Wonder what your home is worth? Find out with our free service.

Choosing materials from an early design stage

Find a tradesperson
... or get 3 obligation free quotes

Search   Post a job

Questions to ask at the beginning of a project

Image supplied courtesy of BlueScope Steel

Image supplied courtesy of BlueScope Steel

Early on in any project is the time to ask the big and sometimes hard questions about what makes a material both environmentally and socially sustainable. This informs the whole design and specification process. Dr Suzanne Grob looks at why this is so important, and what to plan for.


What do you really know about the life cycle of these materials from the component resources used in their manufacture through to their end of life or reuse options? Our buildings are getting greener, with a growing number of environmental rating systems, but what about the products and materials used in their construction and finishes? Unquestionably all materials have an impact on our natural environment and our society in terms of their production, use and disposal. As our population increases our demand for materials will also increase our ecological footprint.

Assessing building requirements

The first task is to assess your building needs, determine your budget and set your priorities for sustainable material selection. Sustainability priorities for your product or material selection may include carbon neutrality, energy efficiency, low embodied energy, fair trade and non-toxicity, amongst others.

The next step is to determine if your requirements can be met without buying anything (see chapter 2.06). This could be scavenging appropriate materials from council clean-ups or recycling centres, or buying second-hand or reconditioned materials. You may also give priority to local materials which reduce transport costs and embodied carbon, as well as supporting nearby industries and suppliers. 

Almost certainly you will also be purchasing new materials. Examine the life cycle of the material or product from cradle to grave. At each stage examine the environmental and social impacts of the material. If a product is composed of several materials, focus on the raw material that makes up the highest percentage of the material or product.

Phases in assessment

Starting with the raw materials phase, examine the impact of the material at its inception: extraction, harvest, or by-product of production. What are the implications of these processes?

  • Do they have the potential to compromise native forests and biodiversity, as in the case of palm oil or some logging practices?
  • Are they non-renewable resources, like oil and gas, or are they harvested like rubber?
  • What is the country of origin of the raw material?
  • How does it reach its final destination?
  • Is there a body that certifies the manufacturer’s fair labour and environmental practices?
  • What are their credentials, and are their processes audited by a reputable government or third party agency?

Water and energy

During the processing and manufacturing of the material how much water and energy is used? Has the manufacturer endeavoured to mitigate the environmental impacts of manufacture by reducing water and energy use, production of pollution and toxic by-products?

How is the material packaged?

During the processing and manufacturing of the material how much water and energy is used? Has the manufacturer endeavoured to mitigate the environmental impacts of manufacture by reducing water and energy use, production of pollution and toxic by-products?

  • How is the material packaged?
  • Is the supplier a signatory to the Australian Packaging Covenant?
  • Can the material be supplied in bulk thereby reducing packaging?
  • Frequently if a product or material is imported it requires substantial packaging to safeguard its delivery, which is another reason to consider a local source.
  • Is the packaging recyclable or reusable and will the supplier take it back?


Looking at the impacts of transport, examine how many stages there are in the supply chain from initial extraction through to warehousing and final delivery. What is the mode of transport for each stage and how great are the distances? To reduce embodied carbon, local sourcing is optimal.

Total cost of ownership

Applying a total cost of ownership model to the material selection considers the combined financial and environmental costs of purchase and use or operation.

  • In the case of a washing machine there is the impact of manufacture in addition to quantities of water and energy required to operate it. Ñ Can parts of the product be replaced or repaired?
  • In the case of furniture, for example, does the manufacturer stock standard castors for their chairs so that you don’t need to dispose of the entire chair?
  • What warranties are offered by the supplier?
  • Does the product or material require finishing treatments such as sealants, lacquers or paints to protect it and what are the effects of these to the environment and human health?

End of life

Finally, consider what you will do with the product or material once it is considered redundant to you.

  • Is it possible to recycle it as in the case of steel and copper?
  • Does the product have a government or supplier product stewardship scheme where its end of life is managed by a specialist third party, or is sending it to landfill the only alternative? Ñ
  • Can you donate the material or product to a charity for rebirth as in the case of mattresses at Soft Landing, which is also a social enterprise?
  • To ensure efficient reuse of component parts of the product, has it been designed for disassembly?

Eco labels

You can make highly informed choices by using the collective expertise contained in eco labels. There are several different categories of eco labels depending on the rigour of life cycle analysis governed by ISO standards and discussed in chapters 3.08 and 3.09.


An equally important aspect of materials and products is the supplier, and their commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainable innovation.

  • What is their track record on corporate social responsibility?
  • Do they report publically on their achievements?
  • Have they been recognised for sustainability excellence by a third party, such as a Banksia Award?
  • Does the company have a sustainability policy?
  • Do they have a clean record regarding breaches of environmental legislation, in Australia or overseas?
  • How does the company treat its employees and what is its record of industrial relations, especially in the developing world?
  • Does it engage with its workforce, local community and supply chain partners on sustainability?

These are questions that can be asked of suppliers, or found on their or other websites.

The most sustainable option is to use existing materials where appropriate, thereby avoiding unnecessary consumption. By examining the life cycle of a material you can identify the environmental and social risks associated with the materials. Purchasing materials from sustainable suppliers contributes to innovation and building a future market for sustainable materials and buildings.

Learn more by buying the entire book

This article is one of many useful articles in the book entitled "How to rethink building materials". The book can be purchased online as a hard copy or soft copy (e-book).

Table of contents - "How to rethink building materials"

  • Part 1 Overview: What it's all about
    • 1.01 Creating sustainable change - Barriers to getting the message through.
    • 1.02 Choosing materials from an early design stage - Questions to ask at the beginning of a project.
    • 1.03 Managing change - How to avoid the downside of the building industry's inherent aversion to risk.
  • Part 2 Forethought: A look at the issues behind the choices we make
  • Part 3 Planning: Unfamiliar but essential considerations
  • Part 4 The Great Debates: Contested ideas about material impacts
  • Part 5 Uncommon Solutions: The fast-approaching horizon
  • Part 8 A-Z of Building Materials