USDA Secretary Urges Wood Construction

Originally published by: Construction AdvisorOctober 21, 2011

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has urged U.S. builders to prioritize wood in green buildings. He made the recommendation after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service concluded in a new report that using wood in building products yields fewer greenhouse gases than using common materials. The report and certain statements made in the wake of its release have not eluded criticism, as evidenced during an interview that Green Building Insider (GBI) conducted earlier this week with the American Institute of Steel Construction’s (AISC) president.

Vilsack said that the report, entitled “Science Supporting the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Using Wood and Wood Products in Green Building Construction,” confirms what many environmental scientists have been saying for years. “Wood should be a major component of American building and energy design. The use of wood provides substantial environmental benefits, incentives for private landowners to maintain forest land, and a critical source of jobs in rural America.”

The report argues that greater use of life-cycle analysis (LCA) 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 LCA and the development of new technologies for improved and extended wood use are needed to continue the advance of 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, climate-change advisor for the Forest Service. “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.”

USDA stressed that 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,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said. “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 report suggests several areas where peer-reviewed science can contribute to sustainable green building design and decisions. These recommendations address the following perceived needs for use of wood as a green building material:

Information on environmental impacts across the life cycle of wood and alternative construction materials needs to be updated and revised.

Green-building codes and standards should include adequate provisions to recognize the benefit of a life-cycle environmental analysis to guide selection of building materials.

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 Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory, will enable greater use and valuation of smaller-diameter trees and insect- and disease-killed trees, USDA predicted. “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 amid 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 National Association of State Foresters (NASF) applauded the report’s conclusions. “There is a well-established scientific understanding that wood products use less energy and provide greater environmental benefits than alternative building materials. The report’s recommendations calling for the development and use of life-cycle analysis in building codes alongside technology-transfer activities targeted at engineers, architects, and other building professionals will help promote wood as a green building material but are not all that is needed. Sustainable markets provide landowners with more options for addressing regeneration and forest health needs. By embracing the findings of this report and favoring wood, green building markets can significantly advance sustainability goals that extend well beyond the forest.”

Added NASF Executive Director Jay Farrell: “Trees are our greatest renewable resource and economic asset. Both the Forest Service and the green building industry can contribute to the nation’s economic challenges by increasing wood utilization. This can be done in a manner that produces net environmental benefits. If green buildings are the goal, wood is the answer.”

NASF stated that the Forest Service report is consistent with many of the statements found in the organization’s 2008 resolution on green building, which “recognized the value of wood from certified, sustainably managed U.S. forests as a green building material.”

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