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Surprisingly Sustainable Building Materials for Refurbishments, New Builds & Extensions

We all want to minimise our environmental footprint. Fortunately, in every home building and design project, there are more ways to build sustainably than you can poke a stick at! Thoughtful manufacturers have sought out or developed environmentally kind sustainable building materials that both perform and look beautiful.


Sweet Chestnut Cladding & Decking

montage showing a house with sweet chestnut cladding, a forest of sweet chestnut trees, a cloth  sack with shiny sweet chestnuts.

Have you ever noticed how much wood there is in our homes, from exposed beams to countertops, floors, and furniture? Trees have been intrinsic to human survival since the dawn of time, so it's no wonder that a building wrapped in sweet wooden cladding feels so…comfortable.

There are several different timber finishes are available. Inwood's British sweet chestnut is a cladding and decking material worth considering for its stability and sustainability. It cleverly adapts to its environment. In polluted cities, it blackens with age, and in rural areas, it elegantly 'silvers' over time. 

As well as it's many architectural and insulating features, a sweet chestnut tree have high sustainability credentials which are well worth considering.

Sweet Chestnut Eco Merits

  • The trees are coppiced for timber every 10 to 15 years, and the tree stumps regrow with vigour, making it a high-yield and sustainable construction timber. 

  • It is naturally resistant to moulds.

  • The chestnuts are also a tasty food crop, utterly delicious roasted on the fire.

  • Its woody aroma contains natural insect repellents.

  • There are several sweet chestnut forests in the UK.

Also notable is that in three simple steps, the timber goes from the forest to the sawmill to your home, untouched by polluting factory processes. 



a montage showing hemp plants against a blue sky, a hempcrete building project, hempcrete bricks being used to build a wall.

Hempcrete is a relatively new sustainable product made from the ancient hemp plant. It can be used like concrete, except it is made from the sturdy and sensible cousin of marijuana!

Hempcrete is made from a mixture of tough hemp plant fibres and lime, and can be used like concrete or shaped into bricks. Hempcrete's eco credentials make it a viable alternative in house building, renovations and home extensions:

Hempcrete Eco Merits

  • As hemp grows, it absorbs more C02 from the atmosphere than is used to manufacture Hempcrete, making it a zero-carbon product.

  • Hempcrete walls offer impressive levels of insulation.

  • It is a breathable product which makes the air in your home healthier.

  • It is lightweight and easy to work with.

  • It is non-toxic and resistant to fire, mould and insect infestation.


Sheep Wool Loft Insulation

a montage showing sheep wool loft insulation, a flock of sheep standing on snowy ground, a close of a sheep's face

The survival of sheep in a cold climate is entirely down to their remarkable woolly fleeces. Thanks to millions of tiny warm air pockets trapped in their crimped wool fibres, the sheep stay warm in the depths of winter. This also makes wool an excellent and efficient loft insulation material.

Sheep are typically shorn once or twice a year, so raw wool an abundant natural resource across the UK.

Sheep Wool Eco Merits

  • Wool won’t irritate your lungs, skin or eyes, so there’s no need for masks and hazmat gear.

  • Wool naturally controls humidity, both on sheep and in homes.

  • It's super-easy to cut to size and wrap around tanks and pipes.

  • Its bulky fluffiness makes it an effective soundproofing material.

  • It is surprisingly fire-resistant. It will char, but it won't fuel a fire or emit toxic fumes.

  • Wool is recyclable.

  • It gives sheep farmers another revenue stream.

Sheep wool insulation is cheaper than spray insulation but more expensive than fibreglass. The only notable caveat with wool insulation is that it requires a little processing to make it repellent to insects and moths. The most environmentally friendly method is to alter the wool molecularly in a biocide-free plasma-ion process. The other option is to give it a bath in borax which is a non-organic compound found in household cleaning products.

Another huge benefit of natural wool is that it is completely recyclable, whereas man-made insulation is toxic to health and environmentally disastrous from production to disposal, and cannot be recycled.



a montage showing cork bark piled up below a cork tree, pale cork flooring which resembles wooden plank flooring, cork flooring in a large room.

Beyond making a deeply satisfying sound when it pops from a champagne bottle, cork is an unsung eco-hero.

Cork is the gnarly bark of cork oak trees, native to Portugal and Spain and is farmed using traditional methods. Rigorous regulations govern how often cork can be harvested, as mature trees must be allowed time to regenerate their bark. 

The bark is then flattened under huge concrete slabs for 6 months before being turned into so much more than bottle stoppers and coasters. It is also turned into floor tiles, countertops, and wall coverings in a wide selection of colours and textures for modern lifestyles.

Cork Eco Merits

  • The World Wildlife Federation states that a cork tree with its bark harvested every nine years can absorb 5 times more C02 than an unharvested tree.

  • Cork has one of the most environmentally friendly harvesting processes in the world.

  • The trees grow without the need for pesticides and chemicals.

  • Cork forests are rich in biodiversity.

  • Most cork manufacturing plants are 90% fuelled by burning waste cork dust.

  • Cork has incredible pressure resistance, making it a long-lasting, durable choice for high-traffic homes.

  • Cork remains anti-microbial and resistant to rot and bugs.

Cork is a shock-absorbing, naturally insulating, sound-absorbing material, and perfect for creating warm, soft interiors. Cork flooring is available in a wide variety of shades from light to dark and can be laid in plank form to give a classic wooden floor look.


Reclaimed Glass Bricks 

a montage showing glass bricks in a modern kitchen; glass bricks with plants in front of them; 2 glass bricks in an architectural salvage yard.

Glass bricks are a bit marmite with designers, but in the correct setting they look and function brilliantly.

First used in the 1880s, they regained favour during the 1920s and 30s Art Deco period and again in the 1980s. Glass blocks are trending again because, as a design element, they allow for light without sacrificing privacy or style.

Glass bricks are often used in vast quantities commercially, so reclaimed glass bricks frequently show up en masse in architectural salvage yards. You'll be spoiled for choice, and might even save some money. 

Glass bricks are available in variety of plain or boiled-sweet colours. They come in smooth, frosted, rippled or textured glass, so there is endless variety for every design vibe, from sophisticated Miami-style art deco to a pop of coloured glass in a cottage.

Reclaimed Glass Brick Eco Merits

  • Reclaimed building materials limit waste and landfill.

  • Glass bricks maximise natural light indoors, reducing reliance on artificial light.

  • Glass is fully recyclable.

If you're new to the world of reclaimed building materials, an architectural salvage yard is like Wonkaland for architects and designers! These places are often intriguing, stuffed with curiosities and with every purchase you will save an architectural treasure from landfill.


The future looks rosy for sustainable building materials

If you're curious and do your homework, you’ll find that the home improvement and building industry strive to supply ecologically friendly solutions. After all, the answers to most problems are right under our noses, with thanks to Mother Nature.


Photo of Julie Bliss of Bliss Interiors Ltd. She is stitting on a sofa and is smiling. The sunshine is on her face.

If you're considering a home renovation or extension, I hope this article opens up a world of accessible sustainable building choices. The world is your... chestnut!

Follow me for more design tips, or drop me a line. I'd love to hear from you.

Julie Bliss of Bliss Interiors & Architectural Design



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