10 Sustainable Building Materials for Facades

Published Categorized as Sustainability
Reclaimed Wood Facade

A building facade defines the character and personality of a building’s overall design. A facade can help set the tone for those entering, and architects use it to elicit certain moods and feelings in people. And with the emphasis on green construction today, building facades are made with various sustainable materials.

Here are ten sustainable materials used to make building facades:

  1. Bamboo
  2. Cork
  3. Recycled Brick
  4. Straw Bales
  5. Recycled Plastic
  6. Reclaimed Wood
  7. Rammed Earth
  8. Hempcrete
  9. Mycelium
  10. Reclaimed Steel

A building facade requires a significant quantity of construction material, and using sustainable resources can reduce our overall carbon footprint. In this article, we’ll explore each material in greater detail so you can decide which one best suits your requirements.

1. Bamboo

Bamboo facades are rare but not unheard of. Bamboo has a high weight-to-strength ratio, making it easy to use in the construction of various parts of the house, including some walls and flooring. These facades lend a more organic look to the building, echoing traces of nature that can be quite inviting to guests entering the building.

Additionally, bamboo is a highly sustainable building material, requiring little investment or resources to grow and cultivate. In fact, bamboo can grow as quickly as three feet in some parts within twenty-four hours! And once you’ve planted the first few shoots, the plant will continue to propagate even without much attention.

If you’re using bamboo for the building facade, you must ensure the material is appropriately treated to withstand rain (if you live somewhere with high annual rainfall). Untreated bamboo is susceptible to rot and can quickly get water-logged and infested.

2. Cork

Like bamboo, cork grows quickly with little need for human interference. Cork is a renewable resource harvested from the bark of Quercus Suber (cork oak) and grows back over time once the layer of bark is removed. As such, this is a renewable resource in the truest sense because there’s a limitless supply so long as the tree is kept alive.

While cork is popular in indoor construction, it’s also ideal for facades, thanks to its durability and flexibility. Cork can withstand high pressure without getting damaged and is also hydrophobic in nature, making it practically impossible for water to seep through.

Additionally, the material can be sourced using the waste from factories that manufacture cork bottle caps. The natural processing of cork in these factories further increases the durability and resilience of the substance.

And finally, cork is perfect for sound insulation and an excellent choice for those living in noisy urban areas.

The only drawback of cork is its lack of availability, with cork production facilities primarily located in certain parts of Europe and Africa. As such, you may need to ship the material to your specific location.

While shipping can seem counterproductive to the goal of sustainability, cork is exceptionally light and requires far fewer resources to transport, even in significant quantities.

3. Recycled Brick

Brick by itself is a pretty green building material, but recycled brick reduces carbon emission load to a whole new level. Recycled bricks are usually made using bricks from old construction sites and waste material from brick manufacturing plants.

The best part about recycled brick is that it typically costs less than regular brick (which is priced pretty low, to begin with). Manufacturing plants powder old bricks into the sand and then create new bricks using this raw material.

An added advantage to using recycled bricks is that the builder can request bricks of varying sizes. These aren’t readily available in regular, commercially-manufactured bricks.

The Interlock by Bureau de Change is a classic example of the aesthetic flexibility architects can employ when using recyclable material. While this building facade isn’t made with recycled bricks, the architect in question used bricks that were either ‘misshapen’ or not to be used for regular construction. In essence, they took something that would go to waste and turned it into a work of art!

Recycled brick is an excellent material for facades as it imparts rustic charm to the building and allows the architect to play with different hues using the same material.

And like regular bricks, recycled bricks have the advantage of being low maintenance, fireproof, and durable even in extreme weather conditions.

4. Straw Bales

The tale of the Three Little Pigs will have us believe that a few huffs and puffs from the Big Bad Wolf can knock down a straw house. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Straw is pretty resilient on its own but works best when paired with other building materials and used as a layer of insulation. And while this may seem like a drawback, straw possesses other properties that make it ideal for building facades such as:

  • Straw improves ventilation throughout the building and allows for air gaps, making it harder for the walls to catch fire.
  • Straw offers excellent acoustic protection, blocking out unwanted noise that can otherwise interfere with the internal ambiance.
  • Straw offers effective thermal insulation and regulates temperatures within the building, keeping your home cool during summer and relatively warm in winter.

Straw is usually obtained as a byproduct of growing rice, barley, or wheat, making it highly sustainable and easy to produce. The only thing you must be careful about when constructing with straw is its moisture absorption properties.

While occasional rain won’t affect the structure much, moisture from the earth can seep into the straw bales over time. So if you’re using straw for the facade, it’s best to add it to buildings that are raised above the ground, so there’s no direct contact with the earth.

5. Recycled Plastic

The PET Pavilion, located in Enschede, Netherlands, is a stellar example of how we can use even the most harmful material to create works of art in construction. This building is set up in a wasteland that has transformed into a park with cultural activities for the community to teach them about sustainability and green living.

