In North America, the building sector accounts for about 37% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That represents a tremendous opportunity to reduce climate change by building more, and specifically taller, wooden buildings. A recent study by a team of scientists from Yale University and the University of Washington estimated that global CO2 pollution could be reduced by between 14% to 31% by using wood in place of steel and concrete. Clearly, it’s a massive opportunity.
For years, world-renowned Canadian architect Michael Green has championed the benefit of building with wood. Calling it carbon-neutral building, he asks developers to consider the renewable and energy-efficient solutions building with wood presents.
Green estimates that a 100,000-square-foot wood building can store 5,300 tons of CO2 and would also contribute 2,100 metric tonnes of avoided greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have been released from using alternative materials. The net carbon benefit of a 100,000-square-foot wood building is the equivalent of taking more than 1,400 cars off the road each year.
Manufacturing processes associated with wood products require less energy overall so they are responsible for far fewer GHG emissions than conventional materials. Furthermore, because forests are renewable, any trees that are harvested are regrown, largely ensuring the maintenance of our forest carbon stocks. Best practices in sustainable forest management can also help increase the amount of carbon absorbed by growing forests.
Changes to building codes now permit up to six-storey wood-frame buildings, but many buildings will be going even higher because of the development of ultra-strong mass timber products such as cross-laminated timber. For example, the University of British Columbia is currently constructing an 18-storey student residence wood building that at 53 metres (approx. 174 feet) will rank among the world’s tallest wood buildings.
Environmentally friendly wood-frame buildings have other benefits. They can be built faster, therefore minimizing disruption. Additionally, they are often less expensive and require fewer workers than other conventional materials.
For building developers anxious to reduce their carbon footprint, using wood is the obvious strategic environmental choice. Given the federal government’s commitment to addressing climate change, we are optimistic that policy developers, builders, designers and communities alike will redouble their commitment to building with wood. •Paul Lansbergen is the Forest Products Association of Canada's vice-president of strategy, innovation and economics