American Pole and Timber offers a $500 scholarship to two students each semester. The topic for submissions changes each semester and information for the Fall 2015 scholarship can be found on the APT website and by clicking here. Deadline for submissions is November 1, 2015 with the winners being announced November 30, 2015.
Congratulations to Amos Pudsey, American University, for winning one of two $500 scholarships from American Pole and Timber. We asked the question, “In what ways can the increased use of wood and wood-derived building materials in construction make the most positive impacts on the environment in next 35 years (by 2050)?” The following is Amos’s winning submission.
The increased use of wood and wood-derived products can indeed make a positive impact on the environment. The question asks “in what ways” can this be so, and there are two broad areas of response, each of which falls under the heading of policy. It is admitted that other methods of examination exist to answer the question. Policy tends to the author’s strengths and is, therefore, the approach chosen here.
One area of policy argument is as seen from a macroeconomic level. The second area of concern is more practical and micro-economically driven and concerns expanding the market for wood products in an environmentally conscious manner.
As the first area is the most obvious, I will dispense with it for that reason before proceeding to what I believe is more useful inquiry. Wood products have trees as their source, an inherently renewable resource in both their growth (regenerating, tending and harvesting; silviculture) and their recyclable ability. In the silviculture phase, this means that planned cutting can be replaced by new plantings, or the land can be repurposed for, example, agriculture. There is necessarily an element of stewardship involved so as not to destroy the availability of the resource for future generations.
An even-aged, planned forested area provides for an opportunity to maximize the viability of outplanted seedlings in a given area creating the greatest number of new trees, and thus more raw material, per square area than that for which nature would provide, free as such planned growth would be from competition of other growth.
It is true that new growth requires the investment of patient years. Forest stewardship demands tending so that overtopping, competitive growth is removed to allow for growth of greater number of trees of the same age. Time is also required before the diameter of the new growth is sufficient to support further cutting. Such tending is precisely the point. Participants in the market whose business seek long term sustainability will contribute to and profit from the long term view of investment which equates to environmental sustainability.
It is also true that in the time between planting and harvest of a new area, other existing forestry areas will demand consumption. The greatest concern in the public mind is of clear cutting of old growth forests and business must seek ways to minimize such impacts or to localize them where the cutting of old growth forest serves a greater public need, in the same way that the destruction of forests by fire promotes re-growth, diversity and often frees an inefficient forest (such as one where the density of growth strangles new growth). Maximizing the use of planned forestry and minimizing the use of old growth forests may results in ‘board feet’ that have a thinner width than old forest cutting, but will serve to allay concerns of an increasingly strong environmental lobby which would have government impose regulation on this matter. Better, I argue, for business to provide for its own sustainability before government attempts to do so.
Finally for the policy area, increased use of wood must be considered in comparison to non- renewable resources which is displaces. For example, where wood is able to replace a plastic composite, the builder replaces a non-renewable resource (plastics having non-renewable oil as their source) with a renewable resource.
Wood ultimately becomes renewable in the second stage of its use: its ability to degrade over time or to be repurposed. Untreated wood products degrade over time, ultimately into compost, making it the ultimate environmentally friendly product. Some treated wood maybe converted to other uses, such as chipboard. This recycling, by its nature, extends the useful life of the original product. The attached diagram shows examples of repurposed wood.
This use of wood from planned forestry to repurposed products represents a stewardship of the land argument which supports environmental sustainability. I suggested in my opening paragraph two different perspectives, a policy based argument which I have outlined above, and a second, business-oriented argument for the increased use of wood. I turn now to that second argument.
An increased use of wood requires an increased demand for wood. An increased demand can be the result of one of, or a combination of, four events depending on the reader’s focus. These are:
- From a national perspective: a rising economic market which raises all demands for all products (i.e. increased housing starts);
- From a domestic industry perspective: an increase in domestic wood demand as a result of a pending renegotiation of the softwood lumber agreement with Canada;
- From a single producer’s perspective: an increase in demand for a particular business, related to the closure of a competing wood producer or the obtaining of additional contracts,
- From a wood industry perspective: increased market share resulting from the use of wood products in place of non-wood
I propose that the last issue raised is most consistent with the question, and I focus my energy to the topic of replacing non-wood products with wood products as a way to increase a renewable and biodegradable product, at the expense of non-renewable products.
There are a number of suitable wood substitutions available in home construction, such as sub- floor, roof sheathing and drywall. I will focus on drywall for reasons to be explained in my conclusion.
Drywall represents the area covering spaces between the studs that forms what a consumer recognizes as a wall is comprised of gypsum. Gypsum is available in a fire-rated type (Type X) and a non-fire-rated type. Type X is required by building codes only in limited areas, such as the separation between house and garage and near a boiler.
If the wood industry began to replace non-Type X gypsum with wood, it could increase the use of wood in a housing construction dramatically, as most walls would be suitable for such replacement. The major arguments for not doing so are cost: gypsum is considerably less expensive, which was the reason for its invention.
In this century, however, there is a profound increase in respect for environmental concerns. Gypsum is ultimately a mined mineral and therefore a non-renewable resource. A builder who was able to sell a developer or home buyer the concept of wood walls in the place of drywall would increase the use of wood in a home build.
From the consumer perspective, there are reasons to prefer wood to gypsum board. Wood provides a better anchor for nails and would reduce the need to find the studs before hanging pictures. Wood provides a more pleasant feel in a room than does the paper-covered gypsum. A wood wall would increase the value of a home given its look and performance. Some wood is considered hypo-allergenic, such as cedar, and is used for such purposes.
The real sticking point for lumber producers is to create the environment where a sea change of ‘wood for walls’ popularity can occur. Before 1916, gypsum as drywall was an unknown. It took little time for builders to realize that it was a less expensive process than lathe and plaster and it has not become a standard and expected item in construction.
If the sea change that brought in gypsum could be reversed in favor of wood, a massive increase in wood use would be possible.
Assume that a massive increase would begin by a small increase rather than the unlikely scenario of overnight change. Builders can offer the option to buyers to have wood used in place of drywall. The added cost would be passed to the consumer who would be willing to pay the premium for a house for aesthetic and environmentally sensitive reasons than the default of gypsum. Even a house that replaces 10% of its gypsum use with wood creates a powerful new demand for wood. Such a 10% increase could be made by convincing a buyer to use wood walls in just one room – the master bedroom or living room, for example.
If this seems ridiculous, it may be recalled that coffee had been for decades a small priced consumable that now rivals alcoholic beverages at retail shops and part of the reason for its new positioning is a perceived environmental-friendliness that is attached to “fair trade” and nice product. Wood walls can be sold as a status symbol, an environmental choice and a practical choice.
Wood use in place of other products is not solely about using renewable sources. Houses emit 20-50% less greenhouse gas emissions when using wood in place of concrete or steel-based systems (Biomass and Bioenergy, Volume 32, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 1–10).
I selected drywall as the choice for where to begin marketing wood products for substitution. Other possible candidates included sub-flooring, roofing, trusses, and framing, but drywall substitution offers one advantage over the others: it is most visible to the end consumer and thus its “sale-ability” is greater to the visual audience. The upsell possibilities of a warm room with wood walls is immediately apparent; the argument that a wooden sub-floor is a better environmental choice is harder to make because it is not visible and people perceive value in what they can immediately experience.
It is the sellability of this proposal which is the reason for focusing on drywall rather than looking at other uses.
In conclusion, I have focused this essay on the use of wood as a renewable resource and considered how it can be used in an environmentally preferable way while also being a sellable idea from the consumer’s perspective.