The rise of wood building helps sustainable forestry

2014-04-18 Ashley Bach

One of the best things about all the recognition that wood building has received in recent months is that decision-makers are beginning to realize the value of sustainable forestry.

Yale University and University of Washington just released a study showing that "using more wood and less steel and concrete in building and bridge construction would substantially reduce global carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel consumption."

To highlight the benefit of wood constuction is to also recognize the ability of sustainable forestry to improve the environment and make forests healthier. Here's Chad Oliver, the Yale researcher who helped write the new study on wood building:

(Chad Oliver, director of the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies) said that forest regrowth far outpaces the needs of the timber industry. Harvesting wood for products offsets about 20 percent of annual forest growth, he said. Far more forest is lost to agricultural development -- so much so that deforestation accounts for about a quarter of the world's net carbon surplus.

"Harvesting more wood could actually strengthen the argument for biodiversity," he said. "We need to appreciate the resource and protect it." Sustainable forest management practices that targeted younger, smaller trees could even contribute to forest health, he said, as many U.S. forests are currently overgrown.

The analysis found that between 14 and 31 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided by increasing the use of wood in buildings and infrastructure, both by sequestering carbon and offsetting the production of other materials.

Julia Altemus, the executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association, wrote this week about her experience at a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture workshop in Washington, D.C., about wood building. She says the U.S. government's support for wood building could also be a boost to rural communities.

Increasing the demand for domestic sustainably harvested timber products will directly impact rural America. Presently, the market for wood and other related forest products supports over one million jobs, mostly in rural areas. In addition, the 22 million family forest owners (who actually own more timberland than the federal government) also rely on new economic opportunities as markets expand.

Even though the momentum around building tall with wood is exciting, what is even more encouraging is the recognition by our state and national leaders that forest health is directly tied to a sustainable forest products industry. To decouple is to lose both.

Michael Green, a Vancouver. B.C. architect who's been a key advocate for large wood buildings in North America, says a seachange could be afoot.

"The adoption of concrete and steel revolutionized every city on Earth, but for a hundred years there's been no real alternative," said Michael Green, an architect and author who designs and advocates for tall wood infrastructure. "Now we've got one that's grown by the sun, sequesters carbon and holds up just as well. That generated an overwhelming amount of curiosity about what we can do with wood."

Green was integral in the recent completion of one of the world's tallest modern wood buildings, according to the Economist.

March 22nd saw the topping-out ceremony of the tallest contemporary wood building in the world, and the first that might be considered a true skyscraper, the 30m Wood Innovation and Design Centre (pictured) in Prince George, British Columbia. Its designer, Michael Green, says, “Frankly, we aren’t breaking a sweat. It’s only public perception and emotion trumping science that stalls us moving higher.” He hopes to start work on a 20-storey vertical food-farm in Vancouver later this year.

The first step in the U.S. will likely be large buildings with materials both old (steel and concrete) and new (wood), industry leaders say.  

But even given new technologies, can wood really replace steel to hold up structures weighing thousands or even hundreds of thousands of tons? Rather than build solely out of wood, the idea right now is to expand the role of wood in mixed-material buildings, said Jim Bowyer, director of the Responsible Materials Program at Dovetail Partners Inc.

"You can imagine a building whose foundations are concrete and steel, with six, seven or 10 stories of wood above that," he said. The foundations for such a building wouldn't need to be so massive, either, because wood weighs less than other materials, he added.