Commentary: Is Green the Big Threat to Wood?

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 03.22.2010

 


What about the other camel in the tent?

 

Today there is a renewed effort to promote the benefits of wood as a green product. There are quite literally millions of dollars being spent to ensure wood use is viewed appropriately in green building programs and in the eyes of consumers in general. These activities are generally well intentioned and justified – wood is a green material. But the real question is: Are green building activities and the “suggested” trend of substituting other products for wood THE big issue?

 

The answer probably is that green substitution is AN issue, and perhaps an important environmental issue. However, wood products manufacturers must be careful that they don’t let this focus on promoting the green benefits of wood distract from the reality that increasingly wood is being replaced by products that are perceived to perform better. Three common uses of wood: siding, decking, and preservative treated framing, are examples of the bigger challenges facing wood.

 

Perhaps the simplest example of the threat I am talking about involves my own purchase of preservative or “green” treated lumber. A few years ago, I purchased preservative treated framing lumber to build the structural underpinnings of a deck. I predominantly bought 2x10 and 2x8 southern yellow pine. What I found was the thickness varied from 1-3/8 inches to 1-7/8 inches; the width on the 2x8s varied from 7 inches to 7-3/4 inches; and the ends were occasionally not even cut square. The 2x10s had similar issues. Much of this was due to sawing issues rather than shrinking and swelling, as the variations occurred within a piece as often as between pieces. Some of the problems were also likely due to re-saw issues. Given that the pieces were really heavy, hard to cut, and that the sawdust is toxic - it was a real challenge to make the floor joists come out even. In 21st century North America it is pretty amazing that you could actually get quality that poor without actually trying. Annoyed you ask? Disgusted in reality. It is embarrassing to be part of an industry that can perform that poorly. And, unfortunately, this affects my perspective of wood use in general – even though this is a specific problem with a specific species group as a result of a specific process at a specific mill. And in asking around, my experience is not unique. People would love a better alternative WHEN one comes available.

 

Now as I researched deck boards for this deck I tried to be true blue to my industry and purchased 5/4 x 6 Cedar deck boards. These installed fairly easily – until it came to the finishing part, which turned out to be a major headache. The challenge came in trying to get the finish applied evenly across the whole deck. It was very easy to develop ugly streaks even when I felt I was being extremely careful. Unfortunately, a friend of mine doing a similar project chose a plastic composite, installed it in less time (as all the pieces were long length) and didn’t have to finish it. And the next summer – in spite of all my efforts – his looked a lot better than mine, is easier to clean, and (I think) was a bit cheaper. It is easy to see why most customers of lumberyards have switched to plastic composite deck boards for nearly all decks. Some lumber yards rarely sell wood for decking use any more.

 

Finally, consider siding. Increasingly that share of the market that is not steel and not vinyl, is taken by cement-fiber composites such as Hardi-Plank. They perform extremely well as a siding, are increasingly easy to install now that there are low cost, specialized cutting and installation tools available, and you can even get them pre-finished. Similar to the issue with decking, many lumber yards in the Midwest no longer even carry wood siding, as the demand for the composite materials has become so much greater.

 

Composites are the veritable camel’s nose in the tent of wood products. Whether it is windows, doors, siding, or decking – product by product new products that perform better are replacing solid wood products whether they are green or not. And some materials, like fiber reinforced plastic composites are even viewed by consumers to be “more green” than solid wood. When it comes to selling wood products, the reality at some point comes down to basic consumer satisfaction: how easy are they to install, how do they perform, and how much do they cost. Increasingly, solid wood is coming out as the short end of the stick.

 

Dr. Jeff Howe

March 2010