The plastic facade of this building creates different effects during the day and at night by playing with the lights filtering through the walls. Aside from its focus on sustainability, the facade is an example of how builders can create works of art using everyday materials. The walls are also a reminder of how much waste we generate as humans and the possible impact it can have on nature.

I’m sure no one needs to be told about the positive implications of introducing recycled plastic as a material for facades. Just think how much waste could be drastically reduced and repurposed, with none of it clogging streets and water bodies.

If you’re not too keen on plastic bottles decorating the outside of your building, you can grind up plastic to create polymeric timbers for use as fencing on the outside of your structure. Recycled plastic can even be added to cement to make more durable and sustainable concrete.

6. Reclaimed Wood

Using reclaimed wood instead of fresh timber is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the number of trees being cut for construction.

Reclaimed wood is typically sourced from old barns, home remodels, or even landfills. Wooden facades are always attractive and lend a more earthy quality to the building, making reclaimed wood ideal for both aesthetic and sustainable construction purposes.

It’s crucial to mention here that reclaimed wood is ideal for aesthetics only and not typically used to insulate the building or provide waterproof covering. As such, it’s best to factor this into the construction of a building, ensuring that the outer walls are of a material or color that compliments the wood.

Additionally, when you use reclaimed wood, ensure it’s adequately treated as wood is susceptible to insect infestation if left untreated for too long.

7. Rammed Earth

Rammed earth has been used for centuries by civilizations across the world, and for good reason. This material is made using a mixture of elements, including lime, chalk, gravel, and earth.

This ancient construction material was recently revived for use in modern buildings. Using rammed earth for a facade lends a kind of Aztec or Mayan influence to the building, thanks to its color and texture. And while it may seem like primitive construction material, it’s highly energy-efficient and can be used for storing heat during the day.

However, it’s best to use a thin layer of rammed earth on the facade as a thick wall may keep the building uncomfortably warm in the summer. This material is biodegradable and returns to the ground once the building has reached the end of its lifespan.

8. Hempcrete

The architect Antony Gibbins popularized the use of hempcrete with his masterpiece, the Twine House. This residential project boasts a concrete facade or outer wall that twists and turns along its entire length, and using hempcrete aided him in this project.

Hempcrete is made by binding the fibers of the hemp plant using a lime solution, which turns the mix into solid yet light blocks of concrete. But unlike concrete, hempcrete can be manufactured with relative ease and with negligible carbon emission from the production factory. Additionally, its lightweight properties make it easy to transport for construction.

Hempcrete is also extremely sturdy and can withstand most weather conditions and temperature changes like concrete. And this material has the added advantage of being CO2 negative, meaning it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere rather than emitting any.

As such, even if the construction process isn’t too mainstream, the environmental benefits of employing hempcrete are phenomenal. Using the right mix of hemp fibers with certain materials can further strengthen the concrete blocks and lend the facade added protection.

9. Mycelium

Wait. Mycelium? As in, mushroom?

Yes. It may sound outlandish, but we (humans) recently discovered that mycelium is an excellent building material and makes for a unique facade.

Mushrooms are like the tip of the iceberg, with the mycelium growing underground in long, thread-like strands. So when you plant mushrooms in a suitable, restricted base, the mycelium grows thick and forms strands that bind together like glue, creating a base material that can be used for various construction purposes.

And if you prepare a substrate with other waste products, like sawdust and straw, you can further eliminate waste production and repurpose other building materials into something useful.

It’s been found that mycelium, when appropriately grown, can replicate industry-level strength and may eventually be used as the base material for certain buildings. Mycelium is already being used in several ways, and when combined with powdered sawdust, it can be turned into various shapes to accommodate different parts of the building.

The best part is that mushrooms turn useless, even toxic material into something that can be grown and cultivated. As such, mycelium may be the future of construction once we start to figure out more applications.

10. Reclaimed Steel

Firing and mining steel can produce a significant quantity of carbon emissions. However, with proper manufacturing techniques, you can recycle steel in a way that minimizes environmental impact. Scrapped cars, old machinery, and old building frames are the ideal sources of reclaimed steel, and these resources can be found in plenty.

The great thing about reclaimed steel is that it’s pretty sturdy, and using it as a facade would reinforce the building’s strength, making it more resistant to natural disasters like earthquakes.

And if you’re a creative architect, you can shape and design recycled steel in ways that will elevate the building’s appearance with little effort. While it may seem like a regular construction material (as opposed to cork or mycelium), recycled steel has significant advantages over some of the newer green building materials. These include:

  • Recycled steel is naturally resistant to mold and pests and doesn’t need to be treated before use.
  • This material is water-resistant and cannot rot or weaken due to dampening.
  • Recycled steel can be easily sourced, with plenty of manufacturing plants catering to a builder’s needs.
  • Recycled steel is durable and doesn’t need to be replaced often.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *