Choosing the right green materials for your project isn’t just about ticking boxes for sustainability certifications—it’s about future-proofing your investment. Using green materials creates spaces that reduce harm to the environment and offer healthier, more productive spaces for your tenants.

Defining green building materials

Green building materials refer to any material with a lower environmental impact when produced, installed, and maintained than its traditional counterpart. This takes into account the full lifecycle of the material to ensure an overall improvement in sustainability. The U.S. Green Building Council calls these materials environmentally preferable products for their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program and as part of their ESG Green Buildings criteria.

What makes them sustainable?

The sustainability of building materials is measured by their environmental footprint. It includes factors such as energy efficiency in production, the renewability of resources, and end-of-life recyclability. What makes each green building material sustainable depends on the specifics of the material. Some offer significantly more durability which reduces the environmental costs of maintenance while others reduce the environmental footprint of production.

LEED’s environmentally preferable products give us a few key criteria to help evaluate the sustainability of green building materials. These criteria include:

  • Local production: Prioritizing materials that are extracted and manufactured within a certain distance of the project site minimizes transportation emissions and bolsters the local economy.
  • Reclaimed material: Incorporating the use of materials with reclaimed, salvaged, or refurbished content extends the lifecycle of existing resources reducing waste.
  • Recycled content: Selecting products that contain a defined proportion of post-consumer or pre-consumer recycled content supports the market for recyclables and lessens the demand for virgin materials.
  • Certified wood: Choosing wood-based materials that are certified by recognized standards like the Forest Stewardship Council ensures that wood products come from responsibly managed forests.
  • Bio-based materials: Utilizing bio-based materials derived from renewable plant and animal sources makes products more compostable and reduces emissions for production.
  • Extended producer responsibility: Beyond the product itself, producers can also make a product more sustainable by offering take-back programs and other end-of-life waste management strategies.

The role of green construction in fulfilling ESG criteria for businesses

Embracing green construction practices is a strategic move for businesses aiming to excel in their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) performance. Here’s how green construction can help businesses fulfill every aspect of ESG:

  • Environmental: Green construction reduces a business’s carbon footprint through energy-efficient designs and sustainable materials, directly supporting environmental conservation efforts.
  • Social: By minimizing waste and enhancing indoor environments, green construction promotes community well-being and reflects social responsibility.
  • Governance: Proactively adopting green construction prepares businesses for evolving environmental regulations such as the EU’s CSRD, demonstrating foresight and strong governance to stakeholders.

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11 best green building materials to count on: Now and in the future

Innovative green building materials are transforming the construction industry. Here are eleven materials paving the way for a sustainable future:

  • Engineered cementitious composite (ECC): Also known as bendable concrete, ECC offers 500 times greater resistance to cracking and superior shock absorption compared to traditional concrete. With the inclusion of small polymer fibers, ECC can be produced more sustainably and infused with CO2 to further reduce its carbon footprint.
  • Mass timber: This collective term includes various mechanically bonded softwoods like CLT, LSL, LVL, NLT, and GLT. As a viable alternative to steel and concrete, mass timber reduces the potential contribution to global warming by 26.5% compared to traditional concrete.
  • Salvaged materials: Reusing materials diverts them from landfills and gives them new life. In recent years, this has even become a trending design choice.
  • Bamboo: Known for its rapid growth and impressive tensile strength, bamboo is a renewable resource that doesn’t require replanting post-harvest. Its versatility allows for structural and decorative use, although it requires treatment against insects and rot.
  • Mycelium: Fungi-based materials using mycelium bring an organic and compostable component to a building material. It also resists mold, water, and fire making it an effective additive when making bricks.
  • Precast concrete: Manufactured offsite for increased efficiency and waste reduction, precast concrete allows for more precise and controlled construction.
  • 3D printed concrete: With the ability to print components on or near construction sites, 3D printed concrete minimizes transportation costs and simplifies supply chains.
  • Straw bale: Excellent for insulation and soundproofing, straw bale construction can significantly cut temperature control costs and offers a sustainable alternative to traditional insulators.
  • Recycled plastic: Polymeric timbers combine recycled and virgin plastics to create a hybrid plastic of equal strength while taking materials out of landfills.
  • Ferrock: A newer material made from steel dust and ferrous rock, Ferrock offers a concrete alternative that is stronger and captures CO2 through a process called carbonation.
  • Terrazzo: With its long lifespan and low maintenance, Terrazzo flooring combines recycled materials like glass or marble in a polished concrete or epoxy base for a durable and decorative finish.

