world around us. Could these next examples be contenders for the future of engineering? Natasha Bougourd on behalf of software development company, Oasys, looks at five of these building materials.

The construction industry is constantly evolving. To combat environmental concerns and achieve carbon neutrality for the nation, experts are creating innovative and sustainable building materials. Considering that the built environment is responsible for 45% of the UK’s carbon emissions, sustainable alternatives have never been more important.

Recycled plastic

Across the world, over 380 million tonnes of plastic waste is amassed every year. Out of this, a meagre 9% is recycled appropriately. To address this issue, the world must continue to create ways to recycle waste – and what could be more innovative than a real-life plastic bridge?

(Photo: Reuters)

The Easter Dawyck Bridge is an engineering feat. The Scottish structure is made out of 100% recycled thermoplastic materials. Engineers repurposed 50 tonnes of plastic waste, including everyday household bottles, during its construction. The material is more durable than traditional wood and requires less upkeep. So, thermoplastics are kinder to both the environment and our engineers.

Hempcrete

Concrete is the most popular man-made material in the world, so sustainable alternatives are popular too. Hempcrete is a mixture of hemp and limewater, hempcrete (or hemplime) is a sustainable alternative to traditional concrete. According to research from Cambridge University, hemp can absorb carbon twice as effectively as forests. The material can also provide insulation in both domestic and non-domestic structures. 

The Pierre Chevet Sports Centre is the first non-residential building to be made with hempcrete in France. The structure was built with hemp plaster and bricks, which are specifically used to boost both the acoustic and thermal capabilities of the space.

Ferrock

Ferrock is another alternative to concrete. The material is carbon negative and made with 95% recycled materials. As well as being environmentally friendly, Ferrock is particularly suitable for underwater structures. When submerged in saltwater this material becomes stronger whereas concrete can erode.

However, as Ferrock is made of recycled waste, the material cannot be used in large-scale projects. So, there is a long way to go before it can replace everyday concrete. Experts continue to create innovative ways to shape our future, from the advancements in structural design software to sustainable building materials, and we hope to see more alternatives like this.

Timbercrete

Timbercrete is a combination of timber waste, sand, and cement. The production process emits less carbon dioxide than concrete, making it a more sustainable option. Similar to hempcrete and Ferrock, Timbercrete is an alternative to concrete.

Timbercrete has much better thermal efficiency than traditional concretes, making it ideal for providing external insulation for structures. On top of that, it is also 250% lighter than concrete or clay, so shipping this material will be much cheaper than other alternatives.

Reclaimed steel

Steel is an integral part of the architectural world, essential for iconic structures from the Eiffel Tower to the Tyne Bridge. Around 40% of all steel is made of scrap metal, making steel the most recycled material used in construction. As well as this, using reclaimed steel as a building material can produce 19% less carbon than concrete.

In domestic structures, steel bars (or rebars) are placed inside a concrete wall to reinforce its structure. These bars can be as sustainable as they are important. The Steel Recycling Institute has revealed that 65% of rebars are recycled when no longer of use. Moreover, the bars themselves are made of recycled steel. Over 7 million tonnes of steel is melted down and repurposed as rebars every year.

The construction industry will no doubt develop new and exciting materials to choose from. These are just some of the most innovative and sustainable building materials that are being used today. Whether you’re interested in the power of recycled plastic, biomass hemp, or reinforced steel, there’s an alternative out there for every engineer. Which material do you think will take the construction industry by storm?

About the author

Natasha Bougourd is a copywriter working with Oasys. The UK-based commercial developer of engineering software specialises in structural, geotechnical, crowd analysis and pedestrian modelling solutions. 

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