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Finding Local Building Materials: A Guide For Your Home

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
May 1, 2020

When your great grandfather built his family home, the chances are that the wood needed for the home came from within a couple of hundred feet of the house location. He might have even cut an old-growth oak tree down by himself and hand sawed the tree into the boards and planks needed to shelter his family. The vast majority of homes are built with lumber and other materials that have been sourced globally. The opening of the world with economic globalization allows us to purchase tropical Indonesian teakwood for our hardwood floors. We can even buy rare Central American Cocobolo wood for our cabinets. However, the ecological cost of shipping those weighty materials across the world certainly comes with a sizeable carbon footprint. Sourcing building materials for a new construction or renovation project within a 100-mile radius of your home will substantially reduce the structure's carbon footprint. Purchasing salvaged or recycled building materials can further reduce the embodied energy footprint of your home. Locally sourced materials also go a long way in supporting local economies. 

Thinking upgrades at home? Read on to learn how you can obtain affordable, high-quality, and locally sourced building materials.

Why Buy Local Building Materials?

When we think about strategies to reduce the carbon footprint of our homes, most of us think about ways to reduce our overall electricity demand. This focus leads us to work on updating to more energy-efficient appliances, improved insulation, or switching to LED bulbs. Whereas even the smallest energy-efficient upgrades can increase the operational efficiency of a home, there is another source of emissions that we rarely take into account.

Embodied energy refers to the total amount of energy used during the process of building a home. This energy comes from mining and processing natural raw materials, milling and manufacturing these materials into functional building products, and transporting and product delivery to the building site. In many cases, the embodied energy emissions of a home might contribute more carbon emissions than the actual "use" of that home, known as the operational emissions.

The World Green Building Council found that 11 percent of global carbon emissions are associated with the embodied carbon from buildings' materials and construction processes. The typical home weighs between 200 and 350 pounds per square foot. A two-story, 2,500 square foot home, then, could weigh around 625,000 pounds. Consider the amount of energy required to physically move those materials from their source to where they were manufactured before finally being sent to the building site.

Let's follow the potential path of tropical hardwood, for example. It might have been cut down from the rainforests of Brazil, then transported by truck to a port city for milling. After that, it was shipped to Europe, where it was manufactured into panels and then air-freighted to the US, where it eventually ended up on the shelves of your local Home Depot. A more sustainable option for a homeowner in the Midwest might be to purchase hardwood flooring from a local Amish woodworker. That woodworker purchased his lumber from a neighbor and milled at the local mill down the street.

An article published in Northwestern University's research center finds that the transportation of building materials to the house site contributes between 6 and 8 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions for a building project. A similar study in Brazil found that number to be upwards of 10 percent. In the United States, the embodied energy "cost" of transporting building materials by road amounts to 2.13 Mega joules/ton/km. Products shipped by air or cargo ship will undoubtedly come with a much higher embodied energy footprint.

Salvaged Wood My Bloomist on Instagram
Salvaged Wood. Photo Credit: My Bloomist on Instagram

The Importance of Planning When Buying Local Building Materials

Without proper planning, finding locally sourced building materials can be a cumbersome process. We are used to a quick trip to the hardware store, where we can purchase virtually any home improvement or building material we need. However, as discussed, the vast majority of these products have been mined, manufactured, and shipped from different corners of the globe.

legendary story of the New College at Oxford dining hall in England sheds light on the importance of planning for the sustainable sourcing of building materials. Legend has it that someone at the college noticed that the massive oak beams over the dining hall had become infested with beetles several decades ago. The administrators were worried about where they would find beams of that caliber to restore the roof. They called in the college forester who told them that 400 years ago, there was a grove of oaks planted with the express purpose of one day replacing the oak beams. They knew the beams would eventually become insect-infested and rot away.

We may not be able to think 400 years ahead for a home renovation project - nor do we have the time to wait that long! However, the underlying ethic is noteworthy. If you notice that the fence around your backyard is starting to rot or look a bit shabby, why not plant some willow trees or cedar trees along the fence line? The trees will eventually help transition into a living fence or hedge that requires little to no construction materials. Techny arborvitae also makes a beautiful natural fence.

Similarly, you can also partner with local farmers and foresters whom you know to be committed to an ethic of sustained care for the land. Let them know that you plan a home renovation project in the coming years and "reserve" individual trees that can then be harvested and milled locally. Letting them know will allow the local farmer or forester to replant ahead of time to maintain their forest in optimum ecological conditions.

