Eco-friendly Building Materials & Products: A Guide For DIYers & Homeowners
Looking for a way to reduce your waste when doing home improvements or DIY projects? We’ve compiled a guide of eco-friendly building materials and products to help you do that!
Have you ever done a home improvement or DIY project and by the end of it had a bag or even dumpster full of trash? It’s not hard to get to that point as many building materials and home improvement products don’t consider the waste left over or make it easy to recycle.
As a landscape architect, homeowner, and serial DIYer, I do a lot of projects at home each year with a wide range of materials and products used to complete them. In the past, I’ve struggled to find eco-friendly options. Luckily, eco-friendly building materials and products have become more popular in recent years, as more people are recognizing the importance of sustainable living like us. These materials are designed to minimize the negative impact on the environment, while also providing durability and functionality.
We’ve compiled a full guide to eco-friendly building materials and products for DIYers and homeowners just like you. So if you’re ready to take the next step to be more eco-friendly during DIY projects and home improvements, then let our guide help you.
What Is A Green Building Product Or Material?
By definition, eco-friendly or green building materials are composed of renewable, rather than nonrenewable resources. Green materials are environmentally responsible because impacts are considered over the life of the product (Spiegel and Meadows, 1999).
These products can range from paints and finishes to recycled construction materials and have many benefits to using them.
Benefits of Eco-Friendly Building Materials
One of the main benefits of eco-friendly building materials is they can be produced without depleting natural resources or causing harm to the environment. Additionally, many of these materials are designed to be energy-efficient, which can help reduce the overall carbon footprint of a home. This is particularly important as the world continues to face the challenges of climate change. By using eco-friendly building materials, DIYers and homeowners can play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the planet for future generations.
There are numerous benefits to eco-friendly building materials and products for homeowners and DIYers. These materials are designed to reduce the environmental impact of construction and promote sustainability. In our experience, here are some of the key benefits of using eco-friendly building materials.
One of the most significant benefits of eco-friendly building materials and products is their energy efficiency. These materials and products are designed to reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool a building, resulting in lower energy bills and a reduced carbon footprint.
- Using insulation made from recycled materials can significantly reduce the amount of energy required to heat a building during the winter months.
- Adding solar panels or installing energy-efficient appliances can reduce utility bills
- Installing an energy-efficient heating and cooling system like a heat pump.
Having a more energy-efficient home as well as taking steps towards reducing your energy consumption in general helps not only the environment but also your wallet.
Eco-friendly building materials are also sustainable, meaning they are produced in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment. This includes using materials that are renewable, such as bamboo or cork, as well as using recycled materials, such as reclaimed wood or recycled steel. By using sustainable materials, builders and DIYers can reduce the amount of waste produced during construction or a project and minimize the impact on natural resources.
Additionally, eco-friendly materials and products often require less energy to produce, which reduces carbon emissions and helps combat climate change. Several products also consider the whole lifecycle of a material from how it’s sourced, manufactured, used, and disposed of or reused.
Improved Indoor Air Quality
Another benefit of using eco-friendly building materials is improved indoor air quality. Many traditional building materials, such as paints and adhesives, contain harmful chemicals that can be released into the air and impact the health of individuals and families living there.
We’ve all likely painted a room or object at one point in our lives, realized that it had extremely strong fumes, and ended up opening a window or turning on fans. That is an example of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are chemicals that evaporate at room temperature producing gas (off-gassing) back into the air while it dries. As Green America notes this can be harmful to the environment as well as dangerous to breathe in. Eco-friendly materials, on the other hand, are made from natural or low VOC materials, which can improve indoor air quality and promote a healthier living environment.
By prioritizing energy efficiency, sustainability, and indoor air quality, homeowners, builders, and DIYers can create healthier, more sustainable living environments and safe projects that benefit everyone involved.
