In the construction world, Nadav Malin believes there are two main species—diggers and climbers. While some people enjoy scaling ladders and creating structure, Malin prefers digging in the dirt. 

“I found that when I was building houses, I really loved the earthwork part of it,” says Malin, now president of BuildingGreen, Inc. “I remember almost being sad when it was time to backfill the foundation and start building up out of the ground. There’s just a connection to the materiality of earth and the things we build with that I think is almost instinctual for people.”

It’s this connection that makes Malin passionate about sustainable building and, even more so, sustainable materials. “There is a direct personal connection to the stuff that buildings are made of,” he says. “It’s kind of a strong pull for me, and I think a lot of people get into building to feel that connection—to just want to work with stuff and make stuff.”

When it comes to green construction, Malin believes that the “stuff” we build with becomes even more important. “We can’t really talk about sustainable construction or green building without addressing the materials—both the impacts associated with where they come from as raw materials and what it takes to manufacture and use them,” he says. “The more efficient the house gets, the more significant the impacts the material going into it become in proportion.”

The goal, Malin says, is to look at the entire lifecycle of the material, which includes the upstream impacts (where and how it was acquired), the use phase (how it contributes to the performance of the building), and downstream impacts (how it is demolished or reused). “The ideal product would be grown or created in a process that is quickly and readily replaceable and is processed without causing pollution, without using nonrenewable resources, and is nontoxic to the people making it and the homeowners,” Malin says. 

However, he also admits that there is no way of knowing if a material is truly sustainable. “The whole term ‘sustainable’ is a tricky one,” Malin explains. “We understand it to be pointing in the right direction, but I don’t think we know whether anything we do in this world is truly sustainable, especially given that we are operating in an economy that still believes that you can have economic growth indefinitely on a planet that isn’t growing.”

Still, there are some developments happening in the world of materials that Malin feels are getting us closer. One is a growing trend called biomimicry, in which manufacturers create products in a way that mimics nature. Instead of using high-temperature processes and hazardous materials, these types of products follow nature’s lead and, as a result, are better for the environment. One example, Malin says, is a plywood glue called PureBond from Columbia Forest Products. The formaldehyde-free, soy-based product was designed around the way mussels attach themselves to rocks on the beach.

“There is a lot to learn from nature,” Malin says. “When a spider spins a thread of this incredibly strong web material, it is doing it at ambient temperatures with no toxic ingredients. We, with all of smart industrial systems, haven’t figured out how to achieve that yet.”

Another growing trend is the idea of building with indigenous materials. And although there are certainly some environmental benefits to buying materials locally, Malin feels the real benefits are more cultural and psychological. “Sometimes people think that transporting materials is a bigger environmental issue than it really is,” he says. “I think the real benefit has to do with connecting people to their place. If you live in a house that is made with wood or stone that actually came from right around that house, there is a sense of connecting you with that place in a way that might help the people living in the house care about the place more and, therefore, take care of it more.”

The challenge for builders is trying to identify those materials that are sustainable. Although programs like forest certification for wood products is a good start, Malin says there are even better developments on the horizon. Europe, for example, is starting to use a type of product labeling called an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). This standardized environmental reporting format serves almost as a nutrition label by providing information on product “ingredients” as well as the processes and resources used in production. This program has inspired a U.S.-based initiative called a Health Product Declaration, announced at last year’s Greenbuild conference by the HPD Open Standard Working Group, which specifically focuses on hazards from ingredients used in products.

According to Malin, this type of manufacturer transparency will affect the building industry in two major ways. First, it will help builders make more informed purchasing decisions, but, perhaps more important, it will give them more responsibility. “As this kind of information becomes more available, it’s going to increase the onus on builders to be using and to be actually screening what they use based on that kind of information,” he says. “It’s going to be harder for a builder to say it wasn’t my responsibility to know what was in that product.”

Basically, Malin believes that green builders who want to be successful will have to do their homework. “The solution is to be exploring, researching, and experimenting with green products and materials and then considering them before you are locked into a design,” he explains.

Too often, builders will design a project around traditional materials and then decide to throw in a few sustainable features after the fact. “That is always the most expensive and least successful way to go,” Malin says. “If you really understand the green material and resource options up front, it’s often possible to design a green house in a very cost-effective way.”

Let’s say, for example, you choose to build with mahogany but then decide that you want to get it from a sustainably managed forest. Although that appears to be an admirable green practice, Malin says that approach comes with a price. “Because of the way it grows, in order to cut down a mahogany tree, you have to destroy a large area of a forest,” he says. “You may be able to get it from somebody who claims that they have harvested it in a sustainable way, but it’s going to be really expensive and tricky to do that.”

An alternative approach, he says, would be to identify the characteristics you want in the wood and then find a material that meets those needs at a more affordable cost. “Instead of deciding what you want and then expecting to find that from a well-managed forest,” Malin says, “it’s like going to the forest first and asking what it has to offer.”