Homegrown homes on the agenda

Many environmentally damaging building materials could be replaced, or even improved on, using ever-renewable natural materials produced by the country's farmers.

This was the case put forward by Stephen Ryman of Defra’s renewable fuels and materials programme and Dr John Williams, technology transfer manager at the National Non Food Crops Centre (NNFCC) when they spoke at green construction trade show Ecobuild this week.

As well as providing a sustainable alternative to limited natural resources such as petro-chemicals, farm-grown products often had environmental benefits once integrated into buildings, said the pair.

They explained how the NNFCC had been set up to explore the potential of crops not just in construction but in areas such as pharmaceuticals, biofuels and the chemical industry.

It also examines the barriers currently stopping these products from reaching a mainstream market and attempts to break them down.

The range of crop-based products discussed ranged from the already widely adopted such as hemp lime to the mildly amusing like beer-based paint.

With the products’ environmental credentials and suitability to do the job beyond well proven, the main obstacle used to be economic.

But years of refining the production process coupled with Government efforts to promote sustainable building materials through its own procurement process and Code for Sustainable Homes have started to make them a more financially attractive prospect.

Now the main stumbling block is convincing architects and developers to embrace new materials, particularly those that differ greatly from their conventional equivalents.

“The construction industry is fairly conservative and needs to be presented with something that it’s happy with,” said Dr Williams.

“Some of the things that are very, very interesting [from our point of view] won’t enter the mainstream at this stage because they don’t look right.”

The idea of employing farm-produced materials for building is, of course, not entirely new – many have been in use in one form or another for centuries.

Woollen insulation, biomass fuels and chip board made from sustainable materials are all examples of taking an old idea and breathing fresh life into it.

“Some of these things have had a little bit of a resurrection, but it’s not quite the same as it was,” said Dr Williams.

“Increasingly they are made of 100% renewable material rather than the old mix and match approach.”

Details of the NNFCC’s work, including numerous case studies demonstrating how these materials have been put to good use in practice, can be found on its website.

Sam Bond

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