In embracing sustainability, designers are not simply responding to a new fashion. Nor are they only seeking to minimise the direct impact of their own creations on the environment. They are promoting desirable visions that compel people to want to live sustainably. And, by doing so, designers are becoming a key part of the process to move towards a more sustainable future.
The choice of materials is a key component of sustainable design. By using American hardwoods, designers are assured that they are minimising their impact on the environment throughout all the stages of the product life cycle, from extraction, through processing, use, reuse and final disposal.
At the same time, through their choice of particular species and grades of American hardwoods, designers have a central to play to reduce waste and maximise utilisation of this valuable natural resource.
Key contributions of American hardwoods to sustainable design include:
American hardwoods are a low-impact material
American hardwoods have a low impact on the environment at all stages of their life cycle right from the point of extraction. Forest management in the sector is not intensive, one outcome of the fact that most American hardwood forests are owned and managed by individuals, families, or small companies rather than large timber corporations. Forest holdings are relatively small, mostly under 10 hectares, limiting the size of harvesting operations. The primary motivation for owning the land is usually not timber production or economics, but simply the enjoyment of forest ownership. Because timber production and economic return to shareholders are not primary objectives, the owners of American hardwood forests tend to manage less aggressively and to grow their forests on longer rotations. Selection harvesting is typical, involving removal of only a few trees per hectare, rather than clear-felling. After harvesting, forest owners usually rely on natural regeneration, which is abundant in the deep fertile forest soils of the United States. There is little need or incentive for addition of chemical fertilisers. No non-native “exotic” or genetically modified species are used.
American hardwoods are not only renewable, they are an expanding resource
Regular forest inventories undertaken by the US federal government every ten years clearly demonstrate that American hardwoods are not only renewable, but are an expanding resource. The latest data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was published in 2009 in preparation for the 2010 inventory report. This shows that between 1953 and 2007, the volume of U.S. hardwood growing stock more than doubled from 5 billion m3 to 11.4 billion m3. Hardwood growing stock volumes have continually increased for the past 50 years, even in times when timber harvesting was most intensive. The survey also shows that forests are aging and more trees are being allowed to grow to size before being harvested. The volume of hardwood trees with diameters 48 cm or greater has tripled from 731 million m3 to 2.3 billion m3 since 1953.
American hardwoods store carbon
While other industries like steel, concrete and plastic often emphasise efforts to reduce their negative environmental impact, American hardwoods are one of the very few materials that make a positive environmental impact. Long term management of U.S. hardwood forests for sustainable timber production makes a significant contribution to carbon storage. Each year for the last 50 years American hardwood forests stored around the equivalent of 165 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (excluding all harvested material). That’s enough to offset about 14% of U.S. annual residential emissions in 2006, or 9% of U.S. annual transport emissions in the same year. This direct contribution of America’s hardwood forests to carbon sequestration excludes the carbon held in long term storage as a component of American hardwood products. With useful lives spanning generations, furniture, flooring, cabinetry and trim crafted of American hardwoods act as an additional carbon store for many decades.