Types of Eco-friendly Building Materials
With all the benefits of using eco-friendly building materials, we find it important to use them in a project whenever possible. As always it’s a balance of availability, affordability, and sustainability, so do your best to find what works for your specific project. Here is a list of many types of eco-friendly materials and some of our recommendations.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified Wood
As DIYers and woodworkers, we build a lot of projects from wood with all of our home improvements and DIY plans. However, a lot of wood can be irresponsibly removed and create poorly managed forests. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has a certification process for wood that is harvested from forests that are responsibly managed and meet ethical production standards. FSC-certified products can be found at many typical home improvement stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot, or other retailers.
One thing to consider with FSC is that it doesn’t take into account transportation and distance traveled. The distance from the wood source to the final customer is typically one of the largest sources of global warming potential in lumber.
The cool part of making projects out of wood that was sustainably sourced is it also sequesters carbon as a durable good while allowing a new tree to grow that will capture more carbon. According to the USDA Forest Service, wood products can actually trap more carbon than they take to produce, making them a net carbon sink. It’s small compared to global annual emissions, but it is still better than using plastic, metal, or concrete.
Other Renewable Wood Materials
Beyond your standard FSC-certified woods, there are other renewable wood material sources you can consider.
- Cork – It’s a renewable material harvested from Mediterranean cork oak trees, where the bark renews itself rather quickly after it is stripped from the trunks of the trees. It’s great as cork is the only material that doesn’t require the source tree to be extracted or cut down. The new cork is stripped from trees that remain in place. Other cork is sourced from recycled wine stoppers. Cork flooring is one of the most popular uses.
- Bamboo – a fast-growing grass that can be used to create flooring, paneling, and other building components. It can be grown and harvested without depleting natural resources that don’t grow back as quickly.
- Reclaimed wood – salvaged wood from old buildings or other sources that can be used to create flooring, paneling, and other decorative features.
Recycled materials are those that have been salvaged from other buildings or products and repurposed for use in new construction and projects. It’s another great source of eco-friendly building materials. Here are some common examples of recycled building materials.
- Recycled Content Drywall – These panels and wallboards can be made from a range of leftover materials such as agricultural waste from wheat or straw remnants or a residue byproduct from power plants instead of newly mined gypsum. Some products will call it out as recycled content drywall, but it merely means the paper facers on the gypsum panels. Durrapanel or MgO boards are options for drywalling.
- Recycled Plastic Lumber – The lumber is made from recycled bottles, jugs, and other plastic containers, melted down, and then extruded into molds to form new products. It can be used for decking, outdoor furniture, and more. Trex is one of the most popular brands using plastic lumber for building decks. It’s great as this creates a market for recycling all the plastic waste that currently exists.
- Composite Materials like Chipboard and MDF – can be an eco-friendly solution as they are primarily constructed from wood fiber, wood shavings, and other pieces of wood. It’s a way to recycle what would normally be discarded into a new product. Just try to look for Formaldehyde Free options.
- Using Material Scraps – Reusing materials that you already have like wood offcuts or leftover project materials is another great eco-friendly building material. We repurposed our old stone retaining wall pieces into pathways for our terraced garden. We’ve also used scrap wood from our previous deck railing to make screens and even scrap wood to make learning tools for our kid.
Adding or replacing your insulation is a great sustainable home improvement as it helps reduce heating and cooling costs, while also improving comfort levels. You typically want to look for insulation with a high R-value and use 12-18 inches of it, according to the Energy Star recommendations.
Traditionally, many homes have used fiberglass insulation as it’s less expensive, but it has known health hazards and produces emissions of toxic air pollutants like styrene in the manufacturing process. Here are a few eco-friendly insulation alternatives to consider:
- Recycled Cellulose Insulation – this type is made of recycled paper (usually 75%-85%) and treated with fire retardants as a loose-fill insulation that can be blown-in or poured-in to the cavities between joists. This is what we used for our own home! GreenFiber is a brand you can find at home improvement stores.
- Soybean Foam Spray Insulation – this type is made of soybean foam that can offer the same insulating value as fiberglass batt insulation. Products like BioBase offer soybean insulation supporting US-based farmers.
