USDA Says Wood a Key Material in Green Building

October 7, 2011

A new U.S. Forest Service study indicated that wood should factor as a primary building material in green building, according to a recent announcement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. A review of the science suggests that using wood in building products yields fewer greenhouse gases than using other common materials, according to researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This study confirms what many environmental scientists have been saying for years," Vilsack notes. "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 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, it was noted. 

The study also points out that 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," says 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 Tom Tidwell, Forest Service "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.