Green Building with Wood: USDA Report

photo by Derek Weidensee

Forest Service Report Documents Environmental Benefits of Wood as a Green Building Material
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack urges US builders to prioritize wood in green buildings

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2011 – The findings of a new U.S. Forest Service study indicate that wood should factor as a primary building material in green building, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today.

The authors of Science Supporting the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Using Wood and Wood Products in Green Building Construction reviewed the scientific literature and found that using wood in building products yields fewer greenhouse gases than using other common materials.

“This study confirms what many environmental scientists have been saying for years,” said 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 Forest Service report also points out that greater use of life cycle analysis in building codes and standards would improve the scientific underpinning of building codes and standards and thereby benefit the environment. A combination of scientific advancement in the areas of life cycle analysis and the development of new technologies for improved and extended wood utilization are needed to continue to advance wood as a green construction material. Sustainability of forest products can be verified using any credible third-party rating system, such as Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council or American Tree Farm System certification.

“The argument that somehow non-wood construction materials are ultimately better for carbon emissions than wood products is not supported by our research,” said David Cleaves, the U.S. Forest Service Climate Change Advisor. “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.”

The use of forest products in the United States currently supports more than one million direct jobs, particularly in rural areas, and contributes more than $100 billion to the country’s gross domestic product.

“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.

The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Recreational activities on our lands contribute $14.5 billion annually to the U.S. economy. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world.

To view the full Green Building report please click here.

3 thoughts on “Green Building with Wood: USDA Report”

  1. Thanks for an interesting article. The marketing and use of damaged trees is a particularly interesting dimension that we’ve not got to grips with here in the UK. The bottom always seems to fall out of the Market when we have problems due to disease or pests killing large numbers of the same timber (lumber) species:- as in larch at the moment. It shows that some imaginative thinking, coupled with technological development, can provide a financial cushion.

  2. There ARE groups out there who litigate each and every salvage sale, on the side of the black-backed woodpecker, a bird which used to have a lot LESS habitat in the pre-European times. With at least 25 million acres dead and dying, there surely is PLENTY of habitat for the birds, now, one would think. When wildfires and bark beetle outbreaks were less devastating, these birds had to fly a lot further to find suitable feeding areas, filled with snags. In many of our forests in the western US, fuels reductions are necessary for faster recovery to a stand that might harbor endangered species. Re-burns are a distinct problem, when unsalvaged stands burn again, often at higher intensities than the original fire. Getting slash on the barren ground can go a long ways to reducing sedimentation and erosion. You would be amazed how much soils a tiny twig can hold back. Salvage projects have come a VERY long way in a short period of time. I remember when 2 or 3 snags per UNIT were considered adequate for wildlife needs. Of course, that was a ridiculous thing to think. We now will exclude entire portions of fires for “wildlife needs”, in order to be able to “thin” the snags in the rest of the burn. Multiple snag sizes are also being retained, and sometimes, it is thought that the biggest and tallest snags should be left. Really though, the most successful salvage projects are the ones that get in there quick and harvest the small diameter logs, before they go bad. There is a big “green” difference between making boards and burning logs in a cull deck. The eco-community likes to stall salvage projects, knowing that those snags have a distinct “shelf-life”.

    Ideally, salvage contracts should be in the process of being put together for the Wallow Fire, and selling in early spring. However, the Forest Service knows that there will be opposition, and they could take 2 entire years analyzing and grimacing over every proposal. The Earth Island Institute actually filed a lawsuit to stop the cutting of trees adjacent to roads in a northern California salvage project. They insist that only roads designed for regular passenger vehicles are worthy of being made safe.

  3. Gabriel-

    We are trying to do something, which is different than successfully doing it! What we all need is some technology that will use the current crop of dead trees and make the highest possible added valued product.

    We need marketing that “local wood is good” for many of the same reasons that local food is good; we need industries and technology that can quickly start where dead trees are and then move on to the next set of dead trees (like crows on a elk carcass). I think everyone supports these basic concepts but getting our technology developed and aligned with social needs is more difficult than one might think.

    For example, much of our national energy research is focused around large permanent power plants (appropriately so) and not so much around small, mobile units.


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