Wood Promoted as Green Building Material
A new strategy from the USDA to promote the use of wood as a green building material will ensure that the sustainability of wood will be recognized in the ever-growing green building industry.
By DeAnna Stephens Baker
Date Posted: 5/1/2011
After years of being silent on the benefits of wood products as a sustainable resource, it seems a few federal agencies are taking a lesson from Congress and turning over a new leaf when it comes to the sustainability issue. Not only did the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently recognize wood as a green material that compares favorably with other building materials, it also announced a strategy to promote the use of wood as a green building material.
“Wood has a vital role to play in meeting the growing demand for green building materials,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Forest Service studies show that wood compares favorably to competing materials. In keeping with the Obama Administration’s America’s Great Outdoors conservation agenda, USDA has made a strong commitment to conserving and restoring our forests to protect watersheds, recreation, and rural jobs.”
This recognition is the latest in a series of vital steps toward wood being utilized as the highly sustainable building material that it is. Previously, the sustainability of wood was recognized by resolutions passed in both the U.S. House and Senate, in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Those resolutions specifically acknowledged that the American hardwood industry sustainably manages an environmentally preferable natural resource and that hardwoods should not be discriminated against in government procurement programs. The USDA is taking this a step further with its decision to preferentially select wood for new construction.
“This has been a hard-fought victory that is well-deserved, and has been a long time coming,” said Jamey French, former Hardwood Federation Chairman, who led the fight for the industry on this issue. “With the Administration and Congress in sync on wood as a green building material, we think we are in a strong position to grow our share of the green building market.”
The USDA’s strategy includes the following:
• The U.S. Forest Service will preferentially select wood in new building construction while maintaining its commitment to certified green building standards.
• The USDA will also use wood and other agricultural products as it fulfills President Obama’s executive order on Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance, which sets sustainability goals for Federal agencies, including the implementation of a 2030 net-zero-energy building requirement.
• The Forest Service will examine ways to increase its commitment to green building and enhance the research and development being done around green building materials.
• The Forest Service will actively look for opportunities to demonstrate the innovative use of wood as a green building material for all new structures of 10,000 square feet or more using recognized green building standards such as LEED, Green Globes or the National Green Building Standard.
As part of this initiative, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell recently issued a directive calling for increased use of locally milled timber in all new agency buildings and facilities. In addition, Secretary Vilsack directed the heads of all other USDA agencies to incorporate the Forest Service policy of using domestic sustainable wood products as the preferred green building material for all USDA facilities and buildings.
“Our country has the resources, the work force and the innovative spirit to reintroduce wood products into all aspects of the next generation of buildings,” said Chief Tidwell. “As we move forward with restoring America’s forests, we are getting smarter and more efficient in how we use wood products as both an energy and green building source, which will help maintain rural jobs.”
Another high profile effort for recognition of wood as a green building material is being led by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), as it petitions the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to open its LEED green building certification system to SFI certified wood products, as well as other independent standards, such as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). Currently LEED only gives credit for wood and paper products certified to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standard.
SFI lost the last round in its efforts when the proposed Forest Certification Benchmark, which would have provided a guidance path for any wood certification program that wanted to be recognized in LEED, did not pass the USGBC member ballot in December 2010. This means that LEED will retain the status quo of the existing Certified Wood credits in LEED, said Scot Horst, Senior Vice President for LEED at USGBC. He also said that although there will be many who are not satisfied with this decision, but it was the decision the membership reached using a clearly outlined consensus process. However, all hope for SFI is not yet lost. The public comment process for the next development cycle of LEED is now underway, which is where any future discussion of the issue will take place, according to Horst.
One of the major arguments against the FSC-only stance of the LEED program is the small percentage of FSC certified forests in North America. With roughly three quarters of North American certified forests certified to SFI, ATFS or CSA and about one quarter FSC certified, LEED’s FSC-only recognition means building professionals seeking LEED certification may have to purchase wood products from overseas, instead of domestically. For this reason, the USDA’s strategy is particularly good news for sustainably harvested domestic timber that is not FSC certified by placing it back on a more level playing field alongside LEED approved products. Having all USDA agencies using domestic sustainable wood products as the preferred green building material for new facilities and buildings could also assist SFI’s efforts for LEED recognition.
Unfortunately, an another front, the validity of SFI certification has been questioned by some who have accused the eco-label of “green washing,” claiming that the certification permits practices that are harmful to the environment. The controversy has resulted in some large companies choosing to phase out the use of SFI certified products, including Office Depot and Allstate. ForestEthics, an environmental organization started a campaign against SFI, claiming that ties to the timber and paper industries dominate SFI’s management and that trusting SFI to certify responsible forestry is akin to trusting a fox with the safety of the henhouse.
The conservation chamber of SFI’s Board of Directors, which includes officials from several conservation organizations, recently responded to the ForestEthics campaign with an open letter to the media. In it they said that it is precisely the power of SFI to sustain fish and wildlife, biodiversity, water quality and ecosystem functions in 180 million acres of forest throughout North America that motivates them to serve on SFI’s board.
“Groups that spread misinformation about SFI could well be harming the forest environment,” the letter said. “SFI provides a tremendous amount of on-the-ground conservation value – a value North Americans care deeply about. We believe SFI and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) are both excellent mechanisms that improve the environmental (and social and economic) values provided by forests. There is room and need for both programs.”
Despite the controversy over the different certification labels, there is no doubt that green building is on the rise and that wood plays an important role in any sustainable building project.
Ongoing research into green building design continues to make wood’s place in sustainable building even more visible to building professionals. Due to the almost endless recycling possibilities and net-zero carbon properties of wood, multiple wood components are always included in any green home design. A recent example of this is a contest where the APA–The Engineered Wood Association challenged Florida home designers to design a home with the lowest carbon footprint. The winning design featured a raised wood floor with a closed conditioned crawl space and advanced framing, including 2×6 wood framing with wall studs and pre-engineered wood roof trusses and I-joists.
The significance of the federal government’s recognition and promotion of wood’s sustainable properties cannot be overemphasized. With last month’s announcement from the USGBC that over 10,000 homes across the U.S. have earned certification through the LEED for Homes program, it is obvious that green building practices are here to stay. And though it has taken years of effort by those in the industry, the truth about the sustainability of domestic wood is finally being recognized by those who have the ability to implement the widespread use of it in future building plans.
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