Archive for the ‘Materials’ Category

Let’s say you are going to renovate your house, home or apartment.  Maybe take out some walls, refinish some rooms, or maybe you’re planning something bigger, and you are building addition or even a new home.  Have you thought about where that wood, concrete, granite or other building material came from?

More and more, consumers, builders, architects and engineers are asking these questions.  As a result of my day job, I have had the opportunity to see some of the inner workings and more progressive companies in the aggregate industry. I wrote a piece on this experience and some of the operational benefits that a thermal mass building can realize as a result of making this material choice here.

However, I’ve never really had the opportunity to experience the wood industry’s best practices.  Sure, I knew that the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and its certification of forests and products existed, and that it was a good thing to support because of my understanding of the LEED green building rating system.  I had even made sure that the three 2×4’s that I purchased at Home Depot to hang my bikes in the garage were FSC certified.  To be honest, that certification didn’t really have any tangible meaning for me, because I am a mechanical engineer, and it was simply outside my usual field of expertise.  I can’t keep a cactus alive in my house, let alone appreciate how to sustainably harvest lumber on a large scale (besides being naturally offended by images of clear-cut forests).

That has changed for me. I had the good fortune of attending the US Green Building Council’s annual Greenbuild Expo, held in San Francisco this year. I signed up for one of the full-day tours, in order to see an FSC Certified redwood forest first hand.

Nice view of the coastal highway from the lumber office

The trip started with a clean diesel powered bus ride  along the coast south of San Francisco to Big Creek Lumber in Santa Clara County.  There were not nearly enough guardrails along the coast road for my liking. Each one of the buses had a tour guide from SCS Global Services, including the certifier of Big Creek’s forest, Robert Hrubes. The view from the forestry office was incredible, even if mostly obscured by fog and rain when we arrived.

Our visit started with a history of the family business, including the forestry practices that led them to certify their property for sustainable forestry.  The President, Janet McCrary Webb, along with Bob Berlage (Director of Communications) discussed how the property had been almost clear-cut to rebuild the city of San Francisco after the fire of 1906. The McCrary’s took possession of a site that had some young, rapidly growing redwoods in 1946. In order to maintain an economic future for the property, they selectively harvested redwoods, leaving many rapidly growing redwoods to continue to mature.  They do not harvest trees at a certain age, but selectively, and typically on a 14 year cycle, depending on many factors. Amazingly, redwoods can grow up to 8 feet per year if they have access to enough light and water, so this selective harvesting can actually increase growth rates of those trees not harvested.

Fast growing 2nd and 3rd growth redwood

The result is an impressive forest, dotted here and there with stumps from previous harvests, with 2nd, 3rd and 4th growth interspersed, and up to 300’ tall. I have heard that biodiversity suffers in forest plantations, and that may be the case, but not in this forest. Slugs, salamanders, raptors, and other evident signs of a relatively healthy ecosystem were all around us.

Blurry image of a salamander running away from an iPhone

Bob mentioned that a botanist that was hired to study the forest noted a 45% increase in biodiversity after a section of the forest had been selectively harvested (I would assume that it was because there was access to more sunlight resulting in room for other species to get a foothold).

Do you see a raptor?

Another anecode shared was what about Bob referred to as “granary” trees, where woodpeckers would fill pecked holes in the redwoods with acorns, and then feed on the bugs that would then arrive to eat the acorns. These trees would be bypassed by Big Creek, and not selected for harvesting.

Many of the forestry practices in use by Big Creek are very specific to redwood, and understandably so, as it is their primary product (along with some firs), and what grows naturally in these fog shrouded coastal rain forests.  This forest, and business, exists in an extensively regulated environment (called the most regulated in the world by Bob), and so Big Creek is used to taking many months to perform the necessary environmental assessments, permits and community outreach required to harvest in the area. As an example, a raptor survey is performed before harvesting can start, to ensure that a raptor species is not present to be displaced.

This sensitivity and regulation leads to some pretty incredible practices, exemplified by helicopter yarding, where felled lumber would be moved to a central point to be removed by vehicle. This dramatically reduces the requirement for roads into more sensitive areas, but not without cost. A helicopter for this purpose costs about $5,000 per hour – $83 per minute – to perform this task. On steep grades where tractors would irreparably rut and damage soils, cable extraction reduces intrusion.  Extraction near water courses must respect setbacks, to reduce, if not eliminate, sedimentation of waterways that could affect salmon other fish species.

I think you get the point that selectively harvesting timber like this is a complex task, to say nothing of getting approvals to even start.

One of the largest benefits to Big Creek of the FSC certification is a third party verification of their harvesting practices, ensuring that they have a social license to operate.  I can see this same principle applying to the aggregate, mining, and other resource industries.  We are not going to stop using raw materials in our buildings, businesses and society any time soon, so we should be using those resources in a manner that makes those assets as productive as possible for as long as possible, with a little collateral damage as possible. It makes good business, environmental, and social sense to do so, as Big Creek is proving. I appreciate that this forest has been conscientiously managed for generations, and I am sure there are a depressing number of forests that are not managed this way.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a mechanical engineer, not a biologist or forester, so I may not have seen the entire picture. The tour only went through a very small area, and I am sure it was not selected accidentally. I have no reason to believe that the owner had anything to hide, but nor am I naive enough to blindly accept what I see at face value all the time. That is the benefit of the third party certification. Someone else who knows what to look for has verified that the site meets sustainability criteria.

Back to my garage 2×4, I now understand that I can take the FSC chain of custody number, and see who has handled the wood, and where it came from.  This 2×4 holding my bikes against the wall looks like it came from near the northern Ontario and Quebec border. You can check any FSC number here.

My 2×4

I hope that this sneak peak into a forest that is better managed will lead you to look for that FSC logo the next time you need a piece of lumber, redwood or not, and that it makes you ask the question of where your building materials are coming from, and to see if there is a better choice you could make.