- Shredded Denim Insulation – made from shredded denim and other cloth materials as a repurposed way to insulate a home.
- Recycled Plastic Insulation – this type is typically made from recycled plastic like PET, which comes from plastic bottles. It’s ground up into flakes, heated and extruded into a polyester fiber. The recycled content varies between 80-95% and is a good way to repurpose the multitude of single-use plastic.
- Sheep’s Wool Insulation – this type is made from sheep wool fibers that are bonded or mechanically held together to form rolls or insulating batts. Because it comes in rolls and batts, it can be cut to size and fit the spaces you need.
There are several types of paint to consider if you’re looking for more eco-friendly products: Low-VOC paint, Zero VOC paint, and Natural paint.
Low-VOC paints have a smaller ratio of these volatile organic compounds and chemicals like formaldehyde than traditional paints. In the U.S., Zero VOC paints are ones with less than 5 grams of volatile organic compounds per liter. Natural paint is made with raw ingredients like plant extracts, minerals, and oil. It is also either free of petrochemical ingredients or uses only small amounts that are approved for food production.
Here are a few of the ones we’ve found that are either at home improvement stores or you can order directly.
- Behr Premium Plus – low VOC, interior/exterior, look for the ones with Greenguard certification, found in home improvement stores
- Valspar Simplicity – low VOC and Zero VOC paint options; interior/exterior, look for the ones with Greenguard certification, found in home improvement stores
- Real Milk Paint – A Natural paint in 56 colors; interior/exterior, biodegradable/compostable paint, online purchase only
- Clare – Zero VOC, Greenguard gold certified, interior/exterior, online and direct-to-consumer only
- Ecos Paints – Zero VOC; has free color matching option, interior/exterior, online purchase, used 100% post-consumer recycled containers and boxes for shipping
Many of the eco-friendly or VOC-free paints can be more expensive than typical paint, so find one that works for your DIY budget.
Caulks and Adhesives
Most caulks and sealants use chemical acrylics, but soy-based or Low-VOC caulks and sealants are an eco-friendly alternative you can consider. These still create a flexible barrier that is helpful for areas with frequent freeze and thaw cycles, especially like we have here in the Midwest. Here are a few eco-friendly adhesive products.
- AFM SafeCoat – non-toxic, water-based, elastic, emulsion-type, latex-free caulking compound for interior or exterior applications
- Acri-Soy Penetrating Sealer – a penetrating concrete, wood, brick, and tile grout sealer formulated with an acrylic hybrid soy oil emulsion, Green Building compliant, Zero VOC, Red List Chemicals free
It’s been found that traditional chemical sealants crystalize in the pores of surfaces like concrete, which over time hurts the structural integrity of it and causes cracks. Bio-based sealants don’t do this and extend the life of concretes. Lastly, as with paints, low-VOC adhesives have lower ratios of VOCs such as formaldehyde and petrochemicals.
Traditional wood finishes can have toxic chemicals and VOCs in them causing harsh smells and contributing to degrading air quality much like paints. Moreover, once you apply some of these traditional finishes it can make the wood toxic, requiring the wood to be thrown away later at the end of its life instead of burning it or allowing it to break down in nature. Try to steer clear of finishes with plastic in them and traditional polyurethane or lacquer.
There are many water-based and natural oil-based finishes now that are a more environmentally friendly alternative. Look for finishes using natural ingredients like linseed oil, tung oil, and beeswax.
We personally have a love for the Rubio Monocoat brand products for all our woodworking projects. Not only do they create beautiful high-quality finishes, but their products are eco-conscious and try to do better for the environment.
Rubio Monocoat’s products use a special oil base with no water or solvents, and they emit 0% Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) when used, unlike other stains and paints. This means no chemical substances are evaporating into the air when used. Rubio Monocoat accomplishes this through their molecular bonding process, which is fascinating if you’re nerdy like us!
