The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has followed up on its plan to support more construction with wood by issuing a proposal that government, university, and wood industry resources come together to undertake research that would tout wood as a way to fight global warming and assist in green construction movements.
The proposed research would focus on life cycle assessments (LCA), which attempt to measure a materials environmental impact throughout the lifespan of that product. It was one of three suggestions that USDA made last week in a new report entitled "Science Supporting the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Using Wood and Wood Products in Green Building Construction. The other two called for supporting the WoodWorks program, a U.S-Canadian initiative to encourage greater use of wood in constrction projects; and continuing an already existing partnership with government and forest research organizations that promote the use of wood in residential and non-residential construction as a means of locking up carbon dioxide that otherwise might go into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.
All three proposals are part of USDA's effort to create excitement for wood as a building material by showing how it supports the green movement. They come about six months after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA will preferentially select wood in its new building projects, seek to enhance research and development in green building materials, and look for ways to show off wood as a green building material in big buildings. (Story)
"Despite clear sustainability advantages, wood is often not considered to be a 'green' building material by design professionals and the general public," the report said. "Further, there is confusion about the benefits of renewable (wood) versus recyclable (steel) materials and the true environmental impacts associated with each."
The paper supported development of LCA research as a way to better understand the green aspects of wood and measure it as a sustainable building material. LCA records and tracks the movement of materials and energy through various stages, from extraction of raw materials to manufacture, distribution, construction, use, and disposal.
"LCA methods are standardized, transparent, credible, and internationally recognized," the report said. It also encouraged the USDA to make LCA information available to the general public.
Along with noting a lack of available information regarding LCAs, the Agriculture Department also said a lag in research and development of new wood products created a barrier that kept wood from the forefront of green building. The report remained optimistic about whether such hindrances could be overcome and said good results could be achieved in a "reasonable time period."
The agency said LCAs can also be valuable in creating environmental product declarations, which is a summary of impacts associated with creating or using a product, for all wood products.
Aside from new assessment methods, the USDA report cited a need to upgrade and improve the various codes and standards in regards to green building and green materials, with each being different in its own way.
"The USDA has the opportunity to take a lead role in advancing wood as a green building material through the development and implementation of programs that are publically relevant and are an appropriate role for government," the report said. "Policy makers as well as the forest products industry and resource management organizations support a science-based approach of outlining the benefits of using wood and wood-based products in green buildings in the United States."