How Environmentally-Friendly Materials are Revolutionising Architecture


As the world finally seems to be switching on to the need to be more environmentally friendly, we are seeing changes in everything from the reduction in non-re-usable coffee cups and plastic bags, to the introduction of electric cars.

One area where there are huge steps forward being made is in construction. Although still not mainstream, we are seeing increasingly innovative ideas in the world of architecture. With an emphasis on sustainability, and the use of environmentally friendly construction materials, we are seeing an increasing appetite for architecture which is healthier for our planet.

The Use of Cardboard for Construction

How Environmentally-Friendly Materials are Revolutionising Architecture

Cardboard Cathedral by Shigeru Ban

One of the world's most common waste products is cardboard. Everything comes in a cardboard box, whether it is your personal online delivery or a massive order from your suppliers. And now, with the ability to use cardboard baling machines, it means that you can keep cardboard compact and easily send it to be recycled - making this a very desirable material to use in all disciplines. 

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban used cardboard in a clever way for the 'Cardboard Cathedral' in Christchurch, New Zealand. After the previous cathedral was destroyed by the earthquake in 2011, Ban was invited to create a temporary building based on his work in disaster situations around the globe. The building features 96 cardboard tubes that are reinforced by wooden beams. Polyurethane was used to keep the cardboard waterproof, and it also has a flame-retardant coating to keep fire at bay. Ban's original intention was to use cardboard as a structural component, but this was not possible due to manufacturing limitations.

Straw Bales for Building

How Environmentally-Friendly Materials are Revolutionising Architecture

Justin and Linda Tyers Self-Built Home - Photo by Simon Maxwell

Bales made from straw are an excellent eco-friendly alternative to traditional construction materials - with the added benefit of being fantastic insulators. In fact, even if it's not going to be used as the primary construction material, straw is great for keeping the building warm and well-insulated.

Of course, straw is not a new construction material, with evidence of it having been used up to 10,000 years ago. However, it is only recently that we have seen a rise in its usage as a primary construction material again.

As well as being more environmentally friendly than other construction materials, straw is relatively cheap to use - especially if you live near a farm. Justin and Linda Tyers designed and built their own home from straw bales in 2018. The house, built in Exmoor, has been so successful that they are inspiring other young people who cannot afford 'conventional' houses to try to build their own house with straw bales.

Recycled Plastic Architecture

How Environmentally-Friendly Materials are Revolutionising Architecture

Recycled House by Fernando Llamas and Oscar Mendez - Photo courtesy of

Our over-use of plastic – especially in packaging – is well documented and the push to recycle plastic has had a big effect on the way that we live our lives. Although it would be better to reduce all plastic waste, some innovative people are turning our waste plastic into construction materials.

Plastic is actually extremely durable as a construction material and requires a lot less maintenance or repair. Cladding, decking or room dividers made from recycled plastic bags or product packaging are easy to find.

Fernando Llamas and Óscar Méndez designed and built a house made from recycled plastic in Cundinamarca, Colombia. Bricks were made of old plastic and then fitted together like Lego, for a sturdy long lasting house, with the added benefits of superb insulation (to combat the Colombian heat) and being combustion retardant and earthquake proof.

Building with Shipping Containers

How Environmentally-Friendly Materials are Revolutionising Architecture

Container Home by Gregorio Baquero - Photo sourced from

Another common waste product is shipping containers. It is estimated that around 24,000 shipping containers are discarded worldwide, so if they can be reclaimed and used to build prefab buildings like houses, that is a huge win.

Shipping containers can be stacked on top of each other or attached side by side, giving flexibility in their design and options for people buying them. These prefab buildings can be made with electricity, water and even heating, and are flexible enough to allow other energy-saving measures to be added.

Colombian architect Gregorio Baquero and engineer Jorge Salcedo designed an eco-friendly home, made from shipping containers in Arizona. The aluminium foil reflects the sunlight and keeps it cool under the hot Arizona sun. It is aesthetically modern and stylish – and flood and fireproof as well.

Building eco-friendly, sustainable buildings is becoming increasingly important in our world today. New techniques and innovative ideas mean that architects are coming up with more and more ingenious ways to lessen our impact on the environment, while still building interesting and functional buildings.

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Comments (6)

Liz, Modlar Administrator • Mar 25

Hi Paula,
Good catch, I have changed it to tubes. Glad to hear you are enjoying Modlar!

Paula, Architectural Draftsperson • Mar 25

Super Liz,
I was going on memory and now remember the 'timber' beams rather than steel. Although I think you may have a typo and meant tubes not cubes!
Love the website!

Liz, Modlar Administrator • Mar 22

Hi Paula,
Thank you very much!
I have done more research on the Cardboard Cathedral and adjusted the cardboard section accordingly. Thank you again for letting us know and feel free to get in touch again if you notice anything else.

Paula, Architectural Draftsperson • Mar 22

Hi Liz,
Now I am impressed.

Liz, Modlar Administrator • Mar 22

Hi Paula,
Thank you for your comment, we will adjust the article based on this information!
Kia Kaha!

Paula, Architectural Draftsperson • Mar 21

As a resident of Christchurch, NZ during the earthquakes and currently I working in the Architecture field I have to correct your description of the 'Cardboard Cathedral'.
You make it sound like cardboard is used structurally - nothing could be further from the truth. It merely hides a plethora of large steel sections sitting on an enormous block of concrete. It has been used imaginatively for the interior but a 'construction' material it is not!