Why architects and designers have to choose woods responsibly

John Deere
© John Deere feller buncher in action

Grace Jeffers explains that, while trees are renewable, forests are not.

The John Deere feller buncher is an amazing machine; its giant saw blade can slice and dice a forest that took 4,500 years to grow in just one hour. Architect Maya Lin made a video showing what would happen if you let this machine loose in those places we know and love, noting that 90 acres of rainforest are lost every minute, that deforestation threatens half the world's species, and that it is responsible for 20 percent of global warming emissions.

We clearly now have the technology to simply erase our forests, and architects and designers have a responsibility to think about the wood that we use and where it comes from. Grace Jeffers spent ten years writing an encyclopedia of materials and learned a lot about wood, and how little most of us know about it. More importantly, even if we know something about the wood itself -- its strength, its properties and its appearance -- we know almost nothing about the forest.

There is mass confusion, delusion and misleading concepts of what a forest really is. As humans we each have an idea of what a forest looks like, and yet barren, stripped landscapes are defined as forests. There is a world of difference between the wild primary forests of our ideals, and secondary growth or plantations that are “officially” classed as forests.

Grace JeffersLloyd Alter/ Grace Jeffers presenting/CC BY 2.0

Here on TreeHugger and like much of the industry, we call wood a renewable resource. But Grace Jeffers notes that "Yes, we cut down trees, replant them, they grow, and in this way wood is a renewable resource. But by cutting down trees, we are destroying forests and their unique, unquantifiable ecosystems; therefore, a forest cannot be renewable."

This is the single most important concept: Trees might be renewable, but forests are not. So it is not good enough to simply know about the wood we use; we have to know where it comes from, and we have to preserve what is left of our original forests. We have to ensure that they are not chopped down and replanted, because it is not the same thing, the same place.

It is fallacy to consider wood only as an agricultural product: While wood may be planted, grown and harvested as any other agricultural crop, this activity should not be mistaken for a forest, because it is monoculture. Just as a field of corn is not a prairie, a valley planted in a single species of tree is not a forest.

Jeffers tells architects and designers that they must ask three questions every time they specify wood:

  • What is this wood’s conservation status?
  • From where did this wood originate?
  • What is the state of the forest from which the wood was harvested?
It is often hard to tell. Some woods like teak are now plantation grown, but you don't necessarily know what was chopped down for the plantation. A third of the teak harvest is cut in Burma, smuggled into Thailand, and sold as "Thai teak." Or it is sent to China and turned into finished goods where it is almost impossible to determine origins.

It's not just the tropical forests that are endangered. The Boreal forests in Russia are full of non-threatened species of wood like oak and coniferous trees, but it is also the habitat of Siberian tigers and and Amur leopards.

These forests are protected under Russian law and logging is supposedly regulated in the other non-government-protected forests. As we know, governments can create regulations, but if there’s no enforcement, forests remain at risk. Logging companies that abide by the rules are undercut by illegal logging activity. In fact, the Environmental Investigation Agency estimates that as much as 80 percent of the wood coming from the taiga could be illegally logged. Illegal logging is mainly trafficked through China where it is manufactured into products and furniture sold to western markets. Paper trails are falsified or disappear completely.

In the end, Jeffers tells architects that we should avoid all the woods on the IUCN red list (see here on the wood database), many of which are still available at your local flooring store. Sometimes it's hard because they keep inventing new names so you have to dig a bit to find a chain of custody. But it is the architect's job to follow the paper trail and ensure that wood that they specify can be legally imported into the country, and Jeffers says that "it's only a matter of time" before the authorities start going after architectural firms.

Unfortunately, sometimes architects don't know or don't care; according to a recent survey done for Wilsonart, 70 percent of architects and designers say they prioritize using responsibly sourced wood, but 24 percent are still using illegal rosewood -- and guess what?

architects knowledge© Wilsonart Survey

Jeffers picked an interesting example; I have always admired Rem Koolhaas' Prada store in New York, but Jeffers notes that it is made out of zebra wood, which is akin to "upholstering a chair in Siberian tiger." Zebra wood is that endangered.

taking action© Wilsonart Survey

In the end, it would be best if we all stuck to non-threatened North American woods like maple, walnut, cherry or oak. And of course, every wood that we use for anything should be third-party certified by SFI, FSC, or other standards approved by the International Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), like CSA in Canada.

There were many lessons for this TreeHugger in Grace Jeffers' presentation. The amount of pink representing deforestation in the boreal forests is shockingly large. We promote the use of wood as a renewable resource, but it has to be truly sustainably harvested and must be third-party certified. And when it comes to those fancy finishes and imported woods, we really just have to stop using them. As Grace says,

As our forests continue to be decimated, it is time for us designers to protect them by broadening our understanding of wood, the value of forests, and their intrinsic role in the survival of all species on Earth.

The presentation, and my visit to New York, were sponsored by Wilsonart, which not coincidentally manufactures high pressure laminates that, in many cases, can be a good substitute for exotic woods. I have called laminate the greenest choice for kitchen counters because it is 70 percent paper and, while the other 30 percent is phenolic resin, the sheet is really thin so there is not much of it. After listening to Grace Jeffers and reading her White Paper, it is looking better than ever.

Here is the full infographic from the Wilsonart National Survey looking at what architects, designers and specifiers knew about wood.

understanding wood© Wilsonart Survey

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