Sustainable Living: Cork Construction, Eco-Friendly Building Materials

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Sustainable Living: Cork Construction, Eco-Friendly Building Materials

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For anyone thinking about sustainable living, it seems impossible to believe that builders of the not-too-distant past carelessly used asbestos in the construction of homes and offices. Future generations will look back on our time in wide-eyed wonder that we built structures with unsustainable resources. But they will also note that there was a farsighted contingent of eco-minded individuals who sought sustainable living practices during this crucial juncture in time.

There are a wide variety of eco-friendly building materials that are both available and affordable, but which require a conscious decision from builders, who frequently opt for the cheapest and easiest solutions.

One of the first places to consider an environmentally viable alternative is in the choice of wood. Reclaimed wood, the ultimate in recycling, is an ideal material. Salvage and reuse are key components of a philosophy of sustainable living. But salvaging is not the most efficient or inexpensive method to obtain a product for mass consumption.

Bamboo, which takes three years to mature, as opposed to the five or 10 decades required of, say, oak or maple, has gained traction in recent years as an eco-friendly material. In fact, it has become a very popular flooring choice. But there is an alternative to bamboo, which needs to be on your radar: cork.

Cork is harvested has been harvested by hand for 2,000 years. It has been used commercially for the last four centuries. The material we wine drinkers are familiar with is actually the outer bark of the cork oak tree, quercus suber. It is a vegetal tissue composed of cells filled with a non-toxic gaseous mixture similar to air.

That bark is cut off with specially made axes in a tradition that is passed from generation to generation. The tree itself is not cut down. The bark takes about three years to regrow and can be harvested again in about nine years. The cork oak tree is, in fact, the only tree that can survive after having its bark removed. Furthermore, the bark is antimicrobial and hypoallergenic. How’s that for sustainable living?

The cork oak tree is a native of the Mediterranean regions of southern Europe and northern Africa. Its life expectancy is more than 200 years, and can be harvested about 16 times over the course of its life. The tree requires little water, lots of sun and sandy soil. Conditions in the southern and western U.S. would seem to be ideal for growing cork, and would reduce the carbon footprint currently required by transporting it.

It is used in flooring, insulation, exterior finish, acoustic wall covering and counter tops. Its air pockets make it resilient, which is ideal for flooring because it “gives” a little underfoot, so as to avoid stressing joints, as harder surfaces do.

Those air pockets also provide good insulation, keeping heat and cold from moving between the indoors and outdoors. As an energy-efficient material, cork is excellent. And that is but one of the hidden values of cork — it reduces reliance on other costs, the heating bill, for starters.

Because it is naturally antimicrobial, cork is an ideal material for bathrooms and kitchens, where germs reside in their greatest numbers. Cork is impermeable it breathes, which means that it will resist mold and mildew. Impossibly, it also resists fire. In addition, it satisfies LEED certification requirements for being renewable, recycled and having low emissions.

As a society, we have learned the dangers of building with asbestos. We still have not heeded the dire warnings about the dangers of unsustainable resources, however. Sustainable living requires a conscious choice to think a little bit farther into the future. The materials we use to build with have a devastating impact on our planet. By making more environmentally conscious decisions, we can lessen that impact. With that in mind, consider using cork as an alternative to less sustainable building materials.

For more information about sustainable building materials, check out our articles on home decor and read on about sustainable materials for your home, bedrooms, flooring, kitchens and more. Join us and be part of people that are helping to make the world safer and cleaner for our children and future generations!

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