Is Wood a Sustainable Building Material?
In 2011, the U.S. government endorsed wood as the new green building material. Is it really greener? What about losing our forests?
Is wood sustainable?
Wood products, notably from responsibly forested hardwoods, has been recognized by Congress as an environmentally preferable building material, according to a press release issued by the American Hardwood Information Center. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also announced a strategy to promote use of wood as green building material.
The U.S. government’s official endorsement of wood as a green building material followed the passage of House and Senate resolutions in 2009 and 2010 acknowledging that the American hardwood industry sustainably manages an environmentally preferable natural resource. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilscak recently announced a strategy to promote the use of wood as a green building material.
According to the Information Center, the Federal Government’s Executive Order 13423 calls for a “sustainable means to create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”
Hardwood volumes growing
A 2008 report by the US Forest Service reported that American hardwood volumes are 90% larger than they were 50 years ago, and that almost double the amount of hardwood grows than is harvested every year in the US.
We should also note that from a health prospective, wood is by far the healthiest building material, because it releases no known toxins into the indoor or outdoor environment. Unlike asbestos, plastics and other building material ingredients, wood offers the least toxic material known, along with stone. That is, assuming it is not treated with formaldehyde as a preservative (ask your lumber yard before you buy).
The question of course, is whether hardwood harvesting leads to deforestation. Yes, say many environmentalists. No, say other environmentalists, as long as the harvesting is done right. This includes a process called “thinning” where the forest is not clear-cut, but “thinned” much as a row of vegetable sprouts are thinned to allow other plants to grow. This thinning process is supported by science as yielding more sustainable forests that are less prone to fires.
The correct method also entails replanting seedling trees, as well as clearing to allow the larger trees to grow with less obstruction. If done right, hardwood forests can be managed sustainably while collecting a reasonable amount of wood, with little risk to their continued existence.
New Zealand has found a great tool to manage their building material needs. They have established timber farming throughout the country. These timber farms provide the planet with forests while offering sustainable sources of wood.
International Year of the Forest
Proclaiming 2011 as The International Year of the Forest, Vilsack has directed the U.S. Forest Service to preferentially select wood in new building construction and maintain commitment to certified green building standards; examine ways to enhance research and development projects using green building materials; and actively work to identify innovative non-residential construction projects that utilize wood as a green building material.
“Forest Service studies show that wood compares favorably to competing materials,” said Vilsack in a statement released by the USDA. “Wood has a vital role to play in meeting the growing demand for green building materials.”
Vilsack said this policy shift for USDA is consistent with President Obama’s executive order on Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance.
According to a recent Forest Service study of lifecycle analysis, it was determined that using wood yielded lower air emissions, including greenhouse gases, than the processes of using other traditional building materials.
In conjunction with the USDA’s three-part strategy, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has asked for an “increased use of locally milled timber in all new agency buildings and facilities,” while Vilsack has directed other USDA agencies to “incorporate the Forest Service policy of using domestic sustainable wood products as the preferred green building material for all USDA facilities and buildings.”
“This recognition is a testament to what we’ve long known to be true – that American hardwoods are truly the most sustainable building product available,” said Nancy Arend, vice president of Northwest Hardwoods and representative of the American Hardwood Information Center. “Coinciding with our initiative to promote American hardwoods as the building material of choice, we’re looking forward to seeing the efforts of both the American Hardwood Information Center and the USDA come to fruition.”
Let’s hope they stand by their word to sustain these precious resources. A ban on clear-cutting would help. Write your congress-person and request a ban on all clear-cutting, in lieu of sustainable forest management.
And let’s try to avoid what is happening to South American rainforests, which are disappearing.
Our forests are important to our health. Forest walking helps reduce anxiety and heart disease.