American hardwoods are very energy efficient
The process of converting wood into usable building products requires considerably less energy than most other materials. Furthermore, much of the energy needed to produce American hardwood products is bio-energy. A 2007 study of 20 hardwood sawmills in the North Eastern United States revealed that 75% of the energy required to manufacture kiln dried lumber derived from biomass (such as tree bark, saw dust and wood off-cuts). As a result, even less carbon dioxide is emitted when producing American hardwood lumber than when producing many recycled materials. For supporting evidence see ''A preliminary assessment of the carbon footprint of American hardwood kiln dried lumber supplied to distributors in the European Union (2nd edition)''
Low emissions are associated with transporting American hardwoods
Assessment of the carbon footprint of American hardwoods from forest to European distributor indicates that carbon sequestration during forest growth of the tree more than offsets the total carbon emissions resulting from harvesting, processing and transport. In fact, transport is a relatively minor factor in the overall carbon footprint. This is particularly true of ocean transport. Transporting American hardwoods by ship across the Atlantic, a journey of over 6000km, requires little more energy than an overland journey of 500km. In fact, even a complete circumnavigation of the world by sea (40,000km) would be readily offset by the carbon sequestered in the wood product. For supporting evidence see
American hardwoods are non-toxic and healthy
The health risks associated with a natural material like American hardwood, which requires no glues or other chemical treatment during processing, are minimal. Where needed, a wide range of low-VOC finishes can be used to protect the aesthetic appearance and performance of American hardwoods. American hardwoods are easy to maintain with non-toxic cleaners and they don’t trap dust, dirt and other allergens. Simple regular maintenance such as dust mopping, sweeping and vacuuming keeps the environment allergen-free. For this reason, they are recommended for chemically sensitive individuals, or those who suffer from allergies or asthma.
American hardwoods are readily recyclable and biodegradable
A key principle of sustainable design is that products, processes, and systems should be designed for performance in a commercial 'afterlife'. This is allied to a new trend towards biomimicry, involving the redesign of industrial systems on biological lines and enabling the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles. The most direct way to achieve biomimicry is through use of natural organic renewable materials like American hardwoods. Because they are untarnished by mixing with other materials and chemicals, American hardwoods are readily reusable and recyclable at the end of a building’s life span. Those American hardwood components needing to be disposed of are biodegradable and non-toxic. They may also be safely incinerated, providing a carbon-neutral source of energy.
American hardwoods are waste efficient
The U.S. wood products industry has a strong waste-minimization record. Over the last 50 years, throughout the U.S. there has been a 39% increase in the amount of wood and paper products produced per cubic meter of wood input. The vast majority of the “waste” products that are produced – mainly small off-cuts and sawdust – are used as a carbon neutral source of energy. A 2007 study of 20 hardwood sawmills in the North Eastern United States showed that 75% of the energy required to produce kiln dried sawn lumber derived from the burning of biomass. Furthermore, the application of a set of the internationally recognised NHLA grading rules, established more than 100 years ago, has made a major contribution to waste-minimization in the American hardwood lumber sector.
American hardwoods provide high quality and durability
Longer-lasting and better-functioning products have to be replaced less frequently, reducing the impacts of producing replacements. American hardwood products are naturally durable and tend to outlast their synthetic counterparts. For example hardwood floors can last 50 years or more. Broadloom and tile carpeting, on the other hand, has a four- to-six-year life span. After 15 or 20 years of use, hardwood flooring can gain a fresh, new appearance with refinishing for roughly half the cost of replacing carpet or other flooring options.
American hardwoods are ethical and socially equitable
Sustainable design must be based on ethically sourced materials, extracted and manufactured in a way that supports human rights and basic needs like sufficient pay, healthcare and benefits. When sourcing American hardwoods, you can be assured that these issues are comprehensively dealt with through a fully-enforced regulatory framework in the United States. For example:
- The US Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) prescribes very specific safety measures and safety equipment to be used while engaged in commercial activity in forest areas. About 40,000 inspections are conducted annually by federal and state officials to monitor compliance and penalties for violations are severe.
- The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and child labor standards for all workers in the United States. The Department of Labor is empowered to impose severe sanctions on violating employees, including recovery of back wages or through criminal prosecution.
- The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires that employers provide unpaid leave for workers who care for a newborn baby or family member with a serious medical condition.
American hardwoods are authentic
There is no deception when using American hardwoods. While other materials can be made to look like American hardwoods, they can’t convey the same inspiring story about sustainable living. This is the story of a natural organic product derived from rural families and communities in the United States that have been managing forests for generations and that are guardians of the world’s largest renewable hardwood resource. It’s the story of a product that enables the redesign of lifestyles and industrial systems on sustainable lines. And it’s the story of a natural carbon store that, through increased use, helps to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change.