Cheat sheet

To make it a bit easier to know which green materials you should look into for your next project, here is a table with what green materials can replace traditional materials:

Traditional material Green building material replacement
  • Bendable concrete
  • Precast concrete
  • 3D printed concrete
  • Ferrock
  • Mass timber
  • Bamboo
  • Reclaimed steel
  • Bamboo
  • Recycled plastic
  • Reclaimed wood
  • Mass timber
  • Straw bale
  • Cellulose fiber
  • Terrazzo
  • Reclaimed wood

Case studies: Successful real estate projects utilizing green elements

Currently, there’s a revolution in the CRE design world where environmental savvy meets cutting-edge architecture. The modern building features a sharp design tailored around meeting sustainability goals. A few case studies that truly exemplify these traits include:

  • The Bullitt Center: Originally designed with a 250-year lifespan in mind, The Bullitt Center in Seattle goes beyond the typical eco-friendly rhetoric. With a wooden frame sourced from responsible forests and a rooftop solar array that meets its energy needs year-round, this building is a testament to what’s possible when sustainability is a priority from the ground up.
  • Pixel Building: Don’t let the size fool you; the Pixel Building in Melbourne is a powerhouse of sustainability. Its vibrant facade is more than just visually appealing; it’s constructed from recycled materials that tell a story of environmental responsibility. As Australia’s first carbon-neutral office building, it stands as a shining example that sustainability isn’t confined to scale.
  • Shanghai Tower: Rising above the city’s skyline, the Shanghai Tower is not just about height and grandeur; it’s a model of sustainable engineering. It features a layered facade that cleverly reduces wind loads and energy consumption, internal sky gardens that bring a touch of nature skyward, and integrated wind turbines that capture the power of the elements. What’s more, 40% of its building materials were sourced locally.

What do they have in common?

Despite their diverse locales and designs, these buildings share a unified vision for sustainability that’s evident in a few key aspects:

  • Intelligent design and technology: Each employs advanced technology and design principles to conserve energy and optimize environmental conditions.
  • High-performance materials: They utilize materials that deliver on the promise of sustainability, from insulation to construction methods.
  • Renewable energy sources: A commitment to renewable energy is clear, with solar panels, rainwater harvesting systems, and wind turbines reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
  • Integration of green spaces: Be it roof gardens or indoor plants, green spaces are central to their designs, providing both aesthetic and environmental benefits.

What can we learn from these case studies?

With these three case studies, we can pull out a few best practices for successfully leveraging green materials and green building practices as a whole:

  • Comprehensive sustainability approach: These projects underscore the importance of integrating sustainable thinking from the initial planning stages.
  • Local materials and climate considerations: They exemplify how even the largest of projects can still support local businesses and materials.
  • Focus on long-term benefits: Economic viability is shown through reduced operational costs and increased marketability.
  • Strive for certification excellence: High sustainability standards, verified by certifications like LEED or BREEAM, are not just goals but are intrinsic to these projects’ identities.

Implementing sustainable materials in your CRE buildings

Choosing sustainable materials for your commercial properties goes beyond helping the environment. It’s also a forward-thinking business move. But, choosing green building materials can pose challenges. Typically, they cost more at first, and keeping up with the latest green building technology can feel like a full-time job. With the right strategies, you can overcome these challenges to create more sustainable commercial buildings that offer lower operational costs.

The growing trend of eco-friendly practices in commercial spaces

A growing body of data and statistics supports the rise of sustainability in the building sector. For instance, a study by CBRE notes that LEED-certified buildings command rent premiums of up to 31% over non-certified properties. Moreover, sustainability is increasingly influencing tenant choice, with a Nielsen global online study indicating that 81% of respondents feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment.

How Proptech can make your green dream come true

ProptechOS empowers CRE managers to embrace sustainability by using digital twins. These digital twins emulate a building with real-time data. You can use this capability to emulate the cost-savings of different green building materials to optimize your product choices.

On top of its digital twin capabilities, ProptechOS also provides a platform to seamlessly integrate all of your current and future Proptech solutions. It uses the RealEstateCore standard to enable communication between all building data sources and systems. This future-proofs your technology regardless of which direction the future of CRE technology takes.

Get started with ProptechOS today to start evaluating your green material choices with a digital twin powered by your real-time data!

Per Karlberg

Per Karlberg, a distinguished technology executive, demonstrates deep expertise in the nexus of real estate, technology, and ESG. Holding advanced degrees from Lund University, and with key roles as CEO of our company and Co-Founder of ProptechOS, he has shaped the proptech field through significant contributions to real estate technology advancements. His instrumental work in co-authoring “The realestatecore ontology” has facilitated digital transformation and ESG breakthroughs in the real estate sector.

Read his full bio and information here.