Green building and sustainability are some of the most popular concepts in the design and construction business these days. It is rare to find any new construction without some specification for LEEDS rating or at least a concern about building a green structure. New products enter the market every day claiming to be the next best thing for environmentally aware construction. In reality the greenest building material is the oldest and easiest to source: wood. As a completely renewable, recyclable, and long lasting building material that also sequesters carbon and fosters increased biosequestration, wood is easily the perfect green product.
Wood Does Actually Grow on Trees
I know crazy thought right? Wood is the original renewable resource. When you cut down a tree, you plant another in it’s place. Or in some instances like the Canadian Forest Service, you plant 20 new trees. Granted the turnaround is measured in decades before that newly planted tree can be used for lumber but managed forestry practices have been in place in the US and most of the world for more than a century now. The business of lumber is just like any other industry where production time must be factored into the supply chain and balancing the supply and demand against what is best for the long term forest ecology is what this industry does best. If anything, the lumber folks are more concerned about a healthy forest. The point to remember is that as long as the wood has commercial value it will be well cared for as a commodity. Ongoing lumber production and a healthy demand is required. When lumber species are banned, the land becomes worthless as a commodity and the owners will seek alternatives like agriculture or livestock grazing land. Maybe this sounds Machiavellian but it is the necessary reality. It would be nice if forests were cared for and maintained for the love of the forest itself, but sustainable forestry is expensive and a return on investment must be visible for a company to undertake the task. The positive is that this managed forestry practice has some other very worthwhile environmental benefits brought about by the constant, rapid growth of developing trees. More on that below
Reclaimed Lumber is Cool
Adding to the renewable topic, reclaimed or recycled lumber just further extends the life span of that original board. Add to that the historical element and the story it has to tell and you have a very hot commodity that is a major trend in design and construction these days. Wood is a very durable and long lasting building material and it isn’t uncommon to find 300 year old barns being torn down and the lumber re-purposed into flooring or even a whole new structure. Of course eventually lumber will decay to a point that it isn’t usable but at least at that point it returns to the soil naturally instead of filling up a landfill forever.
Sustainable Forestry Increases Biosequestration
Biosequestration is more than a game winning Scrabble word. It is the natural process where Carbon is separated from the atmosphere and locked into organic matter. We all know that we human breathe out Carbon Dioxide while plants breathe it in, capture the Carbon and exhale Oxygen. Some call this a Carbon sink and this principle is a major puzzle piece in the Global Warming theory. The more Carbon we can keep out of the atmosphere the less greenhouse gases will be present. The Carbon remains part of the organic matter forever even when the tree dies and rots away into the soil. When the tree is burned however, the combustion process releases that Carbon into the atmosphere. So as long as we keep the wood in wood form we are capturing Carbon indefinitely.
This is all well and good but the fewer trees there are to capture the Carbon in the first place the more will be in the air. This is why deforestation is such a hot topic in environmental circles and why the lumber industry is constantly vilified. It’s funny when you think about it because as I said above, the lumber mills have more of an interest in keeping the forest plentiful. Moreover, by continually renewing a forest through replanting there are always trees present in rapid growth mode. These growing trees are gobbling up oxygen like a teenage boy eats Hot Pockets (so the commercial tells me) and sequestering Carbon in the process. A fully mature tree is still doing this as well but at a much, much lower rate. In fact long range studies have shown that old growth forests “operate” actually at a net loss of Carbon. Now think about the fire hazards that come with unmanaged forests. Remember what I said above about how burning releases trapped Carbon? Now a forest left to it’s own devices is capturing less Carbon while also releasing it at an alarming rate during forest fires. It seems to me that sustainable forestry practices are the best of all possible worlds. We take care of our forests ensuring a renewable supply of time tested, superior building materials while decreasing the Carbon in the atmosphere.
When you look beyond the environmental benefits and factor in the jobs created all the way up and down the pipeline and the simple and honest beauty that wood construction has, one has to ask the question:
Why would you build with anything but wood??