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Alternative Building Materials

Traditionally, buildings are constructed with conventional bricks and mortar. Although such buildings are reliable and strong, they are costly and take more time to build and some of the materials used to build with can be harmful to the environment. The built environment of tomorrow can be sustainable as well as environmentally positive. The growing demand for social and affordable housing in South Africa leads us to explore alternative building materials as a way to reduce the housing backlog.

Built environment and climate change 

Climate change is the biggest issue facing the planet today. Coupled with rapid urbanisation and the need for sustainable, low-cost housing solutions for our growing cities, our priority should be in identifying building materials that make a positive contribution to the environment.  

The built environment is a significant contributor to climate change. But due to this immense impact, it also has the potential to contribute massively to mitigation efforts. One pathway to addressing this is the use of Alternative Building Materials and Alternative Building Technologies (ABM’s and ABT’s). 

What are the alternatives? 

Broadly, alternative building materials are either block or panel systems, or modular solutions that are produced from resource-efficient, recyclable or recycled materials. They are ‘alternatives’ to traditional brick-and-mortar constructions. 

Alternative block systems are building systems that resemble conventional bricks, but are innovative in terms of the materials used (in the South African landscape this predominantly refers to the use of recycled expanded polystyrene, cement-, or earth-based). The blocks can also be innovative in terms of design – interlocking technologies that require little to no mortar and consequently minimise labour and material cost and time. 

Alternative panel systems are similarly like conventional panels but manufactured from innovative materials. Of particular timeous relevance is the Lighthouse construction system developed by Working on Fire, which aims to solve the dual problem of invasive alien plants and the fire risk they pose.  

How are they better? 

Alternative Building Systems have the potential to drive innovation in the housing sector. Their use can reduce construction time and cost, and enhance the performance, health and safety and environmental performance of a dwelling. Often the materials are easy to use and require no building experience or knowledge.  

Learn more about sustainable construction and building for tomorrow.

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