Greener Grades: Updating LCA Data for Forest Products

Green building. The term has become synonymous with sustainability, environmental awareness and responsible development—but how do we define what is green and what isn’t? Wood products have received overwhelming positive marks from environmental activists and policy makers, but due to the wide range of options designers have when choosing forest-sourced building materials, the question remains: are there some that are greener than others?

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Researchers are conducting life-cycle assessments for wood products used in construction.

It is this question, among others, that researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) are determined to help answer. FPL employees with the Coalition for Advanced Wood Structures, in cooperation with the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials (CORRIM), are conducting life-cycle assessments (LCAs) for wood products used in the construction of buildings throughout North America. These analyses will be instrumental in helping developers make smart choices about using sustainable building materials.

LCA research identifies all of the material and energy inputs (and environmental emission outputs) associated with the production of specific wood products. This information is needed by building designers to gain credit towards environmental certifications such as LEED, the International Green Construction Code, or the National Green Building Standard. Much of the existing life-cycle data for construction wood products was collected more than three years ago, and many of the production processes have been modified.

Researchers hope to provide up-to-date data for all wood construction products produced in the United States and Canada by collecting information with help from wood industry associations, mills, and other secondary sources. By accessing national and international databases, designers will then easily be able to see a product’s LCA results, essentially an environmental report card for a product, informing prospective consumers about the material’s ecological footprint—from the amount of waste generated in its production, to the fresh water and fossil fuel required to bring it to market.

In some cases, the LCA projects data far into the future, and covers the product from the “cradle-to-gate”—from the harvesting of the tree, to the eventual disposal of the wood product long after the building has been demolished. This comprehensive approach provides the most transparency to the consumer as possible.

For more than a decade, FPL and CORRIM have partnered to generate LCAs for lumber, engineered wood beams, wood panels, laminated veneer, glulam beams and other forest products. This project is an example of the continued commitment they share toward ensuring design professionals make informed choices, and that future development around the world is greener than ever before.

For more information, please see this Research in Progress report.