And recently our favorite interior wood finish, Oil Plus 2C, obtained the UL GREENGUARD Gold certificate! Rubio Monocoat is committed to 0% VOCs and has independent labs review and certify their products. You can view all of Rubio Monocoat’s certifications here.
Sourcing Eco-friendly Products & Materials
After reading about the wonderful options for eco-friendly building materials and products, there is something to note about the current state of our world. You have to acknowledge that no product is 100% eco-friendly; there are only varying degrees of green and sustainability. Plus, there is no single standard for eco-friendliness, and certifications include and exclude many varying components.
So choose the products that are the perfect balance for you on sustainability, usability, and affordability. Here are a few ways we research and source eco-friendly products and materials for our home improvement and DIY projects at home.
Look At Architecture Certifications & Guidelines
Even though you’re not necessarily designing and constructing a building like an architect is, you can still use architectural resources for green building materials.
There are several national certifications that are commonly used and accepted:
- LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) – this certification is the closest to a category-wide system. But even LEED ignores nuances and doesn’t always consider what may be important sustainability components to you.
- Living Building Challenge – Their Red List guide is helpful in knowing what the worst materials and chemicals are that pose a risk to human and environmental health.
- SITES Initiative – is a rating system that guides and evaluates a project’s sustainability in the planning, design, construction, and management of landscapes and other outdoor spaces. It is definitely for more large-scale public spaces, but has amazing eco-friendly checklists and resources that can be scaled down to ideas to be implemented at home.
Use Certifications As A Resource Guide
By the way, for those now thinking you might want your own certification, you can strive to have a home that would meet certification requirements without actually certifying it! I mean, actual certifications are expensive and time-consuming to acquire, some don’t allow for single-family residential homes, and some only truly apply for new construction. So don’t stress that, use the certification requirements as a guide and a resource, and just know that your home is reducing your carbon footprint as you make sustainable home improvements.
All these certifications are great resources for checklists and ideas on how you might improve your home.
Eco-friendly Building Material Lists & Label Certifications
There are some directories and databases out there that have gathered eco-friendly building materials and products in one place to narrow down your search. Additionally, there are many label certifications that you can look for in your local stores to help you decide between one product over another when it comes to eco-friendliness.
- LEED from Homes – This is a database created by Home Depot to help people achieve LEED certification. It’s helpful for DIYers and homeowners as clicking on a specific item takes users to the product on the Home Depot’s website which makes it easier to find locally available eco-friendly products.
- Declare Label – has a database full of products and brands. The label tells a consumer where a product comes from, what it is made of, and where it goes at the end of its life. However, this is international, so some of the products may not be available to the US or affordable.
- Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Product Registry – you can find specific products and brands that have varying levels of eco-friendliness.
- Greenguard Certification – limits the amount of emissions a product can give off with two certification levels. Gold certification has health-based criteria accounting for chemically sensitive individuals like babies and kids and is considered child-safe and best for school environments.
- Green Wise – For paints, gold-certified products contain less than 5 grams VOC per liter, even after tinting with specified colorants.
- Green Seal – a directory where you can search for products or companies, but leans more towards household and cleaning items with only a few green building materials like paints, adhesives, and flooring.
These lists are extensive, but not all-inclusive, not always updated, and products may not be available or affordable. So don’t feel like you have to only use these materials. It’s also a balance of what’s locally available to you and affordable. Moreover, just remember, many green building materials are labeled green as a marketing gesture even though their environmental friendliness might be questionable. So do some research using these resources or others to determine whether it meets your standard of sustainability.
Most certifications are third parties and have a detailed approach and analysis to how they rate and certify products. It’s a great way to have a little more trust in whether a product is eco-friendly or might merely be greenwashing its products and materials.
Compare Energy Star Ratings For Appliances & More
If you’re doing a renovation or simply replacing old appliances as they age, then a great place to start to find more eco-friendly and energy-efficient brands is Energy Star. You can use Energy Star’s product finder to find almost any category of appliances like dryers, dishwashers, and more.
