In some small way, each of us knows the value of wood as a resource. In fact, we use it every day–it heats our homes, makes our stationery, lines our floors. But in spite of all of its uses, wood is still a taboo material where building is concerned. Instead, we use concrete and steel in the hopes that our buildings (which are often our biggest investments) will remain strong and stable.
We tell ourselves that wood is too weak to sustain anything more than a few stories; that it’ll succumb to any number of elements–fire, water, you name it. But is any of this really true? While we prompt each other to “save the trees” and find ways to eliminate wood from our construction processes, others are using this resource to develop and maintain sustainable building practices that will help us all in the long run.
While sustainable building–or green building–dates back centuries, it really came into focus during the 1970’s when environmentally conscious groups forged a movement that expressed a strong need for more nature-friendly building practices. Over the years, green building has come to mean that resource-efficient processes are used throughout a building’s life cycle, from siting all the way to end-of-life deconstruction. And wood has played a major role in this cycle. With a carbon footprint that’s 75% less than that of concrete or steel, is it any wonder that wood has become a top contending material for green builders?
Let’s take a brief look at all the other great reasons wood tops the list:
Wood Lets Us Reduce, Reuse & Recycle. With innovative design, we can optimize the materials we use to reduce the amount of waste we produce per job site. Excess wood can then be taken to recovery centers for recycling, where another builder can secure wood for his or her next project…all without tapping our forest lands for materials.
It’s Renewable. Unlike many building materials (steel, for instance), wood does not deplete the earth of its natural resources. Because it’s a resource that more or less stands on its own, it can be grown and harvested over and over again.
We Have More of it Than We Think. Since the 1940’s, forest growth in the United States has continually exceeded harvest, which means we use much less wood than we think we do. And, of the 750 million acres of forestland in the United States, about 20% of it is protected by conservation efforts. So, all in all, we’re in very good shape to continue using wood as our main building material.
There are countless forest certification programs out there, but only a few truly stand out. The American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are among the top forest certification programs in North America and all of them promote the responsible management of the world’s forests. Believe it or not, SFI alone certifies over 152 million acres in the U.S. and Canada.
When shopping for wood, consumers often look to these programs to ensure that they’re purchasing wood products that are, in fact, sourced from sustainable forests. This is important because these programs keep consumers and retailers in line when it comes to forestry practices. The more consumers demand sustainable products, the more retailers and forest managers shy away from destructive harvesting practices like clear-cutting and logging.
But What About Fire Safety?
Perhaps one of the most frequent arguments against wood as a suitable building material is that it may easily fall victim to fire damage. But most contractors who are using wood to build are doing it with Cross-Laminated Timber or CLT, which acts more like concrete than wood. Harvested from sustainably managed forests, CLT is prefabricated to make highly durable, long-lasting wood panels that exhibit excellent fire resistance.
Rather than quickly burn and disintegrate, CLT chars at a very slow and predictable rate, giving occupants more time to carry out an emergency exit strategy. In comparison, steel generally performs badly in fires and can lose its strength at very low temperatures.
Overall, timber is an especially attractive option for sustainable building. When compared to other woods, timber is much more energy efficient, uses less water, and has a lower carbon footprint.
Like it or not, wood is a mainstay of our environment that consistently serves our needs and is always ready to do more. In adopting sustainable building practices, we can continue to foster a mutually beneficial relationship between ourselves and our forests. The more environmentally responsible we are in all areas of our lives (construction included), the easier we make it for our most precious resources to continue to grow and thrive.