Throughout the downturn of the last four years or so we have seen the lumber and building materials industry shrink dramatically. Some estimates of sales shrinkage at the dealer level put it beyond 50%. In some markets, that estimate is absurdly low. There is no denying that everyone in all segments and steps in the chain is battered. Unfortunately, even the homeowner/consumer is somewhat damaged as well.
Current commentary would have us believe that newly popular saving (a supposedly unheard-of concept) has replaced spending. The army of people at the malls during the Christmas season indicates otherwise. Presuming that there is pent-up demand in residential single-family and multi-family building, I would say that there is work to be done preparing for a new era in home building. None of this will be handed to us; there’s no bailout coming, no more stimulus. Not that we’d even want it. We need to find our own way out of the woods (no pun intended), and it’s up to us to determine how to retool the industry.
One of the emerging trends of the last few years, and in fact much of the sales opportunity in the industry in that time, has been “green.” And though I challenge anyone to agree on just how to define that, there is no doubt that the buzzword has taken hold. The mainstream definition of green building might be that a consumer, product or construction endeavor emphasizes efficient use of natural resources during the life of the product or building. Of the many different players in the green movement, none has taken as large a leading role as the U.S. Green Building Council, or USGBC, with its Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, or LEED, certification program. LEED has brought green building into the public eye and has made incredible inroads in guiding developers, architects and owners to “build green.”
The list of possible points to achieve a LEED certification is wide ranging and encourages wastewater management, HVAC efficiency and decreased energy use, among other things. There is a credit for the installation of bicycle racks and showers; there is also credit for the use of certified lumber. Both are worth one point. The entire building of lumber has “green” value equal to placing racks for bicycles. It is easy to see why the certified lumber specification is so often overridden on a project.
The requirement for certified lumber is that it must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, and it must flow through the supply chain with the requisite paperwork to establish Chain of Custody every step of the way. In short, it cannot be handled by an organization that is unqualified. The qualifications are strict compliance with the Chain of Custody rules, with a costly annual audit as verification. Certainly the Chain of Custody requirements are necessary, otherwise the unscrupulous would attempt to pass off normal lumber as certified. But how could they? It’s not the same product … is it?
Commercial production of lumber is by definition green. Is anyone worried about running completely out of timberland? Will it be gone by 2030, 2050? Are there people screaming from the mountaintops about peak lumber production like they do peak oil production and metals? Or is the consensus that in some cases lumber can’t be cut fast enough — British Columbia for example? Unlike steel and concrete, the clean-looking and beautiful darlings of modern architecture, lumber is a crop — pure and simple. It has all the characteristics of corn and soy (remember biofuel?), with a longer life cycle. If there was ever a product that should be in the news for its sustainable and clean manufacture as well as its efficient transportation, often by rail (also cleaner), this is it.
The LEED requirement of FSC-only lumber hurts the industry’s ability to participate in the program. The FSC certification is a costly addition to the suffering bottom lines of the manufacturers, distributors and dealers. The single-source avenue for LEED-qualifying certified wood creates a monopoly and stifles the kind of innovation that would lead to “green” stamps and other ideas that would mainstream sustainable lumber production, as well as illustrate the point that for the most part modern harvesting is done in a planned, responsible way.
There is a wonderful opportunity to rebrand the industry as modern and clean; we shouldn’t let burdensome requirements hold us back. It is time for us to insist on change in USGBC/LEED point structure and recognize not only that forest products today naturally represent green building, but also that all certification of good harvesting and production practices should be equally valid.
John W. Steinman is VP purchasing at Forge Lumber. e