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Best building materials for 2023

best building materials for energy efficient houses

Construction materials

With 2023 almost here and New Year’s resolutions and programs being made, you may be drafting plans regarding moving, buying a new house, or restructuring your own. From this perspective, something else that you should consider in the construction field, because of the most current agenda, is sustainable building materials.

More traditional building materials (stone, wood, steel, and masonry) are still widely used, but they are not the best for energy efficiency and sustainability. 

Energy efficiency, insulation, and heat retention: where to start

Energy-efficient homes – main features 

Energy efficiency has become fundamental concerning sustainability and avoiding wasted energy. To put it simply: an energy-efficient home has to respect some core factors, such as: 

Why does energy efficiency matter

One of the main goals when designing a house is to make the building envelope as tight as possible. This means that the exterior structure is capable of kipping wind and air out. To work efficiently the building must be climate-appropriate and function as a barrier between the interior of the house and the external environment. 

The main benefit in the long term is saving money. Opting for more insulating materials and panels is more expensive at the moment of the construction, for example, the windows’ price would increase by 20-30%. Still, you will recover the money by saving money on heating and cooling. This factor is not to be underestimated considering the increase in gas and electricity utility prices. 

What is the r-value in insulation?

When talking with constructors or materials re-sellers, they will mention this word for sure, so better be prepared. R-value is a measurement that indicates the resistance level that insulation has to heat flow. The higher the value, the higher the resistance, and the better the insulation and heat retention. This value stands for how much resistance the material has per inch of depth. This could allow using a bigger amount of a lower-value material to get the same insulation as a higher-value material. Materials with high R-values are more expensive, but because they have optimal insulation properties, can help save money on bills. 

Experts recommend prioritizing insulation in the attic because that is the pivotal part of the house where you can prevent heat loss.  

Best building materials for energy-efficient homes 

To achieve the goals listed above, developers and companies in the industry always offer more often sustainable options for construction and building materials and designs. 

Let’s start, literally, with the foundations and see some building foundation materials apt for energy efficiency: 

1. Recycled steel

This is definitely a popular one, for many reasons! It’s non-flammable, strong, and can support insulation panels and layers, its resistance, and stability is indicated for areas subject to heart wake, natural disasters, and strong winds. It’s very durable in time and also in terms of sustainability. According to the Steel Recycling Institute, this material is the most recycled among all, in fact over 90% of steel is recycled. In buildings’ cases, beams, columns, and other structural parts can be straightly reused without being melted. The best catch is that the quality is the same as new steel, but the recycled one is way cheaper. 

2. Insulated concrete form

This material is neither new nor innovative on the market because it has been used for the last 60 years, but its properties in terms of insulation have been appreciated and valorized recently. They are cast-in-place concrete walls poured between two layers of insulation layers. Thanks to their thick foam, they improve air tightness and can save up to 20% of power, and by so money, for heating and cooling. After they are installed they become a permanent part of the structure, thanks to this practice, walls are strong, hearth wake resistant, more stable and safe, sound blocking, mold, rot, mildew, and insect resistant. They are great for constructors too because they’re flexible, light for shipping, and compatible with carpenter trades. 

3. Frost-Protected Shallow foundation (FPSF)

This material is indicated for environments that experience freezing grounds. It works as a standard concrete slab with thicker edges sheathed in rigid-foam expanded polystyrene or extruded polystyrene insulation. In this way, there’s an extra layer of insulation that helps prevent ulterior heat loss. 

Now that we have seen some alternatives to wood and concrete for the foundation let’s keep on listing other materials and systems for energy efficiency

4. Plant-based Polyurethane Rigid Foam

This polyurethane foam is a substitute for toxic rigid foam insulation. Creating a compound of bamboo, hemp, and kelp has provided a new, sustainable, and perfectly insulating material that can be used against mold and pests with the extra benefit of having a higher R-value than fiberglass or polystyrene to retain the heat, or the cool, of the structure.  

5. Rammed earth

The expression “go back to your roots” seems perfectly fitting in this case. Since Neolithic times humans have used rammed earth to build their houses, and some countries nowadays have specific regulations for it. Rammed earth is used to build upright walls, that are spaced between them and then filled with compacted dirt. This practice depends heavily on the climate: it’s recommended for high-humidity environments with moderate temperatures. Its unique perks are high thermal mass and humidity regulation, a super original design, and low costs. 

6. Straw bales

This byproduct of the grain industry, with a low carbon footprint, is a frugal, yet very insulating alternative. Its R-value is three times higher than traditional insulating materials and when kept dry can last for thousands of years. They are placed behind stucco and plaster walls, but it’s disincentivized in many cases because of their flammable risk.  

7. Bamboo

Bamboo plywood and hardwood are being promoted as sustainable alternatives because they’re naturally pest-resistant, produce more oxygen than hardwood trees, are easy to source and maintain, and are especially suitable for humid conditions. 

