Alternative building materials are becoming increasingly popular among builders and architects due to their sustainable and eco-friendly nature. These materials offer numerous benefits, including reducing the environmental impact, lowering construction costs and improving the building performance. 

Governments, developers and architects are recognising the importance of sustainable development, and they are embracing these alternative building materials as a solution to reduce the environmental impact of construction. 

Beyond bricks and mortar 

Alternative building technologies (ABT) that encompass more economically effective and environmentally friendly building materials and construction methods are being considered and included in the production of housing – to make it quicker, easier and cheaper to build, compared to traditionally built houses using bricks and mortar. 

Using alternative building technologies can also makes it easier to provide emergency shelter when disasters such as flooding, heavy storms, earthquakes and even more recently diseases such as the Covid-19 pandemic strikes, or even be used to make houses more resilient against the impacts of climate change. 


One of the best ways to practise sustainability in construction is through using alternative building materials. A new generation of stronger, lighter and more sustainable building materials can help solve many problems in the industry, as well as push current practices to be more sustainable. These materials have the added benefit of protecting the environment by reducing the carbon footprint of the buildings that incorporate these materials into their design. 

The local context becomes important in identifying and devising sustainable solutions for housing – for example, using locally sourced materials in the construction of a house can also further reduce the carbon emissions and carbon footprint. They promote a cleaner earth and a future of sustainability, while also being aesthetically appealing and much more efficient.  

Alternative materials 

  • Insulation materials: The reduction of heat loss, contributing to the reduction of energy consumption and thus cost savings. The cost saving is derived from the reduced costs of air-conditioning in the summer and heating costs in the winter, respectively.  
  • Structural materials: Stone, sandbags, recycled polystyrene, prefabricated panels, concrete panels or sheets, hempcrete, hydraform interlocking bricks, cement bricks and green walls. 
  • Flooring materials: Bamboo, hardwood, stone and recycled plastics.  
  • Roofing materials: 
    • Cool roofs, irrespective of material. A white or a light colour roof can have a cooling effect on a house, as the sun’s rays are deflected, reducing the energy consumption of cooling devices used during the summer months. 
    • Green roofs, using vegetation. A green roof has many environmental benefits such as moderating the effects of heat, cleanses the air by acting as a “green lung”, reduces the amount of rainwater runoff and also provides space for subsistence farming.  
    • Solar panel roofs.  
  • Recycled or upcycled materials: Reusing salvaged or recycled materials such as reclaimed wood or recycled steel, and shipping containers repurposed for residential use. 


While alternate building materials offer numerous benefits, there are also some challenges associated with their use and transitioning isn’t an overnight process. One of the main challenges is the lack of widespread knowledge and expertise in working with these materials. Training needs to be implemented to start practising sustainable methods, and this takes time and financial resources.  

Despite the evidence to the contrary, the general consensus is that sustainable construction comes at a premium and that the cost is higher than what the demand actually is. Nevertheless, as the interest in sustainability efforts continue to rise, more construction firms are making the switch to sustainable construction, with green building activity on the rise. 

Full acknowledgement and thanks go to the information in this editorial. 

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