Who needs wood? We do!

I’m generally not one to debate on social media – which is probably surprising to my friends and family who know I don’t normally shy away from debate – but a comment on OFRI’s Facebook page regarding my last blog gave me an idea that does have appeal as subject matter for this post.

It read, “Stop cutting down trees. We don’t need wood. Give us hemp.”

Hemp has its merits. It makes good fabric, excellent rope, and is edible and a good source of dietary fiber. It can be pressed into panels that have building applications, but it doesn’t have the same engineering properties as wood, steel or concrete, so it probably is not a solution as far as constructing large-scale buildings is concerned.

But what I really want to address is another part of the comment – the one that says, “We don’t need wood.”

I suppose we could have a philosophical debate about what people truly “need,” but that’s best left for places like this bar in Burlington, Vt., where they have notebooks full of patrons’ answers to the question, “What are your three needs?”

Instead, let’s just go with the assumption that people need places to live, work and play, and that humankind is going to continue to make buildings that fulfill that need. If we can agree on that, we can at least agree that we need building materials of some type, and we can begin to think about the attributes we want in the materials we’ll choose.

Just what are the attributes we want in a building material? First and foremost, it needs to be up to the job. It has to be strong and sturdy enough to keep the buildings from crumbling to the ground. And it has to meet some minimum standards for safety in seismic and fire events. It should be able to withstand the elements and be sufficiently durable that we’re not forced to replace buildings too often. There should also be enough of it to go around. Applying those criteria reduces the options to a handful of materials most of us are familiar with: concrete, steel, adobe, brick, wood, etc.

One (and only one) of those options comes from a renewable resource and also helps fight climate change by storing carbon. Half the dry weight of wood is carbon that was captured from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide while the trees that provided that wood were growing. That carbon remains in the wood products for as long as they remain in those buildings (and even longer in the case of wood building materials that are recycled at the end of a building’s useful life). Once new trees are planted to replace those harvested, the carbon sequestration process begins anew – a cycle that can continue in perpetuity.

So, do we “need” wood? I’ll leave that question to the philosophers at the bar. But because I’m concerned about the sustainability of our planet and the condition of the world we leave for future generations, I’m sure glad we can choose to build with a material as remarkable as wood.

Timm Locke

Director of Forest Products


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