Traditional vs. Sustainable Building Materials

Updated: Mar. 18, 2024

With sustainable building materials becoming more available to DIYers, let's examine how they compare with their traditional counterparts.

Ft Sustainable Living Gettyimages 1452466945JACKYENJOYPHOTOGRAPHY/GETTY IMAGES

We hear so much about sustainability in the news that it’s becoming important to many homeowners and contractors to use more and more environmentally friendly building products and become sustainable builders. With these sustainable materials more readily available to DIYers, let’s look at some and see how they compare to traditional ones.

Traditional Building Materials

Quite simply, traditional building materials are those we DIYers and contractors have been using for years with sustainability techniques. Some of these products evolved as the decades went by, with the evolution more about health and safety or efficiency than making them eco-friendly. Because they’re well-known, they’re generally inexpensive.

Sustainable Materials

When I think of sustainability, I think of materials produced, used and disposed of in a way that keeps the environment in mind.

The sustainable home building materials I’ve used were manufactured from waste products, come from properly managed forests, and have characteristics that will ensure longevity. These materials are often more expensive than traditional materials, and sometimes even come with a new way of installing them. Here’s what you need to know about sustainable construction.

1 / 11

Fiberglass Insulation Gettyimages 187785188
DonNichols/Getty Images

Fiberglass Insulation vs. Mineral Wool Insulation

Fiberglass insulation

Fiberglass insulation has been a gold standard for many years to insulate our homes.

Pros:

  • Offers a relatively high resistance to heat transfer (a 2×4 wall is rated an R-11);
  • Comes in batts of many widths and as a loose-fill, making it easy to install in any wall or attic space;
  • Can come faced in kraft paper for a built-in vapor barrier;
  • Affordable.

Cons:

  • Utilizes only 20% to 30% recycled material;
  • When compressed or wet, its R-value significantly decreases;
  • Though non-combustible, won’t provide a great fire block.
2 / 11

Mineral Wool Insulation Gettyimages 1079093642
artursfoto/getty Images

Mineral wool lnsulation

Mineral wool is a sustainable insulation made by heating and spinning slag, a waste byproduct in steel production, into a fibrous wool-like material.

Pros:

  • A higher R-value (a 2×4 wall will have an R-value up to R-15);
  • Is really dense, great for isolating sound;
  • Will not absorb water and resists fire;
  • Made with 70% recycled material.

Cons:

  • Higher in cost;
  • Heavier than other insulation options;
  • Although made with recycled material, the manufacturing process is energy intensive — common in any insulation product.
3 / 11

Certainteed Membrain 8 Ft. W X 50 Ft. L Air Barrier And Smart Vapor Retarder Roll Ecomm Acehardware.com
via merchant

Smart Vapor Retarder vs. 6-mil Poly Sheeting

One new-to-us product we incorporated in our Sustainable Retreat is known as a smart vapor retarder. We chose MemBrain Vapor Retarder by CertainTeed over the 6-mil poly sheeting because it allows moisture to escape the wall cavity while keeping moisture out.

4 / 11

Stained Solid Wood Trim Gettyimages 1365683384
Adél Békefi/Getty Images

Solid Wood Trim vs. Finger Jointed Trim

Trim is often overlooked when thinking about sustainable options, but they certainly exist!

Wood trim

There are few alternatives to solid wood-stained trim, and they don’t look great. If you’re staining and installing solid wood trim, look for the Forest Stewardship Councils (FSC) stamp, which indicates it’s sustainably sourced.

5 / 11

Finger Joint Trim Gettyimages 531722223
Atstock Productions/Getty Images

Finger joint trim

Most trim I see in new homes nowadays is painted. I’ve installed miles of primed for paint trim and I always use finger jointed trim.

As its name indicates, this type of trim consists of many small cut offs finger jointed together. This process takes pieces of unusable wood and joining them together to create the straightest trim in the lumberyard.

6 / 11

Siding Gettyimages 1337943592
dima_sidelnikov/Getty Images

Sustainable Siding

In many neighborhoods around the country, you can observe several types of siding on a walk around the block: stucco, vinyl, wood, masonry and even the newer engineered wood choices. Most houses are donning their original siding, which looks good for their sustainability.

Here are some pros and cons of some of the most popular cladding choices.

7 / 11

Vinyl Siding Gettyimages 585798424
ghornephoto/Getty Images

Vinyl

Many think vinyl siding is NOT a sustainable choice, but it can be a good one.

Pros:

  • It’s tough and will look good for decades as cladding;
  • It’s manufacturing process produces nearly zero waste, since any trimmings or scraps get re-melted to formed more siding;
  • It’s recyclable. If it makes it to a recycling center, it will be shredded and reused to produce other usable items;
  • Inexpensive.

Cons:

  • Color fades over time;
  • Can crack or break;
  • If it doesn’t get recycled, it will sit in the landfill forever.
8 / 11

Engineered Wood Siding Gettyimages 1136849782
solarisimages/Getty Images

Engineered wood

Like oriented strand board (OSB) sheathing, engineered wood siding is made with wood chips compressed and adhered to form different types of siding products.

Pros:

  • Comes in many styles — lap, board and batten, panels, trim boards;
  • Long lasting and maintenance free (no painting, up to 30-year warranty);
  • Utilizes waste from lumber processing, keeping it from entering the landfill;
  • Does not require special blades to cut.

Cons:

  • More expensive;
  • Requires careful adjustment of pneumatic nail guns to prevent overdriven nails;
  • Each cut needs to be sealed before installation.
9 / 11

Stucco Siding Gettyimages 1331047521
Lex20/Getty Images

Stucco

Stucco is a popular cladding in the western half of the U.S., but can be found across the country. It’s made with a mixture of cement, sand and water.

Pros:

  • Durability. When properly installed, it can last many decades;
  • Stucco’s insulating properties can help regulate the temperature inside a building, reducing energy costs;
  • Low maintenance. Once installed, stucco does not need to be painted and requires only occasional cleaning;
  • Easily recycled and crushed into aggregate for new stucco.

Cons:

  • Not a DIY friendly option;
  • Production requires lots of energy to extract raw materials;
  • Repairing and patching pose difficulties in matching texture and color.
10 / 11

Cedar Fh21jun 611 53 040 0001
Family Handyman

Cedar vs. Composite Decking

The type of material to use on a deck often leads to a big debate. Some of the top options are cedar and composite boards. Looking at the sustainability of these two options may determine which one is best for you.

Cedar decking

A common real wood option for long lasting decks.

Pros:

  • An all-natural renewable resource;
  • Resistant to insects, weather and rot;
  • Can be stained or left natural;
  • Easy to recycle at the end of its life;
  • Easy to work with and install using deck screws or hidden fasteners.

Cons:

  • Prone to cracks, splinters and splits;
  • Needs yearly maintenance, and sanding and refinishing every few years.
11 / 11

Composite Decking Fh21jun 611 53 032 Hsp
Family Handyman

Composite Decking

Composite decking features up to 95 percent recycled plastic and wood pulp.

Pros:

  • Will last a long time, with some manufacturers offering 20-year or longer warranties against fading;
  • Zero maintenance outside of occasional cleaning.

Cons:

  • Not recyclable due to the integration of wood pulp;
  • Needs a special composite blade to cut boards to size;
  • Much heavier and more expensive than wood options;
  • May require additional framing for support.