Currently, the overwhelming majority of buildings are constructed using carbon-intensive, difficult-to-renew, and reuse materials such as concrete and steel. The issue of sustainability in the construction industry has led to intense discussion and international efforts to find a new, more eco-friendly approach.
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Meeting the industry’s sustainability goals will require bold, forward-thinking innovation in terms of technology, materials, and construction practice. One approach that could revolutionize the urban landscape in the 21st Century is the use of bio-based, biodegradable materials. This article will explore how biodegradable buildings could be part of the solution.
The Problem With Current Building Practices
Construction has a sustainability problem. Raw materials, which are largely non-renewable, are commonly used in a linear approach to construction that is majorly contributing to climate change. Once a raw material, for instance, sand is extracted from the ground, it cannot be replaced.
It is not just the initial extraction process that causes issues as well. Some building materials consume large amounts of energy over their complete lifecycle, from extraction through procurance, construction, and eventual demolition. Indeed, over half of a typical building’s embodied carbon is produced before it is even operational.
End-use stages of a building’s life cycle, such as demolition, are especially problematic as the materials typically are not reused and instead end up in either a landfill or are incinerated, causing further pollution and the loss of vital resources that could be re-purposed if a circular construction approach were taken.
Moreover, the growing demand for housing stock due to increased urbanization and unprecedented population growth is placing additional demands on raw resources and energy usage. It is clear that a new approach must be taken if the construction industry is to meet its sustainability goals and help stave off the worst predicted effects of climate change.
Bio-based Materials and the Concept of the Biodegradable House
Utilizing and developing bio-based materials and construction systems may be one answer to this growing sustainability and environmental crisis in the construction sector. There is a wide range of bio-based materials which have become the subject of intense interest in the construction industry in recent years as it seeks to improve its carbon footprint.
Cork, bamboo, timber, mycelium, hemp, animal products, and waste materials from industries such as food and beverage manufacturing and forestry have become particular targets of interest for research and development. Additionally, some projects have looked at materials such as abundant desert sand to create biodegradable and readily available eco-friendly concrete alternatives.
Bio-based materials and other ecologically friendly materials have the benefits of abundance, low-carbon manufacture, renewability, and biodegradability at the end of a building’s lifecycle without causing further environmental harm. An abundance of papers over the past few years have attested to the suitability of these materials for a more sustainable construction industry.
Based on the growing awareness of the environmental impact of construction and research interest in biodegradable building materials, the concept of a biodegradable building, where no harmful waste is left at the end of its life, has gained traction in some areas of the industry.
Indeed, many designers and occupants do not consider the impermanence of the built environment: many structures are demolished and replaced within just the space of a few decades. Building a structure out of biodegradable materials that can be disposed of safely without environmental harm could be a game changer for the construction sector.
Building With Cork: An Eminently Renewable, Biodegradable Bio-based Resource
It could be said that biodegradable buildings hark back to a time before the modern age, using easily renewable local resources rather than unhealthy, single-use materials. Cork is one material that is almost completely sustainable, causing no harm to the tree it comes from during extraction, and one that grows back in a relatively short span of time.
Studio Bark has designed a garden building almost completely out of cork (with reinforcing elements made out of timber) called The Cork Studio. This sustainable building prototype can be completely reused, recycled, or even composted at the end of its useable life. All the elements in the building can be disassembled and used in a new building.
Aside from its biodegradability and sustainable production, cork has the benefits of fire, water, and degradation resistance, making it a highly attractive building material. This was why Studio Bark chose it for this project. Waste from a wine cork manufacturer was used to create solid blocks, which were heated, and natural resin was released to bind them together. The building was then assembled on site.
Building With Bamboo
Bamboo is a material has become a widely used building material in the past few decades, especially in countries such as Vietnam, Colombia, Thailand, China, and Indonesia, where it grows abundantly. Bamboo is fully biodegradable and extremely sustainable, with some species able to grow up to 36 inches in a day.
Bamboo has been termed “green steel” due to its strength and structural benefits for buildings. Initially used to construct canopies and temporary pavilions, it is increasingly being used to construct structures more than two stories high. IBUKU Studios in Bali are one such company designing and building fully biodegradable and sustainable structures out of bamboo.
Whilst bio-based materials are the major target of research and development of biodegradable and eco-friendly structures, some experts are looking for another solution: desert sand.
Conventional concrete is manufactured from river sand or fine white sand, a resource that is being rapidly depleted. Desert sand is a viable alternative that could solve this future sustainability problem, utilizing a much more abundant resource in the construction industry.
Researchers from Imperial College London have developed a composite material called Finite using desert sand. Aside from being made from an eminently more sustainable material, organic binders, which are fully biodegradable, are used. Building materials can be reused at the end of a structure’s life, significantly reducing its environmental impact.
Another route to realizing the biodegradable house could be to use bioplastics. Compared to their conventional counterparts, these polymeric materials are fully biodegradable. While they are currently largely used for packaging, one day, they could be utilized on a large scale in the construction sector.
To showcase the potential of this biodegradable material, researchers from Stuttgart University have designed a pavilion made from these sustainable polymers, containing over 90% renewable materials.
The concept of a biodegradable building is still in its relative infancy, but a growing awareness of the construction sector’s environmental impact and sustainability problems has focused the attention of researchers on ecologically-friendly alternative materials and building practices. This area of research is a highly interesting one, which will no doubt face some key challenges in the coming years.
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References and Further Reading
Yadhura, M & Agarwal, M (2021) Biobased building materials for sustainable future: An overview Materials Today: Proceedings 43:5 pp. 2895-2902 [online] sciencedirect.com. Available at:
Crook, L (2018) Studio Bark builds "fully biodegradable and recyclable" cork building [online] dezeen.com. Available at:
Block, I (2018) New material made from desert sand could offer low-carbon alternative to concrete [online] dezeen.com. Available at:
Bondre, S (2022) Biodegradable Example :10 examples of Biodegradable Architecture [online] re-thinkingthefuture.com. Available at: