What if pollution were a thing of the past? What if all trash was either biodegraded or reused? What if houses were constructed of 100-percent sustainable materials?

Many environmental advocates think those goals are possible.

And because the construction industry is responsible for more than a third of negative environmental impacts, it’s not surprising that architects, designers and engineers are developing innovative green-building solutions.

Here are 10 revolutionary building materials in use throughout the world.

By Kerstin Lieff

Kerstin Lieff is the 2013 Colorado Book Award-winning author of Letters from Berlin: A Story of War, Survival, and the Redeeming Power of Love and Friendship

10Bricks grown from shredded cornstalks and mushroom mycelium

A pavilion that stood in New York’s Museum of Modern Art PS1 courtyard in 2014 was built of bricks that were literally grown from shredded cornstalks and mushroom mycelium. The production process created no waste or by-products, so zero energy was expended. Once the exhibit was over, the bricks were disassembled and composted. For info and photos, visit LafargeHolcimFoundation.org/projects/hy-fi.

9Rice, maize and cassava

Photo courtesy LafargeHolcim Foundation

Nigerian scientists engineered a building material from rice, maize and cassava agricultural waste that won the Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction. Bonded with a plant-derived tannin, the finished product looks like a composite board but holds up well to the country’s wind, rain and oppressive heat. Visit LafargeHolcim-foundation.org/Projects/affordable-building-materials-from-recycled-agricultural-waste.


8Walls and roof panels from recycled plastic

Photo by Bogdan Ionescu

A Mexican building firm, EcoDomum, developed a way to divert some trash by recycling plastic into low-cost wall and roof panels. Partnering with a local trash hauler, EcoDomum recycles approximately 5.5 tons of plastics, including toys and water bottles. The plastics are first separated to gather types that melt without emitting toxic fumes. EcoDomum has built more than 500 affordable homes throughout Mexico. Visit treehugger.com/tiny-houses/company-turns-plastic-waste-affordable-housing-mexico.html.

7Solar-powered Beach Huts

Photo by Spark Architects

Floating high-density polyethylene plastics could outnumber fish in the ocean by 2050. The non-biodegradable polyethylene makes up the majority of plastic dumped in the oceans, and Singapore’s SPARK design studio has proposed a creative use for this prolific waste: solar-powered beach huts covered in photovoltaic shingles. Resembling giant palm trees, the huts would be constructed from plastic siphoned off the South Pacific Garbage Patch—an area already twice the size of France. The colorful huts would produce energy using film-thin photovoltaic cells to make electricity for lighting and ceiling fans. Beach walkers could access the huts by steel rope ladders. Visit inhabitat.com/spark-designs-solar-powered-beach-huts-made-from-discarded-ocean-trash.

6Boards made from recycled denim and natural resins

Photo courtesy Iris Industries

Have an old pair of bell-bottoms? Well, don’t throw them out; America’s Shear Composites gladly accepts them. The company produces Denimite, a bio-composite material made from recycled denim and natural resins. A finished 4-by-8-foot Denimite board contains about 13 pairs of jeans and functions like plywood or lightweight concrete. Denimite’s building applications could include countertops, flooring and furniture. The company is also developing composites made with walnut shells, pampas grass, cornhusks and other natural materials. Visit shearcomposites.com.

5Easy-to-build earthbag homes

Photo of sandbag house by Dvidshub, Wikimedia Commons

Iranian architect Nader Khalili uses sandbags, which he refers to as earthbags, to build houses. Long used by the military and governments for protective barriers and flood control, sandbags can withstand severe weather and even bullets. Reinforced with barbed wire and sealed with a cement, lime or asphalt emulsion, Khalili’s easy-to-build earthbag homes can be assembled in a day. They can accommodate different shapes, including domes, and when covered with earthen plaster, they become permanent housing. Visit earthbagbuilding.com.


4Hotel from salt blocks

Photo courtesy Palacio de Sal

Located in the middle of the world’s largest salt flat, Bolivia’s Palacio de Sal is the world’s first hotel built entirely from salt blocks, including the floors, walls, ceilings, and even the furniture and artwork. Visit palaciodesal.com.bo.


3Bike path from recycled printer cartridges

Photo by Alis Luch

A 10.5-mile bike path in Australia’s West MacDonnell National Park is made entirely from recycled printer cartridges and plastic decking. Australian Parks and Wildlife is committed to sustainable development, and this is a prime example. Visit inhabitat.com/australians-get-a-bike-path-made-from-recycled-printer-cartridges.


2Discarded cardboard tubes in Sudney

Photo courtesy Foolscap Studio

Thank Australians again for developing a use for discarded cardboard tubes. Standing vertically side-by-side, the recycled tubes define a multifunctional retail space in Sydney. Within the space, the tubes sport cutouts for growing live plants and visually enhance an outdoor bar. They also serve as plant containers and walls. Visit inhabitat.com/wulugul-pop-up-installation-in-sydney.

1World’s largest solar-glass facade

The Copenhagen International School is committed to educating students about climate change and sustainability, so it obviously wanted a small carbon footprint for a facility renovation to be completed this year. Dubai’s Emirates Insolaire plans to clad the school in the world’s largest solar-glass facade, consisting of 12,000 contoured solar-glass panels. With a high thermal value, the panels will act as an insulating “skin” to keep building temperatures weather-neutral, and inlaid photovoltaic cells will produce more than half the school’s electricity. Visit thenational.ae/business/energy/dubai-firm-to-create-one-of-worlds-largest-solar-glass-facades-at-danish-school.


Recycled plastic water bottle wall from Solar Decathlon 2009
Recycled plastic water bottle wall from Solar Decathlon 2009

Solar Decathlon comes to Denver

An average American produces enough garbage to fill a living room floor-to-ceiling each year. That same person produces enough annual CO2 emissions to fill a modest one-story ranch home. News about the depressing shape of our environment is hard to miss, but there are rays of hope. At a recent Conference on World Affairs discussion titled “Really Long-Term Thinking,” one maxim resonated with the speakers, who included physicists and software developers—that we are the only species with the ability to imagine our future. For a look into the immediate future, consider attending the Department of Energy’s 2017 Solar Decathlon. This university competition was developed to challenge students from around the world to design cost-effective, yet attractive, solar-powered houses. For the first time, the decathlon will be in Denver. Check details at solardecathlon.gov/about.html.


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