Selectwood Perspectives

What Building Materials Are Green

Does Certification Help Wood as a Green Building Material?

As consumers continue to develop an environmental conscience, buzzwords like "recyclable," "sustainable" and "green" will continue to spread into all sectors of society. 

The building industry continues to formulate its own plan of attack to address the needs of concerned consumers.  But in the process of conforming to the environmental movement, a viable candidate for sustainable building has been forgotten and is often dismissed.

Wood is still a green answer.

As composite materials inundate the market, builders and architects are constantly introduced to products guaranteed to endure for longer and longer periods of time with less and less maintenance.  Though composites are deemed environmentally sound in their longevity and minimal upkeep, durability does not automatically mean a composite material is green if a better alternative exists.

Though durability may not be its strongest suit, especially in outdoor settings particularly susceptible to weathering, moisture and temperature, wood is still a viable option.  Indoor locations or areas of a building protected from the elements are practical locations for wood, places where it has the capability to last indefinitely. In our haste to use more composite materials we should never forget that wood is a very green building material.   

Further hampering the acceptance of wood as a practical green building material is the issue of certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). 

USGBC’s LEED program ratings system grants builders and architects an opportunity to measurably gauge sustainable materials are in a building.  Currently, only FSC-certified wood, wood that is guaranteed to be a product of commendable forestry practices, is acceptable to gain credits within the LEED program. Though FSC-certified wood is currently the industry’s gold standard, other organizations, including the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are looking for inclusion into the LEED program.

As USGBC continues to consider the possibility of including organizations as other valid wood certifiers within the LEED system and navigates the controversy that has erupted in the wake of the debate, FSC still holds a monopoly within the LEED rating system.

FSC’s rigorous criteria for certification can be an arduous task.  Further, FSC-certified wood has considerably driven up the market price of those certified wood products. 

Oftentimes, when FSC-certified wood is scarce or prices too high, builders and architects may consider moving away from wood products, seeking to complete a project with less wood products. 

Beyond the debate over competing organizations’ certification standards, there is a well intentioned dialogue that targets the manner in which wood is harvested, an act that has developed a reputation and has branded wood with a stigma based entirely on visual perception.

The word “deforestation” conjures images of barren wastelands, stripped land spotted with stumps, mass production of paper, toothpicks and lumber. “Saving a tree” sounds good but often isn’t backed up by good science.  

Moving beyond this stark, desolate image, a careful analysis of deforestation, its causes and the implications of different uses of deforested land, reveals that there is more than meets the eye.  In the green, sustainable world of 2009, the image of deforestation is oversimplified.

In reality, the act of harvesting wood for functional use typically focuses on reforestation, and is not the primary cause of deforestation or the most invasive form of logging.

Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicates the clearing of land for the purpose of agricultural and urban development causes 95 percent of deforestation.  In addition to the vast number of trees logged, deforestation for the purpose of farming and creating towns and cities transforms the way in which the land is used, permanently altering a habitat.

Ironically, land cleared to cultivate plants used as a wood replacement, such as hemp, drastically transforms a landscape, making the land uninhabitable for species that had previously thrived in the wooded area.

When wood is logged exclusively for the raw product, it is no different than a disturbance caused by a fire, volcanic eruption or other natural phenomena.  The “wreckage” left in the wake of logging is completely organic and, in time, trees will regenerate.  The same cannot be said for the debris left by urban sprawl and the intrusive act of stripping wooded land for agricultural purposes. 

Unable to move past the visual image of a tree-free landscape, many forget that those with a vested interest in forestry aim to reforest the land with trees in order to sustain the industry.  When logged responsibly, and new trees replanted in place of those harvested, forestry and reforestation fosters a tree population diverse in age, capable of sustaining a diversity of species.

Furthermore, evidence indicates that responsible forestry can actually help combat global warming.  Trees help to neutralize carbon emissions.  Additionally, the energy utilized during timber harvesting necessitates less energy and emits less greenhouse gases than the production of alternative building materials.

Particular focus has also been paid to logging and deforestation in the tropics.  Percentage-wise, only 19 percent of the wood harvested from tropical locations enters international trade.  The rest is utilized locally often to create charcoal.  Of the timber that is transported to international destinations, only 0.5 percent is certified.

One would presume that a larger percentage of wood logged in the tropics and exported internationally is done so in a responsible manner.  Time and resource constraints and the financial motives of for-profit certification companies limit the wood that receives the “official” stamp of approval.

A thorough examination of the green trend and its impact on the building industry, the compounding effects of the abundance of durable composites, the certification debate and misconceptions about deforestation have relegated wood to the periphery.

Used properly, wood that is harvested responsibly, whether certified or not, is a viable and durable material that coincides with environmentally sound initiatives.  Wood is still the green answer.