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Making Wood’s Case for Sustainability

Kathryn Fernholz is passionate about forests. She’s also passionate about the building materials and the innovation that forests make possible. To her, those two passions are interchangeable and bound together by a vigilant focus on the concept of...

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Kathryn Fernholz is passionate about forests. She’s also passionate about the building materials and the innovation that forests make possible. To her, those two passions are interchangeable and bound together by a vigilant focus on the concept of sustainability that she wishes everyone involved in the use of wood materials would share.

“A lot of people love forests and love trees,” says Fernholz, who is executive director of Dovetail Partners, a Minneapolis, Mn.-based non-profit environmental think tank. “We get it in our heads that using wood is a conflict to that, and it isn’t. Using wood from sustainable sources is a way to show an appreciation of wood.”

As a building material, Fernholz says, wood has three critical attributes that make it an excellent choice for sustainable construction: it’s natural, it’s renewable, it’s beautiful.

“Those attributes provide the opportunity to meet environmental, social, and economic goals,” she says. It’s the ability to achieve those three bottom-line goals that make forest resources and the building materials they provide capable of supporting sustainable, high-performance construction environments.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all building material, and material selection is all about the requirements of a specific project. “It’s important to recognize that all materials have limitations—things they do well, and things they do not so well,” Fernholz says. “Wood is an incredibly flexible, innovative material, so often wood is the best material—but not always.”

Ensuring the sustainability characteristics of whatever building material is being considered for a given project means using tools and methods like life cycle analysis, carbon accounting, and environmental product declarations (EPDS) for building materials to thoroughly investigate environmental certifications and sustainability claims. There also are a wide range of certification program resources for wood building products in particular that help quantify the sustainability of the materials.

“Wood products are the only building materials that provide certification all the way back to the source—from the forest floor to the finished product,” Fernholz says. “That is a unique benefit of wood products.”

Still, there are objections to the use of wood as a construction material—objections that often are influenced by misperceptions about exactly what “renewable” and “sustainable” means, and objections that Fernholz believes can be addressed with more education and simple common sense.

“Sometimes people misunderstand what it means when we say wood is a renewable material, and that is such a powerful attribute of wood,” she says. “Nobody’s out there saying that we’re going to run out of tomatoes—nobody’s saying ‘stop eating ketchup.’ If we keep using tomatoes, we’ll keep growing more—and it’s the same for wood. If we want more forests, they’re renewable, and we can choose to have more.”

To address those misperceptions and provide resources for further education about the sustainability of wood products, Fernholz encourages builders to look for labels and certification, and do extensive online research—generally speaking, to get to know potential suppliers as much as possible (see sidebar). Here again, she says, wood as a building material is unique in that it’s possible to get a close-up look at the production process.

“One of the things that’s unique to wood materials is that you can seek out forestry tours,” Fernholz says. “Every company I’ve ever worked with around the world is willing to open their doors and give tours—to see their planting practices first-hand and to tour their mills. That’s one of the fun things about forestry: You can get right out there to see the forest, see what’s happening, and see exactly where materials are coming from.”

That kind of hands-on experience should help builders exploring the sustainability aspects of wood to get direct exposure to the innovations being applied from the forest to the finished product that is increasing the versatility of wood and the different ways it can be used, she says—including steps to reduce waste in the manufacturing process, increased energy efficiency, and new material engineering methods. “Increasingly, we are seeing wood being embraced as a high-tech material,” Fernholz says.
Fernholz notes that she is seeing more information exchange and collaboration about sustainable building practices and materials across a wide range of sectors, which is increasing the opportunity to educate people on the attributes of wood materials and contributing to the expansion of a community of people who share similar values and practices. So, as a forester who loves trees as much as she loves the building products innovation, they make possible, Fernholz requests that people keep an open mind, do their research, investigate their potential suppliers thoroughly, and not be blinded by preconceived notions about sustainability.

“If you love trees, don’t use that as an excuse to not love wood,” she says. “If people who care deeply about the resource could care as deeply about the materials it makes possible, it all comes together.”