Raw Materials vs. Synthetic: Pros and Cons for Construction
By Jacquelyn Nause
Homeowners can now choose from many intriguing shelter materials, including brick, cork, wood and adobe, among others. No one material is suitable for every person in every circumstance, though, so let’s take a look at the advantages and potential downsides to each.
Price, durability, sustainability and safety are all important considerations when choosing a building material. The cost of a material can be offset by less maintenance or need for replacement in the long-term, as is the case for things like steel and concrete. Potential for reuse is also important to consider, especially with precious resources like wood and stone.
A recent set of studies found that concrete is a very competitive alternative to wood frame construction in both price and durability. Concrete is noncombustible, which reduces fire-related hazards and makes it more resistant to degradation and pests. Steel is also a popular building material for its strength and durability but may not be the most sustainable option in the long term.
Choosing the right material for the job depends on many factors, including environment, location, use and aesthetic needs. Let’s look at different materials and their respective characteristics.
Wood framing makes up over 80 percent of new home construction in the United States. Wood is lightweight, renewable and ideal for areas prone to seismic activity, due to its high strength-to-weight ratio. Wood can be treated or untreated, based on the use and look you are trying to achieve. It is easy to cut and can be used to create beautiful decorative elements.
It is also prone to decay, pests, warp and rot. Integrity of the wood is key, especially for supporting beams and foundations. If you choose wood, use harder varieties that are less susceptible to dents and scratches. For outdoors, use pressure-treated wood to repel insects and moisture.
With forest lands dwindling, wood is also less environmentally sustainable than composite lumber. Waste is also an important consideration when using wood, as lumber is often shaped and resized with unusable pieces becoming environmental waste.
There are also limits to the architectural styles and elements possible with wood construction. More modern construction may not be possible with traditional wood construction methods.
Brick and Block
Bricks are fireproof and immune to rot, making it ideal for sturdy foundations and exteriors. Reinforced concrete blocks are durable and can also save on labor costs over wood construction.
However, these materials are heavy, which requires deeper foundations. Bricks are also porous and vulnerable to mold in damp climates. Bricks and blocks have better longevity, but repairs or replacements can be expensive.
Concrete is durable and can be poured in almost any form or shape, making it ideal for clients who desire a more unique or modern aesthetic. It also helps keep spaces cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, due to its effective thermal mass.
Many people stay away from concrete because it is a huge polluter, producing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. It can also look heavy and cold, especially if not properly maintained.
Stone is used everywhere from pavers to countertops and is increasingly popular in areas where concrete is more pricey. However, stone is variable, so research the natural properties of the stone you choose, and be sure to seal and maintain it properly.
Earth bags and rammed earth construction are less common but incredibly efficient and affordable construction methods, especially in areas where these materials are plentiful. However, they perform poorly in earthquake-prone areas.
When planning your project, do some research to find out the types of materials that can withstand your local climate, fit your budget and achieve the look you are going for. With so many options on the market, it is easier than ever to create sustainable, affordable structures that are architecturally sound and aesthetically pleasing.
Jacquelyn Nause is a contributing writer with specialties in real estate, parenting and wellness. She enjoys traveling with her husband, being a doting mother to her two incredible kids and enjoying the beautiful Pacific Northwest playground.