Beatle Killed Pine Flooring Sustainable Lumber Co
Beatle Killed Pine Flooring. Photo Credit: Sustainable Lumber Co

Where Should I Look For Local Building Materials?

Source Local Building Materials at your Neighborhood Hardware Store

A straightforward way to look for local building materials is to read the labels of the products you purchase at your local hardware store. Unfortunately, many products that claim to be made and manufactured in the United States or North America might be sourced from raw materials shipped from the other side of the world. Products that do use North American raw materials will often explicitly state their origin. One such example is the hardwood flooring company, HomerWood, which sustainably sources its hardwood timber from Appalachian forests. Another company, Thermalwood, is sawn, dried, thermally modified in North America.

Salvaged Brick UrbanGather, Instagram
Salvaged Brick. Photo Credit: UrbanGather, Instagram

Sourcing Salvaged Materials

Salvaged or reclaimed building materials might not necessarily be local in their origin. However, instead of sending entirely usable construction materials to the landfill, reusing those materials in your renovation project is not only essential for sustainability but can also add a vintage and rustic look to your home. On a national scale, over 135 million tons of construction and demolition waste generates each year, and the average building demolition yields 155 pounds of waste per square foot. You may not be able to utilize rotted plywood and broken window frames. Still, fine woods, bricks, and other valuable and high-quality materials are often found in home demolitions. This is particularly true in older homes built before the era of plywood and 2x4s. Most construction and demolition companies will be more than happy to let you take away some of the materials that they otherwise have to pay to ship off to the landfill.

The Habitat for Humanity ReStore
Photo Credit: The Habitat for Humanity ReStore

If you don't have a friend who works in the local construction business, consider searching for reusable construction materials, such as NextDoor, Craigslist, or other Facebook groups. Contacting local building contractors and companies is also an easy way to alert people to your interest in gathering salvaged building materials. Habitat for Humanity's ReStore is another excellent resource that sells many salvaged and refurbished home improvement items at a fraction of retail price.

Companies like the Reuse Network also work with individual homeowners and construction companies to help them develop a waste diversion goal to qualify for LEED certification or comply with state and local government waste diversion mandates. If this company works in your area, you might be able to find a good source of reusable construction materials.

Online Resources for Finding Local Building Materials 

You may know a farmer, forester, stone quarry worker, or others who can source raw materials from your region. With that said, the internet is also a valuable tool to discover local workers and local building materials in your area. 

Woodfinder.com is one helpful website that allows you to search for sources of lumber, veneer, wood specialties, and sawmill services by merely inputting your zip code. Sometimes, a simple Google search doesn't bring up other local businesses that provide raw materials for home renovation projects. You might consider searching for job listing sites. For example, Indeed.com allows you to search for "stone quarry jobs" by city, state, or region. Even if employed outside the stone quarry industry, you should find nearby companies to connect with to find local materials. 

Though the Classified Ads pages of local newspapers have seen better days, online classified services are abundant. Websites like Craigslist, Oodle, Backpage, and Locanto are just a few of the classified sites on the internet where you can easily search for a wide range of local building materials.

Columbia Forest Products Plywood Woodworking Network
Columbia Forest Products Plywood. Photo Credit: The Woodworking Network

What Are Commonly Found Local Building Supplies in North America? 

Finding local building materials might be relatively straightforward for some renovation projects. For more extensive remodels or new builds, however, local sourcing can be more difficult. This website offers a fairly comprehensive list of building materials made and manufactured in the United States. Unfortunately, not all companies showcased on this list can reliably claim to have sourced the raw materials for their products from North American sources. If you are having a hard time determining whether a particular building product is locally/nationally produced, the following tips can be helpful:

  • Cheap plastics are almost always foreign in origin and probably made in China or some other Asian company.
  • Engineered stone products are made from crushed stone bound together by some polymer. There are at least 100 engineered stone suppliers in China alone. This means that there is a good chance any engineered stone products you purchase will be from overseas and have a high embodied energy footprint.
  • Cheaper plywood is also often manufactured overseas, usually from lumber scraps from North American mills. You can find a list of United States plywood manufacturers.

It might seem ironic that building materials manufactured on the other side of the world are cheaper than products made down the street. Such are the incoherencies of our global economy. In general, however, the higher upfront cost of local building materials will pay for itself over a lifetime of use through the resilience and durability of the refined craftsmanship.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-08-17T19:56:34+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.