Those warm shimmering hues… Oh! how I love the beauty of wood!  As I feed this addiction – am I contributing to deforestation, environmental degradation and global warming?  Am I evil because I love wood so much?   Should you be asking “So, Catherine, when are you going to stop demolishing the tropical rainforests of the world because you like how they look cut and sanded with a nice clear coat over the top?”

Wood can be sustainable, and it has a very low embodied energy, but buying wood indiscriminately can do a lot of damage to the environment.  More than anything else in this house, wood was destined to be my worst temptation towards ethical downfall (and it isn’t too fun to admit a lapse).  We wanted a lot of beautiful wood, and weren’t sure this could be done without serious compromise of principals.  So did we manage to put so much wood in the house in an environmentally sustainable manner?

Well… yes, and no. We tried, but maybe not hard enough.

FSC Certified Lumber

First the good news.  FSC certified wood is available, and that is the majority of wood that we used in building the house.  The FSC, aka The Forest Stewardship Council is an independent non-governmental certifying body that evaluates and certifies the sustainability of wood products.  Wood grown sustainably is just that – a sustainable resource that is being farmed rather than “mined”, does not include irreplaceable old growth trees, and it works with local growers all around the world to create not only a sound environmental practice, but strong economic base in wood growing areas.

The FSC certified white cedar in the soffit

What’s not to love?   The FSC is the most credible certification system (alternatives like the timber industry-backed Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) are around, but they lack a certain independence that seems necessary).  FSC wood usually costs more because it has “Chain of Custody” certification in which the wood is in the custody, from harvest through the saw mill, of certified FSC companies who agree to certain standards, and are regularly audited for compliance.  There are some critics of the FSC system saying that it is too lax in its oversight of some logging operations, and that there is corruption in some areas where loggers can bribe the certifiers, but overall, despite the lapses, it seems to me that when problems are discovered and pointed out to them, they de-certify violators, and the pressure that FSC certification is bringing to bear on the timber industry around the world is a strong positive force.  We specified that all of our framing lumber, soffit wood, plywood and engineered lumber in the house be FSC certified.  Likewise, Kolbe, our window and sliding door manufacturer could provide FSC certified wood for the frames.

But not all woods are available with FSC certification, so we deviated from purity.

Reclaimed Walnut flooring

Our best deviation is using wood which is “salvaged” from old timbers from deconstructed barns, or “reclaimed” from agricultural fruit and nut trees when they are cut down for replanting orchards.  Using wood from these sources is an excellent way to get beautiful wood without contributing to deforestation.  Reclaimed wood is not eligible for FSC certification as there is no logging portion, but as it is not contributing to environmental degradation, it seems just as good and just as “green”.  We decided to put in reclaimed walnut flooring in the upstairs rooms and walnut stair treads from Restoration timber which is an excellent resource for reclaimed wood.

Someone else's cabinets made out of lyptus

The front door in Honduran mahogany

A little bit more of a grey area is the kitchen cabinets which are “lyptus” – a brand-name for a particular type of eucalyptus wood grown and supplied by a company called Fibria.  Lyptus is a fast growing, plantation grown tree which has PEFC certification of sustainability (which seems great until you realize that PEFC is that industry certification system, so maybe not the best choice, but after some belated research, it really does seem like a relatively sustainable wood).

The choice I made that I am the most conflicted about is the Honduran Mahogany doors we had made.  That’s right: Honduran Mahogany.  When I first started looking into wooden doors for the house, I looked at many different species of wood, and stumbled upon a great company on line with beautiful door designs: Mahogany Doors Honduras.

The wine cellar door

I entered into a lengthy email exchange with Gary, the owner in Honduras, about the sustainability of the wood, the process by which they obtained their logs, kiln dried them themselves, fabricated the doors, and then exported them (I’m sure he thinks I’m crazy).  He assured me they exported with CITES certification because they handled everything from the logs to export of the doors.  Great! everything was grand, I ordered the doors, excellent price, great communication, (a bit of delay) , but they finally came and they are BEAUTIFUL – really really beautiful.

