Starting this month, lumber dealers nationwide will have to choose how they want to support the small but fast-growing market of green-certified new-home construction–and specifically, requirements for using certified lumber in those projects.
This need to decide–principally, about whether to get chain-of-custody certification for a certain amount of lumber inventory–will come not solely from any popular or mandated growth in demand for wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), but also from changes initiated by groups more closely linked to the lumber and home building industries. To date, market conditions, upstream suppliers, and customer demand have prompted only a few dealers to earn and maintain a chain-of-custody certificate to buy and sell lumber certified by FSC, a standard that global environmental interests initiated. It is the only allowable certified lumber to qualify under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating program for nonresidential projects.

Meanwhile, dealers have been able to supply lumber certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a timber industry effort and a standard spec in several residential green-building programs, without the need to prove its chain of custody.

All that is about to change. Not only is the LEED rating system going to be offered for home building (with its FSC-only requirement intact and an enviable amount of political and environmental-group clout behind it), but SFI now requires the entire LBM supply chain to carry chain-of-custody certificates to prove the validity of its certified lumber.

In addition, the American National Standards Institute is expected this winter to accredit for the residential sector the National Green Building Standards, which are based substantially on voluntary guidelines the National Association of Home Builders developed nearly three years ago. Geared toward the mainstream of the housing industry, the program offers more choices than its LEED counterpart for builders to earn credits and certification, though it's still a much higher standard than status quo construction practices.

These programs all anticipate a demand for green housing that has yet to sweep the country. While McGraw-Hill Construction predicts that half of all home builders will offer green-built homes this year, or about 15% market share of all new homes and a nearly $40 billion investment, most home builders still are on the fence about whether they can sell green.

On the other hand, NAHB is having a hard time keeping up with the growth of green-building programs supported or initiated by its local chapters. Two years ago, the association counted about 30 such programs; it estimates there are now about 130 programs. For dealers that sense local demand for green-built housing, it may be time to consider getting a chain-of-custody certificate for certified lumber to be ready for pro customers anxious to ride that wave.

Getting Certified

Getting a chain-of-custody certificate for either SFI or FSC is easy. The main test is on-site assessment of a dealer's operation by an independent auditor accredited by SFI or FSC. The audit can cost a dealer up to $3,000 per facility, and it confirms the written and actual processes for purchasing, handling, managing, remanufacturing, and selling certified wood through the operation. A dealer must show an uninterrupted paper trail for all certified wood that comes through the yard, and assure the auditor that that stock isn't mixed with noncertified inventory (see "Earning the Certificate").

Neither group requires a dealer to invest in new systems, software, or staff (beyond designating a leader) to pass and maintain certification. "Most dealers just adapt what they have in place," says Robert Hrubes, senior vice president at Scientific Certification Systems in Emeryville, Calif., which has audited forest management practices since 1990. "It's not rocket science," Hrubes says. "You almost have to try to fail."

What isn't easy, many dealers are finding, is sourcing and selling enough of the stuff, particularly FSC-certified wood, to justify the effort. "The return on investment isn't there because the turns aren't there," says Mike Slater, lumber products manager at Boise Building Material Distribution in Denver, which has an FSC certificate. He echoes others on the downstream end of the LBM supply channel.