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12 Types of Building Materials and How to Use Them
Every building material has unique properties that make it suitable for a variety of applications. Whether you’re constructing a new building or taking on a home improvement project, these basic construction materials may be useful for your building project.
- Aluminum: A strong, lightweight, malleable metal, aluminum is useful for window frames, moldings, and exterior wall panels. Salts corrode aluminum, which has poor chemical resistance, so avoid using aluminum piping.
- Brick: Bricks are rectangular blocks bound together with mortar. Though bricks are traditionally made from dried clay, they may consist of a variety of materials. Bricks have an extremely high compressive strength and heat resistance, though they can break easily if dropped. Some common uses for bricks include walls, fireplaces, and pavement. Beginning in the twentieth century, the construction of new brick walls has declined due to their propensity to crumble during earthquakes. However, if you enjoy the aesthetic of brick, it is still safe to use in modern buildings as long as you reinforce it with steel rods.
- Ceramics: Made from a mixture of minerals and fired at extremely high temperatures, ceramics are durable, fire-resistant, and water-resistant building materials. Common uses for ceramics include countertops, bathtubs, sinks, tiles, roofing, fireplaces, and chimneys.
- Concrete: Concrete mix is a common building material that includes crushed stone, gravel, and sand, typically bound together with Portland cement. While this composite material has a high compressive strength and high thermal mass, its low tensile strength means it often needs extra reinforcement. For load-bearing walls, reinforce concrete blocks with rebar—vertical steel bars that provide tensile strength. Concrete is useful for tile grout, flooring, walls, supports, foundations, sidewalks, roads, and mass structures such as dams. Concrete construction is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions due to the calcination process required to produce the cement.
- Copper: This low-maintenance metal material is corrosion-resistant, durable, and lightweight with high electrical conductivity. Copper’s unique reddish-brown color and its ability to mold into intricate shapes make it a popular material. Common uses for copper includes wall cladding, roofs, gutters, domes, and spires.
- Fabric: Fabric is a flexible material made of interwoven fibers. There are numerous varieties of fabrics—many with weatherproofing and fire-resistant qualities—but in the construction world, common fabrics include cotton canvas, carbon fiber, woven fiberglass, and vinyl-coated polyester. Use fabric to construct low-cost, temporary structures like tents or carport canopies.
- Glass: Glass is useful as a building product because of its transparency. Use glass for windows, walls, skylights, and facades. There are many types of glass, including insulated glass, laminated glass, and obscured glass.
- Paper: Building paper is a heavy waterproof paper that provides weather protection and thermal insulation, often for roofing or basement flood protection. Types of building paper include sheathing paper, floor lining paper, tar paper, and asphalt felt paper. Paper is also one of the main ingredients in drywall.
- Plastic: Plastics are synthetic materials made using a variety of polymers. Popular plastics used in construction include acrylic, polycarbonate, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and composite plastics. Plastic is lightweight, rot- and corrosion-resistant, inexpensive, and easy to mold into various shapes and sizes. Disadvantages of plastics are that they are not flame-resistant, aren't suitable for load-bearing use, and may have a negative environmental impact if not recyclable. Common uses for plastic include light fixtures, windows, carpeting, piping systems, electrical cable insulation, sinks, roofing, flooring, and siding.
- Steel: Steel is a metal alloy made mostly of iron with a small percentage of carbon. Its high strength-to-weight ratio makes structural steel an ideal choice for the framework of skyscrapers and other large structures like stadiums and bridges. Steel is also an ingredient in construction products such as nails, screws, bolts, and other fasteners.
- Stone: A durable, heavy natural building material with a high compressive strength, stone is typically prepared by a stonemason when used as the primary building material for a structure. Marble and granite stone are popular choices for kitchen countertops. Other uses for stone include floors, walls, and support structures.
- Wood: Wood is a hard, natural material and one of the oldest types of building supplies. Though its characteristics vary depending on the tree species, wood is generally lightweight, inexpensive, and easily modified, and it provides insulation in cold weather. Sawmills cut wood into pieces of dimensional lumber (such as the classic two-by-four); large pieces of dimensional lumber are called beams, while any type of ready-made woodwork (such as molding, trim, doors, etc) is called millwork. Engineered wood involves different types of wood that are artificially bonded together to form a composite wood; popular types of engineered wood include plywood, particle board, and laminated veneer. Common uses for wood include interiors, exteriors, structural frameworks, walls, floors, shelving, decking, roofing material, decorative elements, and fencing.
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