However, you can also find other typical home products like TVs, computers, lighting, and EV chargers as well as some building products like windows and insulation.
When we installed our ventless heat pump dryer, we used the energy star ratings to help determine what brands were out there and do a comparison between what was locally available. We also discussed with potential contractors the options they had seen on the market and got their opinions on performance.
When comparing ratings on items, we create a little spreadsheet with key factors, rebates, and overall costs to help us choose what best fits our sustainability goals and budget. Starting with a good resource makes it easy to compare and find the best solution for your project.
Homeowner Tip – Energy Star also has a rebate finder based on zip code that can also help you offset the higher costs of energy-efficient products!
Challenges of Using Eco-Friendly Building Materials
Building with eco-friendly materials is a great way to reduce the environmental impact of home improvements and DIY projects. However, there are several challenges that come with using these materials.
One of the biggest challenges of using eco-friendly building materials is their limited availability. Many of these materials are not as widely available as traditional building materials, which can make it difficult to source them. This can also make it more expensive to use eco-friendly materials.
Higher Upfront Costs
Another challenge many of us face when using eco-friendly building materials is the higher upfront costs. Many eco-friendly materials are more expensive than traditional building materials, which can make it difficult to justify the cost.
However, while these materials may have a higher upfront cost, they often provide long-term savings in the form of reduced maintenance and energy costs. By going solar and electrifying our entire home, we have slowly reduced our overall energy costs. Additionally, eco-friendly homes are often more attractive to tenants and buyers, which can increase property values and provide a competitive advantage in the real estate market. It is important to remember that eco-friendly materials can provide long-term savings by reducing energy costs and improving the longevity of a house.
Lack of Awareness and Education
A lack of awareness and education is another challenge of using eco-friendly building materials. If you’re not DIYing the project, and you have hired a contractor, then you may find that your contractor is not familiar with these materials and does not know how to properly use them. This can lead to mistakes and more expenses. If you’re making a sustainable home improvement with contractors, it’s important to find ones who know the eco-friendly material and have proper training and education on how to use them.
Plan The Details Of Your DIY Projects
The biggest suggestion we have for any homeowner and DIYer looking to do a project with eco-friendly materials is to plan it out thoroughly. Yes, it takes a little more time to plan out in detail what eco-friendly products you’re going to use, where to purchase them, and time to ship if needed. But we’ve found that it saves us time later down the road, reduces our stress during a project, and keeps the project on budget.
Our detailed planning even for smaller projects is why we have so many DIY plans available for you. It was part of our project planning and hopefully can save you time as well.
Planning DIY projects out has not only helped us reduce waste, but sometimes saved us money too! I mean how many times have you had to run back to a home improvement store multiple times a day to pick up something you’ve forgotten for a project and end up spending more money?! Don’t get me wrong, that still happens to us, but it’s way less frequent when you planned ahead.
So our overall takeaways are to always make a plan, do a little more research if needed, and remember sustainable DIY is a balance, so find and use eco-friendly materials and products that work for you.
More Sustainable Home Improvements & DIY Projects
I hope this detailed list helps get you started planning an amazing sustainable home improvement or DIY project with eco-friendly building materials! We’ve done many projects ourselves, so check out more of our Sustainable Home Improvement or DIY Projects articles for inspiration! Here are a few of our favorites that an eco-friendly homeowner and DIYer might love:
- Hubby How To: DIY Stacked Rain Barrel System
- Interior Door Makeover: Easy DIY Project At Home
- Are Solar Panels At Home Right for You?
- Hubby How To – Modern DIY Platform Bed Frame
- Down To Earth Tips For Eco-friendly Lawn Care
- How To Sustainably Heat The Home – Heat Pump vs Furnace
Hope this extensive list and resources help you find eco-friendly building materials and products for your next home improvement or DIY project! Let us know what questions you have or your favorite eco-friendly products in the comments below!
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I’ve linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust. There is no additional cost to you.