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Principles of materials

Hertfordshire has considerable sand and gravel deposits and mineral extraction is an important contributor to Hertfordshire’s economy. However, even well managed minerals extraction generates noise, dust and waste, uses significant amounts of energy and manifests itself in the form of heavy goods vehicles on the roads. 

The production of cement results in a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. For each tonne of cement produced, a tonne of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. 

Although timber is a sustainable material, it is essential that forests are well managed to avoid deforestation, associated loss of habitats and changes to the character of the landscape and ground conditions. Risks of flooding and landslides can also increase. 

UK consumption of construction resources 2007 

MaterialVol (000 tonnes)
Clay 5,752
Concrete products 62,343
Insulation 655
Other cement 18,902
Plastic  771
Raw materials  277,300
Rubber  168 
Slate 156.5
Steel 3,120
Timber 6,511
TOTAL  375,678.5

Source: AMA Research and BRE: Evidence gaps for construction products, materials and waste data, 2007.

Principles of sustainable materials

Re-use and efficient use of materials

Re-use of materials and/or use of environmentally friendly materials should be viable on any project, whatever its scale, location or functional specification. Materials reuse can be challenging, as it requires careful deconstruction and storage of materials until such time that the materials are required for reuse.

However, use of new materials that are ‘environmentally friendly’ is now commonplace as most greener materials no longer cost any more than ‘standard’ materials; nor do they differ in terms of aesthetic or functional qualities.

Environmentally friendly materials

Materials with the lowest environmental impact tend to have only minimal processing requirements. Examples of this include the use of timber and insulation made from sheep wool.

The use of petrochemicals in materials have significant environmental impacts as they are derived from fossil fuels and can have further implications for indoor air quality and occupant health. The specification of alternatives is a more environmentally friendly approach and examples include, amongst others:

  • Water based paints.
  • Insulation from organic sources or from naturally occuring minerals, such as cellulose or cork board, or mineral wool.


Demolition should be carried out as a last resort, where the building has deteriorated beyond the point where it can be reused. Wherever practicable, demolition should take the form of careful deconstruction to maximise the potential for re-use of materials.

Local sourcing

Transport of building materials involves energy use, which counts towards the overall environmental impacts of the material. The amount of energy used for transport, particularly in the case of heavy or bulky materials, can be significant.

The most effective way in which to reduce these impacts is to limit the distances that materials are transported. A best practice approach would be to limit the radius for sourcing high mass materials to a radius of, for example, 30 miles. Alternative good practice measures include:

  • Avoidance of international sourcing, for example use of UK rather than Chinese slate.
  • Organisation of deliveries to ensure that lorries have another load to transport on the return journey.

Benefits of sustainable material management

Sustainable material management delivers lots of benefits:

  • Reduced use of virgin materials.
  • Reduced waste generation.
  • Reduced environmental impacts associated with materials production and transportation.

Typical practice

 Materials - basic principles - material benefits

A - PVC-U framed windows

B - Concrete upper floor

C - Plasterboard partitions with zero recycled content

D - Foam insulation (polyeurethane / phenolic foam)

E - Synthetic carpet with foam underlay

F - Solvent based paints

G - Rainscreen cladding, e.g. aluminium or plastic laminate

H - Slate imported from international sources, e.g. Spain or China

Good practice

Materials - basic principles - material benefits 2

A - Timber framed windows

B - Hollow precast concrete upper floor

C - Plasterboard partitions with recycled content

D - Sheep wool insulation

E - Ceramic/stone/terrazzo tiles, or linoleum

F - Wool carpet with recycled rubber underlay

G - Water based paints

H - Timber cladding

I - Green roof - sedum or turf