The future is here … and it’s made of wood

Dave Atkins
Cooperative Forestry, U.S. Forest Service
December 17th, 2014 at 8:00PM

A photo of the The Federal Center South in Seattle makes extensive use of work. It’s a good time for building with wood products. More architects and contractors are returning to this renewable, sturdy, all-purpose material after decades of what some might consider an undue reliance on concrete and steel.

In furthering that message, I was pleased to join WoodWorks, a nonprofit organization supported by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service, to host more than 350 architects and builders this year at the Wood Solutions Fair in the District of Columbia.

The fair promoted the use of wood in commercial buildings in helping maintain sustainable forest management, addressing wildfires, droughts, extreme storms and insect epidemics. Wood buildings store tremendous amounts of carbon and reduce the fossil energy needed for construction over alternatives like concrete, steel and aluminum.

The Forest Service and WoodWorks are also promoting the growing use of Cross Laminated Timber, a building product that can facilitate making highrise structures with wood. The Forest Service, USDA Rural Development and the Softwood Lumber Board are providing $2 million to incentivize the construction of the first highrise in the U.S. made with wood.

In the second quarter of this year, Woodworks was able to influence and convert 88 projects currently under production. That translates into $33 million in incremental lumber sales, which represents 65 million board feet of lumber. This progress is good news for America’s environment but also good for America’s timber industry. The use of forest products in the United States currently supports more than 1 million direct jobs, particularly in rural areas, and contributes more than $100 billion to the country's gross domestic product.

Three years ago, the authors of the Forest Service study Science Supporting the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Using Wood and Wood Products in Green Building Construction, reviewed the scientific literature and found that using wood in building products yields fewer greenhouse gases than using other common materials.

"In the Rockies alone, we have hundreds of thousands of dead trees killed by bark beetles that could find their way into the building supply chain for all types of buildings," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said at the time. "Taking a harder look at wood as a green building source could reduce the damages posed by future fires, maintain overall forest health and provide much-needed jobs in local communities."

Building with wood is poised to be the next big thing in green construction. The Forest Service is working diligently to help make that possibility a reality. I think we can say with confidence that the future, indeed, is made of wood.