Green wood

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

As long as Jeff Sties can remember, he wanted to be an architect.  And he wanted to build green.

“At age 14, I was already drawing houses with solar panels on the roof,” says Sties. Today, he is principal of Charlottesville-based design firm Sunbiosis, and his drawings still contain solar panels.  They also sport green roofs, straw-bale walls and rainwater cisterns.  And the specs for Sties’ high-performance buildings always include “green” wood.

Across the U.S. and here in Virginia demand is rising for two categories of wood that earn points toward certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program (LEED).  Builders want wood that is local and wood that’s sustainably grown. 

Sustainable timber is grown and harvested in ways to preserve habitat and minimize erosion, pesticide use and other sources of pollution.  To get LEED credit, wood has to be certified sustainable by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC).  As of last year, 100 million board feet of FSC timber had been installed in LEED projects nationwide, according to a study by Greener World Media.  Globally, the market for FSC timber topped $20 billion last year, and 7 percent of productive forests are now FSC-certified. 

Sties has used FSC wood for the framing on all five of his LEED projects in Virginia.  But little if any of that wood was locally grown. 

The sales value, or “stumpage,” of Virginia timber exceeded $345 million in 2006, according to a recent report published by the University of Virginia. Yet the majority of timber used in Virginia construction originates elsewhere.

“It could be Georgia.  It could be Canada.  It could be Eastern Europe,” says Robert Bush, professor of forest products marketing at Virginia Tech.  Construction timber is primarily Southern pine or spruce; softwood lumber.  Virginia’s specialty is hardwood.  We’re known for red oak, white oak, beech, walnut and hickory. Perfect for cabinets, flooring and trim, says Sties.  For these pieces of a project, his designs specify Virginia-grown species. 

“Buying locally makes a lot of sense,” says Bush, “if for no other reason than to minimize shipping and save on fossil fuels.”

That’s why LEED rewards use of “local materials.”  The U.S. Green Building Council defines them as products extracted, processed and finished within 500 miles of the building site.  Given this range, Virginia builders can buy timber from a pine plantation in North Georgia or Pennsylvania and still earn LEED points.

The benefits of buying Virginia wood extend beyond LEED.  “Speaking for my clients,” says Sties, “they see great benefit in supporting local landowners and employing Virginians.”  And it’s easy to be green, he adds, when home-grown wood often costs the same as wood purchased elsewhere.

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