But I had probably stopped my research a bit early (once I had the answer I wanted, I will admit, I didn’t look any further).  In my research for the blog entry, I dug a little deeper, and I probably would have been happier not knowing.   CITES is an extremely shortened acronym for “Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora”.  Yeah, endangered species.  My doors may be certified, but the wood is still an endangered species.  Best spin:  the CITES certification process provides a sustainable local industry to an area that wouldn’t otherwise have a legitimate local economy and might need to resort to poaching and destroy the trees anyway.  More realistic: those trees probably shouldn’t have been cut down, no matter what the certificate says…

8 replies
  1. justpete
    justpete says:

    just a tiny correction to the otherwise excellent discussion about wood. FSC does offer chain-of-custody certification for recycled wood. Auditing is done by either SCS or Smartwood, and once certified the salvaged wood can be offered as “100% recycled”.
    It is a fairly rigorous process, with a lot of paperwork to wade through every year. And I might add a pretty expensive proposition for a small business to engage in.
    Cheers,

    Reply
  2. mikeoregon
    mikeoregon says:

    Hi, Catherine–

    Thanks for sharing all your experiences and evaluations, your transparency is a gift to future designers and builders.

    Based on my own research, I don’t think Lyptus qualifies as a sustainable wood. The forest products companies that created the hybrid eucalyptus grow it in plantations in Brazil where the lyptus trees, which originated in Australia, are essentially separate from the local ecosystems. They advertise that they are creating islands of Lyptus within preserved stands of native forest which sounds better than destroying the forest outright but may be only a slower death.

    Reply
  3. Ben
    Ben says:

    In your TED talk, you didn’t say anything about doors and windows beyond their framing. Do you have access to a source of used salvaged building materials (that you didn’t take from the deconstructed house)?

    Reply
  4. michaelmariano
    michaelmariano says:

    Very cool- what I loved about your TED talk was that you have the courage to move forward and fight through the mass of information on sustainability. Most of us read, then get confused, then are immobilized. I applaud you!

    I have a question about your Organic eating, organic food takes a lot more energy and resources than regular food. In a world where food production is an issue, what reasoning have you found to offset that huge jump in energy costs? All the best- Michael

    Reply
  5. Catherine Mohr
    Catherine Mohr says:

    There have been some criticism of organic food as “unsustainable” in the popular press, and depending on where you draw your boundry, you can find that organic food takes more energy. However, these analyses tend to be very narrowly tailored to make a particular point. A better way to look at it, is to do a full life-cycle analysis that includes all (or as many as you can find) inputs into the system. An excellent (if dense) look at this is: Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System. by Martin C. Heller and Gregory A. Keoleian (http://css.snre.umich.edu/css_doc/CSS00-04.pdf) which attempts to quantify this. It turns out that the energy of production is a small fraction of the energy of consuming the food, and the benefits of producing your food locally and not processing it heavily save much more energy than your choice of farming methods. What organic farming does is remove the two largest parts of production based fossil fuel consumption (fertilizer and pesticide), but if those products are then shipped and packaged and processed, lots of energy gets put in. Organic does not equal sustainable, but it is hard to get to sustainable without going organic.

    Reply
  6. Catherine Mohr
    Catherine Mohr says:

    To Mikeoregon: Yeah… the research on lyptus was belated, and I would probably make another choice in the future. It is hard to know when to stop digging and feel confident that you really have the answer, and that there isn’t another layer left to discover. In principal, I feel that farming wood rather than “mining” it is going to be the future of sutainable wood production, but getting that right is tricky.

    To Ben: Locally in Northern California, there are excellent sources of salvaged building materials. Our local one is “Whole House Building supply and salvage” in East Palo Alto

    Reply
  7. Chris
    Chris says:

    Wonder how you got your information – if you compare FSC and PEFC, I would argue that FSC lacks independent: While PEFC strictly follows ISO rules for standard setting, certification and accreditation, the FSC accreditation body is actually owned by FSC – and when it comes to certification and standard setting, one should not forget that in FSC, certification bodies set many of the standards to then certify a forest owner against the standards that they have set themselves – how can you call that independent? And how do you come up with the idea that PEFC is an industry scheme? PEFC certifies small forest owners, while FSC certifies big business. Would be curious what your source of information is…..

    Reply
    • Catherine Mohr
      Catherine Mohr says:

      I researched the various critics of these certification schemes, as I figured there would be lots of information in what they objected to about the certification, and that would usually contain more information than endorsements. Almost all of these certifications are criticized for being too anti-business and anti-growth (probably means they are doing a good job)… some are criticized for being too lax or too corrupt (these seem to be the main complaints leveled against FSC and PEFC) and others are criticized for stomping all over the indigenous people’s rights in favor of “green imperialism” (this seems to be the main complaint against all of them *except* FSC). http://www.fern.org/ is a absolutely no compromises site that tries to really track how sustainable forestry management is, and while they have serious concerns about FSC, it is the only one that they seem to feel has any credibility at all.

      Reply

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