13 Energy Efficient Building Materials Promoting a Sustainable Future

more promising future for energy efficiency

Energy-efficient construction is not only important for saving homeowners’ costs in an increasingly uncertain world but also for championing a sustainable future. 

While energy-efficient mortgages have enabled customers to retrofit older homes with eco-friendly upgrades, lots of these gains are being eroded by the construction of bigger homes

According to the 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, commercial and residential buildings account for 38% of total carbon emissions. However, leading experts estimate that by applying existing sustainable technologies to 70% more floor space during building projects, buildings could cut energy emissions by 54-69% by 2050. The net savings for such a project would add up to over $1 trillion globally. 

By applying more sustainable construction materials available today to future construction projects, we can deliver a more promising future for energy efficiency and the globe. Here’s thirteen energy-efficient building materials and technologies transforming the construction industry. 

1. Smart Glass Windows

Smart glass windows control the amount of light and infrared that passes through glass. 

Smart glass windows employ advanced SPD technology, consisting of thin laminates of nano-particles wedged between glass substrates that can be electronically activated to switch between a clear and opaque mode. 

Each mode channel determines how much light travels through the glass, controlling the amount of light energy trapped in a room. As a result, smart glass windows can help rooms block out light in the summer and trap them in the winter. 

Users can even switch between manual or automatic modes for more consistency. 

While smart glass windows may be slightly more expensive than standard windows, they are highly durable and can be retrofitted into any home. 

2. Low-E Windows

Another way to naturally heat and cool your home on sunny days is by installing low-E windows in places without double panes. Low-E stands for low-emissivity and refers to the amount of light and infrared allowed to escape or enter your window. 

Low-E windows are coated with a clear layer of metallic oxide, which helps block light rays during the summer and trap them during the winter. 

Low-E window units may have two layers of coating, including a hard coating on the outside and a soft coating on the inside of the window. Ultimately, low-E windows are fairly affordable (~$100) and are a completely passive technology that can reduce home emissions. 

3. Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)

Perhaps the most important component of energy-efficient construction is insulation. One area where insulation can be applied more efficiently is behind paneling.

SIPs consist of a thick foam wedged between two building materials, such as plywood or concrete. 

According to research, SIPs are significantly easier to install over fiberglass batt insulation and could cut labor spent on installation by 50%. Additionally, SIPs have a higher R-value than fiberglass batt and significantly less air leakage, offering impressive savings. Substituting fiberglass or rigid foam with SIPs can cut down on construction costs and heating costs. 

4. Vacuum Insulation Panels

Unfortunately, vacuum insulation panels are only available for commercial refrigeration and transport containers but do offer promising results for commercial and residential applications. 

However, vacuum-insulated panels are up to 13x more efficient than spray foam insulation and offer low thermal conductivity. Once available for residential and commercial homes, these panels can dramatically improve the R-value of any space where they’re applied. 

5. Spray Foam Insulation

In recent years, spray foam insulation has become a popular material for sealing leaks, basements, walls, and joists. Spray foam insulation contains a self-expanding polymer that hardens and helps trap air and heat from escaping. 

Spray foam insulation can sometimes be applied as solo means of insulation or can seal cracks in your home around foam board insulation. 

Unlike fiberglass batt, which deteriorates with age and doesn’t prevent airflow, spray foam lasts a long time and can seal out leaks in your home entirely. 

6. Aerogel Insulation 

Another alternative insulation material that is now being introduced into residential and commercial construction is aerogel insulation. Aerogel is typically composed of silica material and comes in a thin sheet that can be wrapped around solid objects. 

Aerogel is considered one of the world’s most efficient and least dense insulating materials, making it increasingly popular in new construction builds. Aerogel insulation can be applied around framing, including wood studs, to prevent thermal bridging. Aerogel sheets can also be used under shingles, over masonry, and behind wood panels. 

