What is Certified Lumber?

Green products can be certified for a range of environmentally friendly qualities such as indoor air quality, energy efficiency, sustainability and water conservation, to name a few. The number of certification programs and certified products seems to grow with each new month.

Of all the terminology used when discussing green products, sustainability might be most often misunderstood. Sustainability has been defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; a definition created in 1987 at the World Commission on Environment and Development, a division of the United Nations.

Products that contain wood in part or in whole present an opportunity for architects and builders to add sustainable practices to their work. Choosing windows, doors, flooring, roofing, siding and framing systems that are certified as sustainable not only helps the environment, but it can be a marketing hook as well.

To measure the sustainability level of lumber, two main attributes are evaluated: harvesting and chain of custody. The harvesting process is evaluated based on how trees are planted, grown, cut down and renewed to ensure the long-term health and existence of a forest. Chain of custody tracks exactly who or which company touched a piece of lumber, tracing it back to the company that employed the person or machine that cut down the tree.

“Chain of custody is important because it guarantees a link from the product to the forest it came from,” says Kathy Abusow, president and CEO, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a program based on the premise that responsible environmental behavior and sound business decisions can co-exist.

“People who buy and sell lumber get it from both certified and uncertified forests, so a chain of custody certification label assures the buyer the lumber came from a sustainable forest. Right now there’s a big push to let people know about sustainability by labeling lumber. In 2008 you will be seeing a lot more SFI logos on wood products,” Abusow says.

Only 10 percent of the world’s forests are certified sustainable, Abusow says, so there is plenty of concern about illegal logging and forest destruction going on in other countries. “These problems would be with those who harvest and sell lumber irresponsibly, who don’t intend to own the forest for very long. So for forest owners who will own their land for the long term, and have been practicing sustainable forestry for a long time, certification is a guarantee from an independent third party that they’re doing things right.

“We can be proud in America that you can source legal and well-managed wood products. [Builders] can be proud they are using a product that is produced following a standard that promotes sustainable forest management, including wildlife species at risk,” she adds.

The overall aim of sustainable forestry practices is to advance a more sustainable building material economy, says Katie Miller, communications director, Forest Stewardship Council, a group whose formation was driven in part by the failure of an intergovernmental process to agree on a global forest compact. “So, people pay attention to issues such as where lumber comes from, how and where it’s manufactured, how long a distance it traveled from cut-down to jobsite. Lumber certification challenges people to think about those things and make an active choice,” she says.

Impact on Home Building

Lumber certification alleviates concerns about mismanaged forests that contribute to soil erosion, loss of wildlife, and the clear cutting of old-growth forests, says Ray Tonjes, chairman, National Association of Home Builders Green Building Subcommittee. “It’s important that a good green home building program address issues like that.

“Still, in my experience [lumber certification] is not a builder-driven issue. It’s probably more of a supplier/dealer/distributor issue to provide the opportunity for builders to achieve green points,” Tonjes says, referring to programs such as the NAHB’s Green Home Building Guidelines. “You see a lot of advertising for different products that are FSC certified to entice builders to get green points for their homes. I see a little bit of point chasing going on, but if that works for a client, that’s grand.”

Lumber certification tells an architect or builder a product is made with environmentally responsible practices and material, says Russell Richardson, director, industrial markets, Southern Pine Council, a joint promotional body coordinated and supported by manufacturers of Southern Pine lumber. “Our member companies’ message is that they’ve been properly managing their forests since day one. After all, they’ve got to have timber to make lumber. But over the last few years, public awareness about everything green has started to sink in, and everyone is starting to pay attention. As public awareness grows, demand for sustainable products will rise,” Richardson says.

Dozens of product certification programs operate worldwide, while two programs take center stage in the United States: The Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council. Both are independent third-party organizations that certify the harvesting process and chain of custody for lumber producers.

Having multiple certification organizations, and therefore multiple logos to recognize can cause confusion among builders and architects. The confusion for some might extend beyond which program to choose, into what a certification label actually means.

Who is SFI?

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative provides lumber producers with a standard to follow for managing their forests in a sustainable way. The group also provides a method of tracking lumber from the forest to the jobsite, also known as chain of custody. “It doesn’t matter if the end product is a juice box, paper or a 2x4, you know a product is from a well-managed source if it has the SFI label on it,” Abusow says.

SFI has grown in recent years, most notably by the number certified locations across North America, which rose from 48 to more than 400. “Momentum is growing. More people are using the SFI label,” she adds.

Every five years revisions are made to the SFI standard, and SFI is entering a revision cycle this year to ensure its standards stay in touch with changes in the market. “With the global trade, we have concerns about offshore wood. So it’s important to SFI that lumber producers follow the North American standards. If a company in North America certified by SFI uses or sells offshore lumber, we make sure that lumber comes from well-managed forests as well,” Abusow says.

In addition to having its standards revised this year, the SFI Program also is being reviewed by the U.S. Green Building Council to determine if USGBC LEED for Homes points should be given to builders using SFI-certified lumber. At press time the LEED program did not award points for SFI lumber. “USGBC decided to conduct a criteria-driven analysis of different certification programs and whether it needs to be more inclusive of other programs such as ours,” Abusow says.

Who is FSC?

