Deforestation & Tree Harvesting in Wood Frame Construction: What’s The Alternative?

A few hundred years ago, wood was the primary source of fuel in England, and had been for centuries before that. However, as the population boomed, the demand for wood was quickly eating up the island’s forests. Then alternative fuels like natural gas and coal were discovered, and the need for wood slackened. While it was still harvested as a building material, and burned by some people, it was not the universal material it had once been. The forests were allowed to recover and recuperate, and a kind of balance returned.

That moment in history, when the demand for wood was too much for the nation’s forests to sustain, is where many places around the globe are today. The Amazon rainforest is one example, according to Global Public Policy Watch. While these hot spots represent a strain on resources, individually, they represent global environmental problems as a whole. Since we’re harvesting wood on a global scale we have to let that resource recuperate and regenerate on the same scale.

While that might sound simple, it’s difficult to change the habits we’ve established over decades, or centuries. The construction industry, for instance, uses a colossal amount of lumber. This is particularly true in wood frame construction, which is seen as a cheap, efficient building technique. So while we might admit that we need more buildings, and that wooden frames are a traditional solution to that need, we have to consider the strain that need is putting on our resources.

Not only is this strain seen through the environmental impact of cutting down so many trees, but the lumber created from these trees also has issues itself. Sustainable companies like Patagonia have been taking notice and trying to practice better building techniques for their offices and warehouse structures. Yvon Chouinard, environmentalist and founder of Patagonia, describes the degradation of lumber in some detail in his book Let My People Go Surfing. He discusses that “clear-cutting” to create more product for a high demand market is in reality a non-sustainable agriculture technique. Although it is the most cost-effective method in harvesting, the countless replanted monocrops produce extremely poor nutrients in the soil, requiring crops to use massive amounts of fertilizers. This lowers the quality of wood and makes it more susceptible to disease. This means our lumber is getting weaker and deteriorating faster everyday. For states requiring higher strength in building codes this lumber simply isn’t meeting standards. Corporations that employ this poor technique of tree harvesting merely want to move lumber to create more profits. Because of the massive lumber industry, the situation still has a lot of momentum but continues to be ineffective in properly renewing wood as a resource.

Do We Have Alternatives to Wood Frame Construction?

It’s one thing to say that we should use less lumber because our demand is bad for the environment, but do we have a sustainable alternative to wood frame construction? Well, one alternative that’s growing in popularity is using insulated concrete forms to frame out the shape of a building.

Concrete has a lot of advantages over wood. Concrete saves on lumber, reduces the strain on trees, and can last significantly longer than wood. Concrete can be produced locally, which isn’t often the case for trees, and it can be recycled so that even when a home is knocked down, the concrete used in it won’t clutter up a landfill.

With that said, the manufacture and transportation of concrete does produce greenhouse gas emissions. However, it’s possible to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases created by concrete by using modern technology, focusing on efficient transportation, and by using recycled concrete that doesn’t require mining or fresh resources to manufacture.

Concrete, in its current form, has significantly more pros than cons for its use in construction. And as we manufacture concrete with an eye to solving what problems it does create, it will only become more green as a building material.

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