7. Recycled Building Materials

While we like to think of sustainable building materials as effective in preventing new carbon, we must also look at the embodied carbon it takes to source building materials. For example, wood, steel, aluminum, and other raw materials are often transported over thousands of miles, disposed of after very little use, and cause pollution to their surrounding environments when harvested. 

However, building with recycled materials prevents the mining of new materials, saves on transportation costs, and even saves money if you source leftover materials from local sites. Examples of recycled building materials builders can use to cut emissions include:

  • Recycled steel
  • Clay bricks
  • Hempcrete
  • Plant-based polyurethane foam
  • Recycled wood
  • Newspaper wood
  • Plastic composite lumber

8. Composite Shingles

One area where recycled materials are making a big difference is roofing. Composite shingles are a sustainable construction material made of 100% recycled plastic and rubber. Composite shingles even look like slate and have a 50-year lifespan. 

9. Cool Roofing

On the other hand, a cool roof may be an ideal investment if you’re looking for ways to cut emissions. Cool roofs feature reflective outer surfaces that refract infrared rays from the sun. In turn, the light-colored shingles from a cool roof–though some come with dark hues–help keep your roof cool and prevent heat absorption during the summer. 

Cool roofs are perfect for supplementing your cooling costs during the summer but are only ideal in hot temperature zones. 

10. Insulating Concrete Forms

While concrete forms have been around for a long time, concrete forms are making a comeback as a more energy-efficient alternative to standard fiberglass batt or rigid foam insulation. Generally, concrete is considered one of the energy-efficient materials for framing and construction. So why not apply concrete to insulation?

Insulated concrete forms are sections of insulation that are filled in with concrete. The concrete provides an additional layer of protection against thermal leaks and may even make rooms quieter. 

As a result, constructing a home with concrete forms can greatly improve the R-value of your insulation. 

11. Self-Heating Concrete

However, one of the most exciting new technologies being developed is self-heating concrete. 

Researchers at MIT and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) recently created an electrically conductive nanocarbon cement that radiates heat and is self-healing. This technology offers several applications, from indoor home floor radiant heating to self-heating roads that don’t require salt or plows for snow removal.

Some self-heating carbon patents utilize carbon macrofiber or nanofiber materials mixed with additional materials to provide better thermal conductivity. 

The nanocarbon design would allow homes that use self-heating concrete to avoid the hassle of running pipes underneath their floors for radiant heating. Furthermore, building homes with regular concrete framing has also proven to be quieter, require less maintenance, and is more energy efficient; just imagine building a frame with self-heating concrete. 

Lastly, other self-heating concrete designs have even shown to require less maintenance, thanks to their design. For example, one application for self-heating concrete has shown how water that enters the cracks of concrete can be used to activate bacteria mixed in with the cement, thus releasing calcite, which mends the crack. 

12. Barndominiums

In terms of a fully constructed house, barndominiums take the cake for energy efficiency. Though barndominium house plans may differ, they generally share the following energy-efficiency characteristics:

  • Concrete slabbing
  • Stained concrete flooring
  • High ceilings
  • Energy efficient plumbing
  • Natural light
  • Energy-efficient windows
  • Spray foam insulation

Altogether, most barndominiums offer lots of space and are made of energy-efficient building materials, making them highly profitable for commercial investors. 

13. Thermal Inspections 

Finally, the future of energy-efficient construction will also be marked by new ways we approach inspections and quality control. 

Generally, we recommend all new construction projects undergo a thermal inspection, which tests how well heat is distributed across the home. 

Using still cameras and infrared video, thermal inspections allow QA specialists to determine where insulation is needed inside a home and where cool spots exist. These simple and affordable inspections can take the guesswork out of construction and ensure homes are built to maximize energy efficiency. 

The future of energy-efficient construction is here. Most energy-efficient construction materials offer longer durability, higher R-values, and sometimes cheaper costs to install. Be sure to contact a QA specialist and environmental consultant before your next construction project to help you go green.