8. Cellulose insulation

If you need to insulate an already existing structure, rather than building it, the cellulose insulation could be the option for you. This technique is indicated for enclosed walls because it’s installed by drilling holes in the plaster or drywall, to give access to the blower nozzle. Cellulose insulation can proceed from many materials, the most common is one deriving from recycled paper. You can use blown cellulose insulation, which put simply is like a foam sprayed into the wall, or loose-fill insulation, which is dry. 

9. Recycled Wood/Plastic Composite Lumber

You may have wondered, are plastic bags recyclable? The answer is yes: in fact, this material is a great combination of recycled plastic bags and wood cut-offs. The plastic and wood fibers allow more strength and resistance to mold and rot compared to conventional pure plastic lumber, while also being less toxic. 

10. Low-e windows

What does Low-E mean? In this case, the “e” stands for emissivity. With this kind of window, the coat of metallic oxide works to keep the heat inside of the house during cold periods and to keep it outside during hot ones. According to the data, you can help save 70% of your power loss and by so also reduce the bills, which justifies the higher cost compared to standard windows. The additional layers can be put on the outside or between glasses, it depends on the location: if the house is located in a storm-risk area, they are external, so they can offer extra protection. 

11. Solar panels: general info, the grid-connected solar system

Solar panels are most commonly known as PV panels. This photovoltaic system is one of the most famous ways of providing power for your house by yourself through renewable energy. The panel’s cells collect sunlight and use it to generate energy; by doing so one can produce 100% of the energy needed if living in a sunny area. So what happens when it’s dark out? Grid-connected solar systems are also attached to the city’s grid for this case, but also in the eventuality of a blackout. 

12. Cool Roof

Cool roofing is a very smart way to reduce air conditioning during hot seasons and help relieve your wallet. This installation on your roof will help reflect sunlight, and so heat too, away from your home. Usually, the materials for cool roofing come in light colors but nowadays functioning darker shades are available on the market. As we have already said for other materials, the costs are higher than average, but the economic benefit is long-term. 

13. Structural Insulated Panels

Abbreviated in SIP, this foam is placed between plywood, cement, wood, or whatever it is that your walls, roof, or foundation are built of. These panels can help you save 50% of energy every year and also come in eco-friendly versions that are plant-based. 

What to consider when choosing building materials 

a. General costs

We have repeated this often in this article: going for more sustainable and insulating materials won’t’ help you lower the expenses of building or renovating your house. But you could see it as an investment, for two main reasons: 

Other than economical advantages, this approach is more sustainable and eco-friendly in most cases.  

b. Climate

The way you’ll have to build or renovate your house, and by so which materials to choose depends heavily on the environment in which the property is located. Climate is the most influential factor, as we have indicated in some examples above, and nowadays materials are developed and continuously improved so that they are better performing also in extreme weather, whether it’s a hot, cold, windy, or rainy one. 

Keep this in mind as a general rule to apply for all the choices you’ll have to make, not only for insulation. For example, you could want to install Italian marble for your floor because it’s a classic and elegant ever-green. That is a good idea for a summer house since marble floors hardly absorb any heat and keep the interiors cool. On the other hand, it would be impractical for a mountain cabinet where you would love to stay when on a skiing vacation because after hitting the slopes you want to go back to a warm home. Sure, you can still use carpets, or think smart and opt for Italian marble or granite for your kitchen island.    

Italian Building Bonuses: tax credits and incentives for 2023 

In the last years, the Italian government has implemented many bonuses to contribute to the recovery after the covid-19 pandemic. Let’s see which of them will stay and which will arrive in 2023 that could be suitable for you:  

1. Superbonus 90%

We mention this bonus first, since it’s the most fitting to our case and could be the one in which you are interested. The Superbonus 90% will allow you to deduct through tax credit 90% of your building or renovation costs for the improvement of the energy efficiency (or the decrease of anti-seismic risk) of your house. This bonus can be used both for apartment buildings and for terraced houses, but what’s the catch for international owners? 

2. 50% bonus on renovations

This bonus is more straightforward and less complicated than the previous one: you can have a 50% discount, on tax credit or on the bill, when making renovations, whether they are ordinary or extraordinary, to your house. This bonus also applies to the installation of solar panels, and can be benefited on expenses within 96.000 euros. 

3. Ecoconus 50% and 65% 

Lastly, we have the ecobonus, and as you can understand from the name, is an incentive with the direct purpose of improving houses’ energy efficiency. It can have a 50% or a 65% deduction on tax credit, depending on which labors are carried out: 

Can non-Italian citizens have access to these bonuses? 

This question could rise when talking about government incentives, since it’s the Italian government implementing them, so let’s see. As long as you are the legal owner of a property in Italy, you can access the bonuses. But remember, this applies for the Superbonus 90% only if the house is your main residence, it can’t be a vacation house nor a second home. While you can use the bonus on renovations and the ecobonus, even if the property you intend to renovate is your residence. 


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