Smart Choices in New Building Materials

This time of year, many are eager to plan home remodeling projects. Help your clients by making sure you’re ready to share information on the latest materials, products, and systems so they can make their homes more durable, sustainable, energy-efficient, and waterwise.

As your clients return from summer vacations, they may be thinking of upgrades they’d like to make to their homes. These days the goal often is to decrease maintenance costs, lower utility bills, and appeal to a wide segment of future buyers. Here are nine cutting-edge developments—some of which are just now being introduced into U.S. markets—that piqued our interest, along with reasons why they’re a wise investment.

Permeable Pavers

Why they’re a smart choice: Though a bit more expensive than concrete, pavers are often a smarter choice in the long term. If they crack, they can easily be removed and reinstalled after the soil or gravel is leveled, while concrete has to be jack-hammered out, says Sacramento, Calif.–based landscape designer Michael Glassman. But now home owners are able to choose permeable pavers, which offer an even smarter hardscape choice for yards. Unlike impervious pavers, these allow the ground to absorb water directly, rather than sending it into streets or down sewers where it’s wasted. Also, their porous surface functions as a filter to remove some pollutants from rainwater.

Example: The “Eco” line from EP Henry comes in a number of shapes, sizes, textures, and colors and can pave driveways, walkways, pool decks, and retaining walls. Many local governments and municipalities offer storm water management tax credits for upgrades like these, and some permeable pavers can help homes qualify for LEED certification.

Green Roof Tiles

Why they’re a smart choice: Asphalt shingles may be a budget-friendly roofing option—they cost far less than metal, slate, or clay tiles—but many asphalt choices don’t provide a good barrier against noise or extreme temperature, nor can they withstand hurricane-strength winds very well. Green roof tiles offer a cost-effective, environmentally friendly option, as they’re manufactured from recycled content. They stand up to strong winds thanks to the way their exposed sections are fastened to the roof. Their corrugated design also allows cool air to pass through and ventilate an attic.

Example: Ondura’s Onduvilla line is made from 50 percent post-consumer reused materials that are lightweight — aiding both transporting and installing — and comes in varied landscape-inspired colors (including red, green, sienna brown, terra-cotta, gray, and black). The tiles can be added over an existing asphalt shingle layer, which eliminates the cost and labor to remove the original layer.

Cartridge-Fueled Fireplaces

Why they’re a smart choice: Did you know that traditional log-burning fireplaces not only fail to warm a room, they actually suck out heat? That’s why the search continues to find alternatives that offer the look of a crackling flame, are easy to install, and don’t require a gas line or electrical outlet. One option is an assembled, insulated, and ventless design that uses cartridges filled with an alcohol gel that home owners light with a long butane lighter, the same way they’d light a candle.

Example: The HearthCabinet‘s model uses disposable cartridges that come unscented or in vanilla, pine, or cinnamon fragrances. Many of its models have a modern hipness and can sit directly on the floor, atop a low console, or in a wall. Some models also can be used outdoors. Prices may seem steep at $4,900 to $12,000, but they require no design time, chimney work, or gas line, so the expense is all on the front end.

Modular, Portable Shelving

Why it’s a smart choice: As more and more newer homes lack built-in shelves, many home owners aren’t sure how to store their books and collections after they move in. But shelving systems are expensive and hard to remove when it’s time to sell. Even bookshelves and other freestanding furniture pieces don’t offer flexibility if home owners wish to expand their collections.

Example: Designers Jack Godrey Wood and Tom Ballhatchet developed their BUILD shelving modules to offer expansion options. Manufactured by German-based Movisi from plastic foam that’s recyclable, hypoallergenic, and water- and shock-resistant, the modules can be arranged in numerous configurations on floors or walls. The system comes in black or white and can be used with or without a back.

Tankless Water Heater

Why it’s a smart choice: A traditional water heater keeps its tank hot all day, increasing utility bills. Tankless designs that attach to a plumbing system work on demand, heating water only when needed and paring energy consumption.

Example: Rinnai says its Continuum model is 50 to 70 percent more efficient than most traditional heaters. One version allows home owners to preset shower temperature and times and automatically fill tubs. While this type of tank is more expensive to purchase and install, it offers a good payback, especially for those who own vacation homes and don’t want to heat water when away. The key is to pick a model with a flow rate that matches the home’s number of fixtures and average water usage. Using gas rather than electricity makes sense too, avoiding problems when there’s a power outage.

Master Smart Control System

Why it’s a smart choice: Most home systems operate independently, which requires using a control panel for each item that affects comfort in a home. That’s inefficient both in terms of energy use and consumer effort, which is why there’s a whole host of companies working to get these independent water and HVAC systems talking to each other and reporting back to home owners.

Example: Rheem’s EcoNet technology uses a home’s Wi-Fi connection to link its air conditioning, heating, and water management products so that a home owner can control them through a single app or wall-mounted panel. The system can send alerts if anything’s wrong, such as a water leak. If the home owner has set up contact information, the system will even send these alerts directly to their contractor. However, this setup works best with new construction, major remodeling, and intensive retrofits.

Recycled Building “Brick”

Why it’s a smart choice: Too often, building materials get discarded when structures are demolished or remodeled. Salvaged materials are considered a very chic building and decorating look now, but they don’t always offer the right shape, color, or thermal properties for every project. Yet, many can still offer a second life if reconfigured properly.

Example: StoneCycling — a company founded in the Netherlands in 2013 by Tom van Soest and Ward Massa — grinds and blends broken brick and other waste materials and processes them into durable multicolored shapes and sizes for aesthetically appealing interior and exterior applications. The new products can withstand high winds and are flame-retardant. The company is currently working with interior architects in several U.S. cities and Massa says they expect multiple projects that incorporate them to be finished next year.

Solar Facade

Why it’s a smart choice: When you think about solar energy, chances are you picture a panel or set of photovoltaic cells placed on a roof. But about 15 years ago, a Swiss architect developed and patented a wall system that provides passive solar heat gain for new homes and buildings. The system, known as the Solar-Activated Facade, incorporates angled wood louvers that absorb different amounts of solar heat depending on the season, back-vented glazing that either traps warm air or releases it depending upon energy needs, and insulated panels that cut construction time. 

Example: Architect and energy expert Eric Nelson of Nelson Architech GmbH and Boston-area architect Stephen Moore of BlankSlate Design hope to begin manufacturing the SAF system in the United States in the coming year. It’s already being used effectively in Switzerland and other countries around the world.

Seaweed Recycled Insulation

Why it’s a smart choice: Building scientists always seem to be on the prowl for more energy-efficient insulation. Using seaweed — a renewable resource that’s considered a nuisance and eyesore when it washes up on beaches — is a win in terms of being recyclable, and providing a tight envelope for various parts of a home’s construction.

Example: The Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology in Munich, Germany, is working with NeptuTherm e.K. on a project to convert “Neptune grass,” a seaweed that litters beaches along the Mediterranean, into roof, wall, and ceiling insulation. Its application has proved to work well as an acoustic barrier that’s also mold resistant, nonflammable, and a better insulator than comparable wood-based products. Wired magazine writer Joseph Flaherty recently touted it as “the world’s coziest sushi roll. “