Commentary: Green Building Blues

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 09.01.2008


Is Wood Getting A Raw Deal?


For the past few years the North American forest products industry has correctly complained that current green building guidelines encourage aspirants to inappropriately substitute less environmentally friendly materials for wood due to the fact that only Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood qualifies for a green credit while FSC certified wood is statistically unavailable in most regions. While this discussion has devolved into a debate about the relative qualifications between forest certification systems, the debate should really be about use of wood versus everything else. In other words, it should be a debate about green building materials and not about different shades of “green” wood.


The USGBC's current proposal to take the next step in evaluating and benchmarking forest certification systems only exacerbates this problem as it opens a Pandora's box of detailed forestry issues that people have fought over for twenty years, many of which have no “right” answer. USGBC's attempt to specifically benchmark forest certification systems based on relatively detailed forestry and forest management issues is particularly inappropriate and ill-advised given the fact that they have yet to define what is a good choice for any other raw material.


Let's face it: there is no such thing as a truly green material, as the production and consumption of virtually everything has some negative environmental consequences. Materials are green only in relationship to each other! Thus a material is really not “green,” but rather the “greener” or “greenest” of the options available. It would seem that a key role of green building guidelines would be to help sort through this miasma and stimulate the development of systems that define these differences clearly so people can make honest and well-informed choices. Today, LEED and other programs make it simple to choose almost any product except wood – despite the fact that there is little evidence that there is any better material choice than wood, and an abundance of evidence that supports wood as an environmentally preferable material for a broad array of applications.


Consider, for instance, the reward of a point within LEED for use of rapidly renewable materials. What makes rapidly renewable environmentally friendly? And in comparison to what? Agriculture (the basis and/or end result of most rapidly renewable materials) is the largest cause of deforestation globally, by some measures accounting for as much 75% of forest loss. Yet rapidly renewable is rated, without any science to support the rating, as comparable to FSC certified wood, and environmentally better than most other materials. The ONLY way this preference could be potentially acceptable is if the rapidly renewable materials were verified through systematic assessment to be environmentally better and then also certified as sustainable on a source-by-source basis. Today that is possible if the materials are certified organic or come from certified forests! So I would suggest that, to even have a semblance of parity with the requirements of wood, certification of rapidly renewable should be an immediate requirement.


The question of certification of all materials is a critical one for green building programs. Is a recycled product always good just because materials are being reused? How about if the recycling process uses large quantities of energy, water, and results in toxic waste (e.g. recycled ship parts in East Asia)? Selecting green materials is a process of comparing options and contrasting impacts. Single attribute criteria such as rapidly renewable and recycled ignore the evaluation steps and diminish the opportunity for material selection to be an engaging and empowering learning process.


To return to the current USGBC proposal of forest certification benchmarks, isn't this a case of recreating the wheel? By creating detailed benchmarks related to governance, standards, and chain-of-custody is not USGBC in effect telling certification systems very specifically how to do their jobs? This would suggest that, in the future, green building systems will need to know and evaluate advances in forest technology before forest systems do. It is also possible that now or at some point in the future NO system will meet the suggested level of detail in the benchmarks. Our brief analysis here at Dovetail of the proposed benchmarks suggests that there are sections that, if enforced to the letter, would eliminate all existing forest certification systems from qualification.


So, on the one hand we have a green building system that has requirements for one material that are so restrictive that potentially no product meets those demands, while on the other hand the rest of the materials face almost no restrictions at all. Steel producers, for instance, face no requirements for demonstrating environmentally sound management despite the fact that increasing volumes of their product come to the U.S. from environmentally sensitive regions such as the Carajas region of Brazil where large tracts of subtropical forests are harvested annually to provide charcoal for fueling blast furnaces in pig iron production. It seems as if clearer demands of other materials should be a higher priority than detailing forest management practices! Besides, there really is a much simpler solution.


I would suggest that the USGBC adopt guidelines similar to the FSC controlled wood program to qualify for at least one point. That is, if it's good enough for FSC it ought to be good enough for USGBC. Under these guidelines wood that can be verified to be sourced from North American forests (e.g. grade stamped), is legally harvested, is not part of forest conversion, is not from forests clearly identified as high conservation value, is non-GMO, and is not harvested in violation of civil rights - qualifies for one point. In addition, wood that has been through a valid forest management certification program and chain of custody tracking system gets another point. We must remember that the fundamental purpose of forest certification systems was to decrease deforestation rates, particularly in tropical regions by using the marketplace to create incentives for good forest practices. Quibbling over the relative merits of good systems distracts from that overall goal. Changes in forest certification then need to be immediately followed by attention to development of certification programs for the full range of construction materials – steel, aluminum, cementitious materials, plastics, and the like.


I am a huge advocate of USGBC and I greatly admire the way they have approached most things in becoming a leader in the green building movement. However, I also believe it is a HUGE mistake to stray into the level of detail that dictates specific forestry practices in order to give one lousy point for wood products used in a project, when environmental impacts of other materials are basically ignored. The primary role of green building programs (in my opinion) is to help sort through relative options in the hunt for best environmental practices. This process of detailed evaluation of wood certification systems continues the negative practice of effectively chastising the A student for a typo while the rest of the class is flunking out.


Dr. Jeff Howe

September 2008