Of course we buy most building materials from a store or warehouse. We pay our money and we use it to construct our next projects. But do we actually consider where the materials have come from and how much is involved in their journey from their original location to the construction site? Here we take a look at a few materials and their origins.
Wood comes from trees. But which trees and in which countries? How sustainable is the wood you use in your projects?
Today, most wood used for materials comes from managed forests and the trees are grown until they reach a desired height before being felled and sent to the lumber mill. These forests require high maintenance and temporary roads leading to the trees need to be constructed to make extraction easier. Lumber is rarely, if ever, perfect and defects such as knots, holes and splits are common and the lower their frequency the higher the grade of wood.
As wood becomes rarer over time it is important that it is sourced from renewable and managed forests and most countries today are taking measures to secure forests for the future. Depending on the type of wood, the largest wood-producing countries are Brazil, Russia, China and the USA.
While today's ceramics are manufactured in a highly automated way owing to the invention of the tunnel kiln in the early twentieth century, they were historically formed by hand. Ceramic tiles can come from a number of sources including porcelain, natural clay or quarry stone. Just under a quarter of the world's tiles are produced in Italy with other significant contributions coming from Spain, Brazil, Germany and the USA.
Converting the raw material into a tile suitable for your walls and floors is a long process. After the raw materials have been extracted, they are mixed and ground in batches, spray dried and formed into specific shapes. Following this they are dried over several days and glazed. The final step in the production process is firing where the tiles are given the strength they need and tested thoroughly.
Glass is easy to produce in comparison with other materials. The main ingredient of glass is sand with a few other components thrown into the mix. Along with lime and sodium carbonate and a few other ingredients, the sand is mixed and then heated at temperatures of up to 1580° Celsius. While still cooking away, the glass is molded into shape and compressed air gives the glass its final shape.
The glass is now cooled and treated to ensure it maintains its smooth form. Once cooled and quality controlled the material is transported with utmost care to its next destination.
The production of plastic is a complex process. Monomers (single molecules) are transformed into polymers which are molded into the desired shape.
Raw materials of plastic include varieties of oil, gas, soy and corn. Monomers from these products are blended together and mixed with other chemicals which may add softening or fire-retardant properties to the end product.
It is this high mix of components which makes recycling and breaking down plastics hard to achieve in many cases. Those plastics produced from several different resins are the most challenging to recycle. Similarly, plastic is often combined with other materials like paper and metal which makes it harder to extract.
Stone comes in many different types so let's start with the most exclusive stone: marble. Marble is a metamorphic rock coming from dolomite or limestone. The celebrated patterns in marble are formed by the deposits of minerals before the limestone was affected by the high temperatures in the earth's crust. The presence of different minerals allows marble to take on a variety of beautiful and natural colors.
Today Italy, China, India and Spain account for the majority of the world's marble production. As each slab of marble from each quarry is completely different it's important to order enough for your project.
Fabrics are countless so here we'll focus on just one type, possibly the main type - cotton. Cotton manufacture is still quite labor intensive so much production occurs in developing countries especially China, Indian, Egypt, Uzbekistan - as well as the USA. In the nineteenth century new technologies invented in the UK allowed for cotton to be processed at far greater speeds than previous which led to greater demand for the product. This extra demand and the reduced cost of processing meant that costs had to be saved on the farms and this is what led to the increased use of slave labor.
Today's cotton isn't produced with slave labor but it is still shrouded in controversy. High government subsidies in some countries mean that cotton is even grown in arid areas where it requires greater amounts of water, reducing water availability for human consumption and other types of agriculture.
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