The Forest Stewardship Council is an international organization that certifies and establishes guidelines for forests and how they are managed. Founded in 1993 with headquarters in Germany, it was created as a result of a meeting of world leaders in 1992 to discuss concerns about the world’s forests. Environmentalists, land owners, manufacturers and others comprising a group of more than 100 entities formed FSC.

Despite its international origins, FSC maintains one set of forest management principles and criteria in the United States, Miller says. “In addition, we have regional standards that are written at the country level. In the U.S. we have nine regional standards and they differ, for example, because lumber from a tropical forest would be handled differently than that from a Northwest U.S. forest.”

FSC is an independent nonprofit third-party certification organization. “We set our standards,” Miller says. “For green building programs like the NAHB and LEED, builders can get credit for using FSC-certified wood. LEED programs recognize only FSC-certified wood for credit.

“In the beginning there was confusion about whether we were certifying quality or chain of custody,” says FSC’s Miller. “We are not certifying quality. We are certifying the source of the wood — that it came from a sustainably managed forest. We certify nothing pertaining to glues or adhesives used in a product. We don’t verify anything like that.”

Other lumber certification organizations operating in North America include the American Tree Farm System, the Canadian Standards Association’s Sustainable Forest Management System Standards and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Systems.

Making Certification Matter

How does an architect or builder make the most of a choice to use a certified sustainable product? To provide incentive for builders and designers, both the LEED and NAHB green building programs award points for choosing certified lumber. A range of certification levels such as platinum, gold and silver are awarded to a house upon completion depending on how many points are earned. That home then can be marketed as certified green, helping builders and designers sell the home as well as make a green name for themselves. NAHB and the USGBC remain the two main groups certifying homes in the United States today.

The NAHB’s Model Green Home Building Guidelines are designed to move environmentally friendly home building concepts further into the mainstream U.S. marketplace. The guidelines are based on certain basic criteria with optional points toward earning bronze, silver or gold status, with a soon-to-be-launched emerald status. “The NAHB national guidelines standardize green building practices for the entire country,” Tonjes says.

The NAHB also has worked with the International Code Council to create a National Green Building Standard, which is expected to earn ANSI accreditation at any time. Municipalities across the country can use an ANSI standard to build local codes and standards. The basis for developing the standard was the NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines.

Tonjes explains, “Lumber certification is just one of many options to earn green points within both sets of guidelines [NAHB and LEED. Both guidelines] are identical in content even though they’ve rearranged them and rewrote some sentences. Exactly the same components are in each, and the NAHB program recognizes both SFI- and FSC-certified lumber. The intent of recognizing multiple lumber certification organizations is to provide alternatives as opposed to sole sources.”

“The fact that NAHB’s green guidelines specify SFI is helping with acceptance and use of certified lumber,” SFI’s Abusow says. “Many states have developed their own local green guidelines based on NAHB’s guidelines. And as mentioned earlier, the USGBC is evaluating the possibility of adding SFI to the list of certifications recognized by the LEED for Homes program.”

The USGBC’s residential certification program called LEED for Homes, launched nationally in December 2007, is a rating system that promotes the design and construction of high-performance green homes. It awards different levels of green status (platinum, gold, etc.) based on a system of points earned for using certified lumber and many other green products and practices.

“As a custom home builder or designer, every client may have a different set of preferences on what they want green or not,” says Michelle Moore, senior vice president, USGBC. “Maybe someone in the house has asthma, so a homeowner wants to max out on making that home a healthier environment rather than focus on sustainable materials that have no implication on a person’s health. And green guidelines address issues such as indoor air quality, so you’re covered no matter what a client wants. Certified lumber is only part of the green equation.

“The certified wood credit was first introduced to the LEED point system in its second iteration,” Moore continues. “As LEED picked up steam, of course SFI and other material rating systems advanced, and the market advanced as well. A few years ago the USGBC attempted to address how we give credit for certified wood but there wasn’t enough time to respond adequately. Very soon after that the board reopened the issue. So we’re knee deep in that review process right now. We’re expected to issue a revised credit language that might include recognizing SFI wood certification.”

At press time LEED for Homes, as mentioned previously, recognized only FSC-certified lumber.

Lumber’s Role in a Raised-Floor Home
By Kim Drew

Everything old is new again. A popular building method first practiced centuries ago is making a comeback along the Gulf Coast — and nationwide — as designers and builders seek solutions to common building-science problems.

Whether it’s called “raised pier-and-beam” or “crawl space foundation,” the goal of raised-floor construction is the same: raise the bottom of a home off the ground and away from moisture, insects and potential flooding.

Designers and builders who offer raised-floor construction can create value for themselves and benefits for homeowners. The cost compares favorably to slab-on-grade designs, and choosing wood to frame a raised-floor house can be an environmentally friendly decision.

For the homeowner, a raised-floor home offers many benefits, including classic style, uplifting comfort, extended living space, a simple lifetime foundation, easy home improvement, reduced risk of flooding, and pest control and landscaping flexibility.

Raised-floor homes can be built on any soil type or condition. Site preparation is no different than for any other conventional building method, and as with any foundation system, proper drainage remains critical. Design loads must be properly calculated, taking into account any wind and/or seismic considerations. Crawl space design and construction, as well as properly installed footings and foundations, work together to ensure the satisfactory performance of a raised-floor structure.

Builders currently using the raised-floor construction method — or those who would like to learn more — are invited to register their information with the Southern Pine Council’s building professional locator at raisedfloorliving.com.