Wood is good and trees are terrific

Wood is good and trees are terrific

By GLENDA H. CAUDLE Special Features Editor So here I am, on the second “working day” of my trip to expand my knowledge of all things wooden. In Canada. In Quebec City, to be exact. And I’m giving it my best shot. The only trouble is, these guys are pros. They know wood like I know mothering. And they oh-so-casually utilize the wood business shorthand that binds them together — sort of like a high quality laminate. (And please tell me you picked up on that wood products metaphor.) Unfortunately, that lingo, which is second nature to all of them, pretty effectively shuts out a “wood”-novice like me sometimes. Every time they spoon up a heaping helping of their environmentally-friendly/sustainable-architecture/management practices alphabet soup of organizations and regulations, I find myself desperately searching the bottom of my new-knowledge bowl, trying to figure out what the “green stuff” is floating to the top. There’s QWEB (Quebec Wood Export Bureau) and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)and FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification). If you’re an architect, or a contractor with a “green” conscience or a forester or a professor of forestry practices or a government employee in the forest management/marketing office, this stuff clicks in your memory box automatically and you can smile and nod with quite authority. If you’re a pretty-much clueless (and I’m only relating that term to my knowledge of forestry), you can smile and nod and pray no one asks you a question you “wood”n’t know the answer to. So far, so good. But I’m only halfway through the trip. I’m learning, however. And I’m passing on what I learn to you. And if I’ve understood my assignment correctly, that’s why these charming Canadians have gone to the trouble and expense of bringing me up here in the first place. So stick with me now. School is in session. • Wood is a great building material for single family dwellings. I live in one. It works for me. It can work for you. • Wood is a terrific building material even for much larger structures — as our hosts at Pavillon Kruger at University Laval in Quebec proved to us first-hand Tuesday. After all, the multi-story classroom/laboratory structure where they welcomed us was designed to use wood at every opportunity. And architect Laurent Goulard even suggested wood could be effectively and economically utilized in such structures as soccer stadiums (with wooden arch beams), massive train stations, hospitals, art centers, airplane hangars — and, yes, even in constructing a home for the Golden Arches. • Wood is a good building material for areas subject to seismic activity. That would be us, sooner or later. It creates a “light” load and absorbs the shaking better than other building materials. • Science is finding ever-more-creative ways of utilizing wood in construction. Canada’s forests cover a vast amount of territory. On the eastern side of the country, the trees tend to be smaller. On the west — you probably already know what I’m going to say — they are much larger. It would seem logical, then, that the western trees would be the only ones really usable for construction — particularly in large buildings. But there’s more to the story than that. Not only do the smaller eastern forests provide their fair share of valuable wood products, the “left overs” from harvesting trees on both sides of the country can be “glued” together to make “manufactured wood” and used in big ways, as well. Even the humble 2-foot by 2-foot has its place — and some of those places are pretty amazing when you look in to it. • Trees can be safely (that’s environmentally-speaking) harvested because they are a replaceable commodity. But it needs to be done carefully and sometimes the “best practices” are surprising. Canada thinks it has learned how to best utilize its forests from observing nature itself. Plus, Canada has so many trees — about a gazillion of them, as near as I can tell — which it has no intention of letting anyone touch, that it is not worried about running out of forests. And that leads me to my next point. You’ll see why in a minute. Trust me, it all fits together. • Trees are terrific at leaving a small carbon foot print. (Call Al Gore if you need a definition or a way to “off-set” any of your own you might be worried about. He has a company, you know). These little calling cards are said to be real stinkers by environmentalists. Even if you’re not sure the evidence is all in on this one, you can appreciate this little tidbit as pretty cool because it confirms the fact that nature has lots of valuable lessons to teach us. • Trees are wonderful little factories. They pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transform it into a solid product called cellulose, which mankind has valued for a long time and has used in stuff like paper and cardboard, to name a few. Now, here’s the interesting part: If a tree dies “naturally” from insects or fire or getting blown over, it falls to the forest floor — whether or not anyone hears it — and releases part of the carbon into the soil and part of it back into the atmosphere. What goes back into the atmosphere completes a “positive loop.” In other words, the environmental effect is a good one. Obviously, a tree that burns releases the greatest amount of its carbon supply into the atmosphere and this is preferable to the “release” from many of the other fuels we have been burning lately. Think this through to its logical conclusion and you’ll come to the realization that burning wood has enormous possibilities as a “new” fuel. (Yes, I know. It’s been done already. But not really on the scale these folks are talking about.) These possibilities are positive ones — especially when you consider the problems we are encountering with other fuel sources right now. The trick for good stewardship, then, becomes a matter of emulating these “natural” practices we’re learning about from nature once wood has outlived its usefulness in a structure. So if you’re going to tear your house down, don’t just pull the nails out and let if fall in a heap and walk off and leave it. No! No! Burn it, Baby, burn it! But in a way that will gladden the heart of your “green”est neighbor. The Canadian forestry experts can tell you how if you are determined, but they’re actually after a long-term solution to the energy problem here, so perhaps you should leave your house intact and just keep reading. • Trees have an important role to play in solving our energy dilemma. Even trees — or tree parts — that are not utilized directly in construction of some edifice, large or small, or some object of beauty or utility, can be correctly harvested and burned to meet massive energy needs. And one of the best parts is, those trees can be replaced – without taking up acreage that needs to be devoted to the production of foodstuffs and without releasing toxins into the atmosphere (as the initial production and the later breakdown of some other building materials do) and without asking the permission of people who have pretty much told us they hope to wipe us off the face of the earth — but not until they take as much money from us as possible (let me be very clear here — that editorial comment was entirely my own). So that’s basically what I learned today. Repeat it with me: “Wood is good. Use it for EVERYTHING.” End of lesson. Glenda Caudle is attending a Canadian forestry conference in Quebec this week at the invitation of the Canadian government, along with architects and foresters who have an obvious interest in the subject. The facts are being gleaned from intensive exposure to many authorities on trees and their perspective on management and usage of forests. Published in The Messenger 6.19.08

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