Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Entrepreneurs, Glass Recycling, Prefab Taking Eco-Homes to the Next Level

The construction industry is the world’s largest consumer of raw materials, and after they’re built, buildings can use a substantial amount of energy to keep us comfortable. Reducing the environmental impacts of buildings – particularly through their materials and energy intensity – has become a priority for startups and large companies alike. Among the latest efforts, several entrepreneurs in India are applying traditional wisdom and new techniques to build more sustainable homes, two custom prefabricated residences have been installed in California, and Veolia opened a new glass recycling facility in the United Kingdom that will take Knauf Insulation’s production to the next level.

Concrete jungles are becoming the norm in densely populated Indian cities, which is expected to make warmer-than-average summers even more difficult for those urban populations. Facing this reality, local leaders young and old are striving to build more sustainably.

Architect Trupti Doshi created the Sharanam Rural Development Centre (Phase 1) in rural Tamil Nadu to act as a headquarters of a larger village empowerment programme of international NGO Sri Aurobindo Society. Drawing from traditional wisdom, her team uses sustainable materials and techniques to minimize the use of steel and cement.

“For one of my projects, I wanted to use Chettinad lime plaster, a technique well known in Tamil Nadu for several hundred years. I had to travel more than 250 km to find an 83-year-old grandfather in a small village who hadn't had a chance to practise his craft for over four decades,” Trupti told Your Story.

Others are similarly looking to local traditions to inspire new sustainable building techniques. An 84-year-old known as Didi Contractor has built fifteen buildings with mud and stone, including a 14-room home for the elderly. Her technique allows for ‘earthquake-proof’ structures on hilly terrain. Made from locally available materials, the buildings also self-regulate temperature.

Siddharth Menon has also been using mud, stone and other local materials such as bamboo to create buildings with low ecological impact, including ‘Earth Houses’ on natural terrain. He primarily works in rural areas, with an aim to reduce socio-economic inequality through the use of indigenous building techniques of the region.

Others look to further blend traditional techniques with new technologies. With their company BuildInn, founders Puja Arti and Rohan Shenoy have designed hospitals, a school, a recreation centre, and mineral water units for the state government. Their submission for a toll booth design competition used sustainable building materials and was powered by solar energy, securing them the second prize. Their creations have also included features such as filler-roof slabs, radiant cooling, soil-stabilized block construction, prefabricated buildings, rain water harvesting, and organic hydroponic gardens.

Stateside, a small design and prefabrication company has installed two eco-friendly residential projects in Northern California. Plant Prefab specializes in using more sustainable building materials and off-site production to create homes that require less construction time and costs while producing less waste. Its latest projects include a LEED Platinum 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom home in Napa and a custom 16-unit dormitory in Berkeley for Urban Adamah, an educational farm and community center.

The building modules were constructed at Plant Prefab’s 62,000 square foot facility in Rialto, California before being shipped to the building sites. The home in Napa was installed in just four hours, while the dormitory – one of the first prefabricated multi-family residences in Berkeley – was installed over two days. The company claims that its process produces higher quality homes in half the time and lower cost than traditional site-based construction.

“Unlike other prefabricators, Plant Prefab focuses on producing sustainable, high-quality, custom homes based on designs provided by customers or our design partners,” said Steve Glenn, founder and CEO of Plant Prefab. “By constructing off-site with a full-time staff, we’re satisfying a chronic need for affordable housing, especially in more densely populated areas like Berkeley and Napa, all while requiring significantly less construction time, costs and waste production.”

Plant Prefab is also supporting victims of the recent Napa area wildfires with free initial site assessments and special pricing. So far, three single-family homes for victims of the fire are planned for construction in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Veolia has officially opened a new high-tech glass recycling facility in St Helens, UK that will process over 350 million bottles and jars – over 60,000 tonnes of used glass – each year for use as a recycled material in Knauf Insulation’s products.

To produce the highest quality glass cullet, Veolia equipped the facility with cutting edge technology to sort and separate glass at a micro-level, including vibrating screens for size sorting, magnets to extract metals, and eddy current separators for non-metals. It will be used at a nearby Knauf Insulation plant for use in its insulation products. The proximity of the facility is expected to save approximately 375,000 miles of road journeys.

“This innovative new facility is a £10 million investment in the UK green economy which is good for jobs, good for the community and good for the planet,” said Estelle Brachlianoff, Senior Executive VP at Veolia UK & Ireland.

“To see our site officially open today is a vote of confidence in our technology and the quality of cullet we produce - and by using a significant amount of this glass in its manufacturing process, Knauf Insulation is setting the standard for other manufacturers to follow – making use of recycled material mainstream rather than niche.”

“We have been using recycled glass in our manufacturing process for some time already,” said John Sinfield, Managing Director at Knauf Insulation Northern Europe. “As well as securing our glass supply, the quality and consistency that we are getting now from the new facility will enable us to increase further the percentage of glass cullet we use in the manufacture of our Glass Mineral Wool insulation solutions, taking us one step further in our sustainability journey.

“This is also a real boost for the circular economy and the fact we have delivered this in partnership with Veolia demonstrates what can be achieved when two leaders in their respective fields work together to achieve mutual goals.”

Veolia has previously partnered with other companies to develop circular models, such as recycling plastic from small household appliances into new Group SEB appliances.

A new insulation material is also on its way. According to the University of Maryland (UMD), “nanowood” is stronger and more environmentally friendly than thermal insulation materials like Styrofoam or aerogel. Researchers created nanowood by removing lignin, a substance in wood that keeps it rigid and brown, and short fibers “that tangle themselves in with the cellulose fibers that make up the scaffolding-like base structure of the wood.”

“This can insulate better than most other current thermal insulators, including Styrofoam. It is extremely promising to be used as energy efficient building materials,” explained UMD postdoctoral student Tian Li.

When testing how well nanowood insulates, the researchers found it blocked a minimum of 10 degrees more heat than a Guinness World Record honoree for best insulator, silica aerogel, as well as Styrofoam. Nanowood reportedly also does not irritate lung tissues or incite allergic reactions like wool or glass insulators can.

Their research was published in Science Advances earlier this month. Scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden contributed.


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