Forest Service research shows that timber stacks up well against other building materials
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service is touting the benefits of wood as a green building material, in part to encourage the use of beetle-killed timber from the Rocky Mountain region.
A recent study found that, “harvesting, transporting, manufacturing, and using wood in lumber and panel products in building yields fewer air emissions–including greenhouse gases — than the resource extraction, manufacture, and use of other common building materials.”
Specifically, the report concludes that over a span of 100 years, greenhouse gas emissions from wood-based houses are 20 percent to 50 percent lower than emissions associated with thermally comparable houses using steel or concrete-based building systems.
“This study confirms what many environmental scientists have been saying for years,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Wood should be a major component of American building and energy design. The use of wood provides substantial environmental benefits, provides incentives for private landowners to maintain forest land, and provides a critical source of jobs in rural America.”
The study found that wood-based wall systems can require significantly less total energy for manufacturing than thermally comparable houses using other materials. However, those advantage aren’t always recognized because some building codes and standards related to green building do not consider a life cycle environmental analysis that would reveal the environmental advantages of using wood.
“The argument that somehow non-wood construction materials are ultimately better for carbon emissions than wood products is not supported by our research,” said Forest Service climate change Advisor David Cleave. “Trees removed in an environmentally responsible way allow forests to continue to sequester carbon through new forest growth. Wood products continue to benefit the environment by storing carbon long after the building has been constructed,” he said.
“In the Rockies alone, we have hundreds of thousands of dead trees killed by bark beetles that could find their way into the building supply chain for all types of buildings,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Taking a harder look at wood as a green building source could reduce the damages posed by future fires, maintain overall forest health and provide much-needed jobs in local communities.”
The U.S. Forest Service report identifies several areas where peer-reviewed science can contribute to sustainable green building design and decisions. These recommendations address the following needs for use of wood as a green building material:
• Information on environmental impacts across the lifecycle of wood and alternative construction materials needs to be updated and revised;
• Green buildings codes and standards should include adequate provisions to recognize the benefit of a lifecycle environmental analysis to guide selection of building materials; and
• A lack of educational, technology transfer, and demonstration projects hinder the acceptance of wood as a green building material.
Research recently initiated by the wood products industry in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory will enable greater use and valuation of smaller diameter trees and insect and disease-killed trees. Research on new products and technologies has been initiated including improved cross-lamination techniques and the increased use of nanotechnology.
These developments are especially important amidst a changing climate because forest managers will need to increasingly thin densely forested areas in the coming years to reduce the impacts from longer and more severe wildfire seasons. Continued research of wood-based products and technologies will contribute to more environmentally responsible building materials and increased energy efficiency.