Carbon and the Built Environment


“Every year, billions of tons of carbon are released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests, creating a 40 percent spike in the concentration of atmospheric carbon since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.1 In 2012 carbon dioxide levels jumped to 395 parts per million and climbed to 399.71ppm in May 2013.”


“How could the innovative use of wood affect this current trajectory? Manufacturing and construction make up 13.8 percent of global CO2 emissions. In considering the materials used during construction, the highly energy-intensive production of iron and steel accounts for 30 percent of all industrial emissions, and cement accounts for 26 percent of all industrial emissions. The cement industry alone is estimated to use 2 percent of global primary energy consumption, or about 5 percent of total industrial energy consumption on the planet.6 These high levels of energy use and industrial emissions can be reduced by the substitution of low-emission materials. Because wood sequesters far more carbon than is emitted during manufacture, the use of wood represents more than a 100 percent reduction in fossil fuel emissions compared to non-wood products.”


“Much can be said of the quantifiable environmental reasons to pursue wood construction, but this unique material also presents more subtle and qualitative arguments for its use. In the hewn logs, joinery, and ornament of traditional wood construction, we can find a reflection of the people and cultures who raised these structures.”



Decline of Wood

The second major factor in wood’s decline was fire. Severe and often recurring fires in cities around the world created catastrophic destruction. The Chicago fire of 1871 killed hundreds, left 100,000 homeless and destroyed three square miles of the city. As a consequence, non-combustible materials such as brick and stone became the norm for urban construction and new regulations were often enacted to limit the use of wood in construction.


In addition to fire, the rise of industrialization and new construction methods using iron, steel, concrete, glass, and plastics eroded the use of wood. Many of these new products had properties that could be clearly verified and did not possess the natural inconsistencies of solid sawn wood.