Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

Michael Anschel is one of Minneapolis' leading green builders, and a renowned designer and builder of remodeling and renovation projects. He uses a lot of wood in his work, but he's lukewarm about the stuff. In fact, he once told a group of Wisconsin LBM dealers: "Wood, if it were coming into the market today, probably wouldn't make it as a building material."

A tour of most any lumberyard would help back up his claim. Composite decking, PVC trim, and various kinds of siding have all taken shares of markets that once belonged solely to wood.

THE GOOD WOOD: dwell, a monthly magazine devoted to modern residential architecture, celebrated wood in its April issue. Wood is better suited than other materials to meet climate and technological challenges, dwell's editorial said. And besides, it said, "people tend to like it." Then there's steel and concrete. Neither has taken significant market share from lumber, but they keep trying. Northwestern University's Center for Advanced Cement-Based Materials is experimenting with what could best be called nailable cement. And in Greensburg, Kan., the tornado-ravaged town that's rebuilding itself using green techniques, Energy Department advisers recommend residents use insulated concrete forms.

In 2002, steel had 1.5% of the total residential market and 3.26% of the multifamily construction market, according to the Steel Framing Alliance. If gasoline prices stay high and the trend toward denser and taller housing near cities picks up, steel could gain market share. It also continues to promote itself in hot, humid, hurricane-prone areas like Louisiana, south Florida, and Hawaii.

Richard Kleiner, director of treated markets for the Southern Forest Products Association, Kenner, La., has heard such rumbling before. "When I first came here [in 1998], the Steel Framing Alliance predicted that, in five years, they'd capture 25% of the residential framing market," he recalls. "It's still a drop in the bucket."

"The steel and plastics and concrete guys have all made runs at trying to crack the housing market," adds Tom McLain, director of the Department of Wood Products at the Oregon State University School of Forestry, Corvallis, Ore. "But, at the end of the day, it ends up being about price. Steel framing is still struggling."

The traditional reluctance by builders to try something new also works to wood's advantage. Mark Hodges, president of builder K. Hovnanian's Florida division, once joked that the American home-building industry consists of "200 years of tradition unhampered by innovation." Builders and architects know wood and, for the most part, they like it. As a result, wood appears likely to stay the preferred building product for American homes.

–Craig Webb