The use of renewable building materials to reduce the embodied energy of construction

    Myers, Finley
    Fuller, Robert
    Crawford, Robert
    Architecture and the environment


The threat of dangerous levels of global warming demand that we significantly reduce carbon emissions over the coming decades. Globally, carbon emissions from all energy end-uses in buildings in 2004 were estimated to be 8.6 Gt CO2 or almost one quarter of total CO2 emissions (IPCC 2007). In Australia, nearly ten per cent of greenhouse gases come from the residential sector (DCCEE 2009). However, it is not merely the operation of the buildings that contributes to their CO2 emissions, but the energy used over their entire life cycle. Research has demonstrated that the embodied energy of the construction materials used in a building can sometimes equal the operational energy over the building’s entire lifetime (Crawford 2011). Therefore the materials used in construction need to be carefully considered. Conventional building materials not only represent high levels of embodied energy but also use resources that are finite and being depleted. Renewable building materials are those materials that can be regenerated quickly enough to remove the threat of depletion and in theory their production could be carbon-neutral. To assess the potential for renewable building materials to reduce the embodied energy content of residential construction, the embodied energy of a small residential building has been determined. Wherever possible, the conventional construction materials were then replaced by commercially-available renewable building materials. The embodied energy of the building was then recalculated. The analysis showed that the embodied energy of the building could be reduced from 7.5 GJ per m2 to 5.2 GJ per m2 i.e. almost 31%. The commercial availability of renewable materials, however, was a limiting factor and indicated that the industry is not yet well positioned to embrace this strategy to reduce carbon emissions and minimize resource depletion. While some conventional building materials could readily be replaced, in many instances a renewable substitute could not be found.

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