Do you know how much wood is in your home? According to the National Association of Home Builders, the amount of framing lumber in an average (2,085 ft2) home is equivalent to a 15,000-foot-long 2 by 4. That’s long enough to stretch from sea level to the height of Mt. Rainier. Add in the sheathing, trusses, doors, trim, and cabinetry, and you’ll realize the majority of your home grew from trees.
Then imagine following a 2 by 4 back beyond the lumberyard, before the sawmill, to when it was a tree. Perhaps that stick of lumber came from a tree felled in a swath of clear-cutting that left the forest’s floor vulnerable to erosion, and its streams’ fish-spawning beds full of silt. Perhaps it grew on the traditional land of a native tribe, and was logged without consent or consideration for cultural value.
Our appetite for wood has effects beyond felled woodlands—forests from the tropics to the far latitudes transform the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen (through photosynthesis), and they are rapidly disappearing. “We’ve lost well over 80 percent, globally, of the earth’s original forest,” says Brant Olson, old-growth campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network. “The 20 percent that remains is largely in fragmented habitats.” Only five percent of the United States’ original old-growth forests remain intact, says Olson.
When building your home, you could avoid these issues by selectively harvesting the wood yourself from your property, but for most, that’s not an option. There are alternatives to wood, like steel or composite materials, but these options carry different environmental costs. Lumber is a renewable resource—as long as the forest is managed correctly.
Several groups provide third-party certification for wood products, and rigorous standards have been established to ensure that their timber is grown equitably and sustainably, protecting forests and consumers.
The nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the global accreditation organization for green forest certification, and it’s supported by major environmental organizations worldwide. Forest managers voluntarily meet the FSC’s standards and agree to a five-year contract. An FSC representative audits the certified forest at least once a year, to be sure the agreement is being upheld.
There are three main areas of concern for certification; the first being ecological impact. The manager of a certified forest must create management plans following FSC standards for controlling erosion, minimizing forest damage during harvesting and road construction, and protecting the forest’s water quality. The FSC prohibits use of pesticides that may accumulate in the food chain, and requires forest managers to promote non-chemical methods of pest management. Genetically modified organisms of any kind are not allowed, and exotic species are only permitted if they are carefully controlled and actively monitored.
The FSC requires sustainable harvesting practices. Rather than clear-cutting across entire swaths of land, forest managers generally use “selective harvesting,” which removes some trees but leaves some older specimens for reseeding. Whereas industrial clear-cutting inhibits biodiversity and leaves forest soil prone to erosion and flooding, selective harvesting leaves the forest looking and functioning like a forest should.
FSC certification also includes standards to protect indigenous rights. If a group has legal or customary rights to the land, their control must be respected. If there are substantial disputes about ownership of the land, the FSC will not certify its wood. Any sites within the forest that are of special cultural significance must be recognized and protected by forest managers.
Finally, FSC certification requires that forest management activities enhance the economic well-being of forest workers and local communities. Managers are required to meet or exceed laws regarding the health and safety of workers, and the workers must be allowed to organize and voluntarily negotiate with employers. The FSC emphasizes that forests must be economically sustainable as well as ecologically sustainable over the long term, so managers are discouraged from depending on a single forest product or from overharvesting at the expense of future yields.
FSC-certified wood is stamped with their green logo, and is available for purchase at many big-box home improvement stores and local lumberyards alike. Thanks to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which sets standardized goals for green architecture, builders frequently request certified products, which has helped increase availability nationwide.
As with all labels, you’ll need to read the fine print to glean the details of the wood’s origin, especially when choosing composite products. Woods from 100 percent FSC-certified sources will be marked “100 percent from well-managed forests.” If a product is not entirely from well-managed forests, its label will identify it as containing wood from controlled sources, which meet a less stringent set of standards, but “exclude illegally harvested lumber, forests where conservation values are threatened, genetically modified organisms, violation of people’s civil and traditional rights, and wood from forests harvested for the purpose of converting the land to plantations or other nonforest use.”
Anyone who’s sorted through a stack of 2 by 4s knows that dimensional lumber can be knotty and not always straight, with some pieces being downright unusable. Engineered products are more precise, and manufactured by binding wood fibers, particles, or veneers with adhesives. They are “forest friendly” because they use wood from relatively small trees or from low-grade species such as aspen or soft maple, reducing demand for harvesting larger trees from mature forests.
The most familiar composite woods are sheet products such as particleboard, plywood, and oriented strand board (OSB). Engineered replacements for dimensional lumber are also available. Laminated veneer lumber (LVL), composed of multiple layers of thin veneers bonded together, is often used for beams or headers. I-joists, which are composed of two flanges supported by composite webbing, make for straight, reliable floor joists and rafters.
But engineered products may contain wood from poorly managed forests. Clear-cutting a stand of aspens for particleboard is just as harmful as felling a swath of white pine—perhaps even more so, because aspen forests would naturally transform into more diverse ecosystems with higher-value trees. As with dimensional lumber, you can buy engineered products that are FSC-certified, with the percentage of certified content stamped onto the product.
Certification is just one piece of the sustainability puzzle. Although these products are grown in more sustainably managed forests, they may also travel to your door from the other side of the country or even from across the ocean, increasing embodied energy—the amount of energy used to grow, harvest, mill, and then ship the product to you. If embodied energy is a concern, you might choose to buy from a local sawmill—but unless the wood comes from an FSC-certified forest, you can’t be sure of the circumstances surrounding its origin.
Engineered wood products carry additional embodied energy. Besides the energy used to grow, harvest, and ship the timber, these products require heat and more machining in their manufacture.
While engineered and certified woods both take pressure off the world’s forests, and locally milled lumber has low embodied energy, a truly sustainable forest product would combine the best of all worlds.
The optimal way to make sure sustainable lumber is available is to create a demand for it by using your money to vote for sustainable choices. As more consumers decide to make sustainability a priority, the closer we’ll get to the goal of a world of truly good wood.
Erin Moore Bean
Forest Stewardship Council U.S. • 202-342-0413 • www.fscus.org
Rainforest Action Network • 415-398-4404 • www.ran.org
Advanced framing techniques • www.eere.energy.gov/consumer/your_home/designing_remodeling/index.cfm/my...