Steel vs Wood vs Concrete – What’s Best for the Environment?

With concerns of global warming becoming more prevalent, advocates in the steel, wood and concrete industries are looking at how their individual spaces affect the environment and how they can make sure that they’re taking steps to become more environmentally friendly. Each of these areas plays a significant role in leaving a certain carbon footprint, and some have more work to do to lessen their footprint.

Environmental Qualities Of Steel

One of the major environmental benefits of using steel as a building material is that it’s often recycled after it’s no longer needed. In fact, in North America, it has bragging rights as the most recycled material due to its versatility. Wood will often get thrown away, and while concrete may get ground down and used in roadbed material, it can’t be turned into another structure.

The versatility of steel is quite apparent. If the material is used in a building, car or washing machine, it can be melted down and turned into something else that’s made of steel. The process of turning old scrap steel into new steel may require the addition of a few alloys, but the metal is never completely downcycled. It can be used over and over again.

However, while steel is definitely recyclable, it does have a carbon footprint that should be considered. The process of recycling includes transportation, which has vehicles that emit carbon into the environment. While relatively small, it should be factored into the equation.

New Wood Strengths And Structures

Some advocates argue that wood is leading the race as an environmentally friendly building material. Their argument is that it’s the only building product that is totally renewable as trees can be replanted. They also argue that buildings made of wood store carbon. Technological advances in the space have created cross-laminated timber. This is a prefabricated material that’s made stronger by layering adhesive and wood. It can be used for lowrise and even high-rise construction projects. It may even be a viable building material for the construction of industrial sheds.

In fact, the University of British Columbia is using wood to build a residence that’s 18 stories tall, and in Paris, France, a mixed-use tower that’s 35 floors tall is being created out of wood. Yet, some advocates argue that while buildings may be storing carbon, if that wood was just left in the ground as a tree, it would be producing oxygen as well. In addition, in many cases, while wood can be salvaged after a building is demolished, it’s usually just dumped.

Concrete And Cement Alternatives

Concrete is by far the least environmentally friendly building material. Yet, it’s also Earth’s second-most consumed material after water. Concrete is responsible for as much as five to 10 percent of greenhouse gases that are human-related. The majority of the carbon footprint that’s released from concrete comes from the production of cement, which is a major component of concrete.

Research is being done in the space to see if other alternatives can be used to strengthen concrete. One remedy developed by Professor Stephen Kinrade at Lakehead University uses a polyol compound that is found in the paper and pulp industry’s waste stream. When it’s added to a concrete mixture, it creates extra strength in the structure. This can be significant for certain projects that must follow certain strength requirements. For example, specifications for the strength of a bridge will probably be stronger than that of a sidewalk. By including this additive in a concrete mixture, less cement is needed.

However, changing old ways that are trusted can be difficult. Concrete uses steel rebar for reinforcement. It holds up well in the alkaline environment of concrete. The head of a managed construction company may fear that changing the mixture of ingredients that make up concrete will introduce an acidic environment that doesn’t work well with steel.

Global Collaborations

Globally, many different collaborations are being conducted in the three industries in hopes of creating hybrid technologies. 100 to 120 story buildings are being created with concrete and steel, and research is being done with wood and concrete. While hybrid materials that are eco-friendly may be a ways off yet, they may be the best hope for creating a more friendly environment.

Use SIPs to Make Your Construction Project More Environmentally Friendly

A building made completely from concrete has a carbon footprint that is less than desirable. Concrete is also not as efficient at maintaining thermal energy as SIPs are, but concrete does have the added benefit of being more fire and flood-proof. To improve both the structural qualities and the environmental qualities of your building or structure, the outer walls of the structure can be constructed with concrete while the roof is constructed with SIPs. Since heat rises, the SIPs trap the heat within the structure, while the outer portion of the structure takes advantage of concrete’s fire and water resistance. This approach gives you the benefits of both building materials, allowing you to create a more robust, efficient, and environmentally friendly construction project.

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