Author: Issabella Gaglia
ABSTRACT: Wood construction plays an important role in minimizing environmental effects since wood helps mitigate the effects of the climate crisis by reducing greenhouse gasses through carbon sequestration. Wood materials are produced without CO2 emissions, store carbon and have a smaller carbon footprint. To achieve the vision of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, solutions such as maximizing re-use and renovations, rather than demolition must be made now.
Environmental sustainability has become a global concern; according to the Canadian Wood Council, each year people contribute 8 billion metric tonnes of carbon to the air by using energy daily (Wood Products and Carbon Sequestration – CWC).
Buildings are responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions: 8% from operational emissions, from the energy needed to heat, cool and power them, and the remaining 11% from materials and construction, pressing the construction sector to shift towards environmentally sustainable, low-carbon solutions (Embodied Carbon Call to Action Report; Lilja et al, 2021). A study from Suny College of Environmental Science and Forestry analyzed that construction procedures and materials, such as concrete and steel can harm the environment by using more energy, impact global warming, and have more air, water and solid waste emissions than wood construction.
In the next thirty years, emissions are expected to double, so we must start now to reduce emissions before new buildings are used. The World Green Building Council (GBC) has a vision for all buildings and infrastructure to be net-zero emissions across their entire lifecycle by 2050. The 2030 Challenge aims to reduce carbon emissions in all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations by 40% in 2030 with a significant reduction of upfront carbon, along with net-zero operating emissions and produce 100% net-zero embodied carbon in all new buildings and infrastructure in 2050. In order to achieve this vision, solutions must be made by the global community following three steps: educate, innovate and communicate towards decarbonization solutions (Embodied Carbon Call to Action Report; Architecture 2030).
More solutions towards decarbonization include: moving towards clean and lean construction processes, using products produced by renewable energy, encouraging designers to specify low carbon products and design solutions, focusing on buildings designed to maximize re-use, refurbishment and deconstruction, promoting renovation instead of demolition and seeking new business models that reduce reliance on carbon-intensive raw materials like concrete and steel (Embodied Carbon Call to Action Report). Furthermore, as stated by the WorldGBC, the market transformation needed requires a radical change in the way we design, build, operate and deconstruct our buildings, to conserve the world’s precious resources.
Wood Construction: It may be difficult to think of wood as a sustainable material since it is associated with deforestation, however, using wood instead of steel or concrete reduces environmental impact, as well as construction and operation costs, compared to concrete or steel that has a huge carbon footprint (Ambegaonkar, 2021). Communities and governments seeking to address the carbon balance are not always aware of the role wood products play in minimizing impacts on the environment, and the attributes of wood are not being recognized in the design of sustainable communities and building (Wood Products and Carbon Sequestration – CWC).
Additionally, wood is the only renewable building material that contributes to sustainability in construction. When a tree is cut down, the carbon is separated during its life cycle and removed from the atmosphere for decades once it’s placed in a dormant state. When the wood from trees is used to make building materials, the CO2 is sequestered in those materials, preventing the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. The carbon is only released back into the atmosphere when the wood is burned or when it biodegrades. Wood biomass burned to produce energy also substitutes for fossil fuel energy and reduces fossil fuel-based energy (Canadian Wood Council).
Mesta Wood article (2017) states “as large amounts of carbon can be stored in the wooden parts of buildings, it is important to ensure that the carbon storage is as long-term as possible. Long service life requires good design, moisture safety during construction and good maintenance”. For the atmospheric carbon to stay stored and locked away, the wooden products can be recycled into other products once they are no longer being used in buildings to prevent the construction of new buildings, and rather fix and re-build from what is existing (Mesta Wood, 2017). Wood-based building materials require less energy to produce, emit less pollution to the air and water, contribute lower amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere, are easily disposed of or recycled, and are derived from a renewable resource, which is trees (Evaluating the Environmental Performance of Wood Building Materials). Additionally, the construction sector can support positive developments by using wooden materials that capture carbon for their entire life span. For example, timber products lock approximately 1 ton of CO2 per 1 cubic metre of wood and “the dry mass of wood is 50% carbon taken from the atmosphere and does not contribute to the greenhouse effect,” says Matti Kuittinen, architect and researcher from Aalto University (Mesta Wood, 2017).
However, wood is tricky right now and scientists are asking everyone to slow down with wood for the following reasons: a lot of carbon in forests is stored in the soil and below it, therefore it is unclear how much carbon and methane is released when harvesting, which is dependent on how the wood is harvested. Secondly, there is “uncertainty whether trees are being grown and replaced in such a way that we can truly assume carbon neutrality from forestry” (Melton, 2021). A study from Mark Harmon, PhD, professor at Oregon State University found that an “80-year harvest cycle would be more beneficial for carbon storage in the forest because a longer time period allows the trees to build to their optimum volume before harvesting” (Melton, 2021). There is also the possibility that radically increasing the amount of wood such as mass timber might not be the best solution for forests. Cutting down more wood results in changing the rate at which we are removing carbon from forests, therefore we need to plan ahead and plant more trees for upcoming decades by doing so (Melton, 2021).
Efforts must be made to contribute to the radical change in Green Building. Despite the uncertainty and concerns with wood-based building materials, wood plays an important role in reducing environmental impacts and lowering CO2 emissions, but we need to make sure the wood is certified and comes from mature, sustainable forests when we are planning and building with wood-based materials.
(2017). Metsa Wood: Construction Battles Climate Change Through Carbon Storage. https://www.metsagroup.com/metsawood/news-and-publications/news/2017/wood-construction-battles-climate-change-through-carbon-storage/
Canada NewsWire, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/wire-feeds/metsa-wood-construction-battles-climate-change/docview/1868572539/se-2?accountid=13631
Ambegaonkar, R. (2021). Wood: A Sustainable Construction Material. MEP Engineering & Design Consulting Firm, https://www.ny-engineers.com/blog/wood-a-sustainable-construction-material
Embodied Carbon Call to Action Report. World Green Building Council, https://www.worldgbc.org/embodied-carbon
Evaluating the Environmental Performance of Wood Building Materials. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, https://www.esf.edu/ecenter/eis/woodmaterials.htm#:~:text=wood%2Dframed%20home%20showed%20that,level%20of%20solid%20waste%20production
Lilja,A., Toivonen, R., Toppinen, A., Vihemäki,H. (2021). Future export markets of industrial wood construction – A qualitative backcasting study. Forest Policy and Economics, 128(102480), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2021.102480
Meeting the 2030 Challenge. Architecture 2030, https://architecture2030.org/2030_challenges/2030-challenge/
Melton, P. (2021). The urgency of embodied carbon and what you can do about it. BuildingGreen, https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/urgency-embodied-carbon-and-what-you-can-do-about-it
New report: The building and construction sector can reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. World Green Building Council, https://www.worldgbc.org/news-media/WorldGBC-embodied-carbon-report-published
Wood Products and Carbon Sequestration – CWC. Canadian Wood Council, https://cwc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/WOOD-Products-and-Carbon-Sequestration.pdf
Issabella Gaglia is a fourth-year Undergraduate student studying Interior Design at Ryerson. She is an inspiring designer, invested in creative thinking, visual application, and the functions and purpose of space design. Issabella has a passion for creating spaces that provide a comfortable atmosphere for its users.