Urbanization and population growth have contributed to a tripling of building material consumption from 2000 to 2017. Building materials have a range of environmental impacts throughout their life cycle, from extraction, processing, and transport of raw materials to building construction, use, and eventual demolition and waste. Mitigation measures that target specific materials or value chain stages may therefore have incremental or even adverse net environmental effects. In this perspective, we develop a framework for applying life cycle thinking to identify key impacts and corresponding mitigation approaches, inform building design and material selection, and ensure effective treatment and recycling of construction and demolition wastes. Life cycle evaluation can also be used to assess and avoid environmental trade-offs among life cycle stages. Challenges for implementing these life cycle principles include collecting and integrating inventory data for products, managing multiple stakeholders within the construction industry, and monitoring end-of-life impacts; measures for overcoming such challenges are discussed.