Friday, November 23, 2012

Wood: Savior Or Villain?

I asked Green to speak about this in a little more detail in a brief, noisy interview. He notes that architects are stuck in a glass and steel mindset, and that man-made materials are nowhere near as good as what Mother Nature has made. He wonders why sticking solar panels on the roof of a concrete or steel building is considered green when the actual building is made of materials that are not. Green says that the culture of concrete peaked with Le Corbusier in 1929 and steel with Mies Van Der Rohe in 1950; now is the time for wood.

    The Earth grows our food; The earth can grow our homes. It's an ethical change that we have to go through.

He is right; there are millions of hectares of wood in North America dying right now from the onslaught of the Mountain Pine Beetle; it is almost unethical to use anything else. But innovation in architecture is incredibly slow; the building codes are not performance based, so change takes years, and we have to "change society's perception of what is possible."

Michael Green's work certainly is a testament to wood; this atrium in the North Vancouver City Hall is a clever use of large panels of laminated strand lumber that is normally cut up for lintels and beams. Green tells Wood Solutions:

    Engineered structural timber materials with many applications have emerged from the realisation that we can chop wood up and glue it back together; that we can use the fibre, which is the basis of wood, to its best advantage. For example, we used jumbo sheets of LSL (laminated strand lumber), which is made from compressed timber waste, to construct a large building very quickly. This was the North Vancouver City Hall project, where we cross laminated three sheets measuring 12 by four metres to create a beautiful wood structure that is also exposed as its ceiling.
Architect Michael Green Calls Wood "The Most Technologically Advanced Building Material In The World." (Treehugger)

But is there such a thing as sustainably harvested wood?
Similar in a way to climate change, some of the eventual impacts of widespread clearcutting are separated from the extraction act in time and location. After all, in many forest areas west of the Cascade range, when a patch of trees is cut down, it starts to grow back spontaneously within a few years.

Yet each time the woods are clearcut, and when they are replanted as "managed forest," slopes erode, soil is lost, streams are silted and down cut, fungi, invertebrates, fish, fowl and mammals are scattered, starved, and killed.

The underlying faith that forest regrowth as provided by Nature for millennia is something inevitable, is reminiscent of the great faith that the free lunch of fossil fuel energy can go on indefinitely.

And — like the faith that humankind will somehow be held harmless from the inevitable outcomes of continued mountaintop removal and tar sands mining, ubiquitous petrochemical pollution, and use of the atmosphere as a vast open sewer — the faith in forest returning is buttressed and protected by great heaps of pseudoscientific mythology.

The reality is that on much land in the Pacific Northwest, particularly the industrial forest lands of Oregon managed under the pernicious Oregon Forest Practices Act, even where there is a dense stand of conifers, there is truly no longer a forest — in the sense of the diverse, resilient, tree-centered life-giving landscape, in which the Douglas fir, for instance, evolved millions of years ago.

Growing up outside Boston, I knew about the big trees in California, the giant sequoia and the towering coast redwoods. I loved the white pines and hardwoods in New England, but grand as they were, I understood those trees were nothing to what was out West.

The reality, I've come to understand over recent years, appears to be that giant trees were once found all across North America.

The giant conifers of the west are simply the last few remaining of a variety different species reaching great size, once spread widely across the land.

While the giant white pines of New England and the enormous chestnuts farther south are long gone — not to be seen again for hundreds of years, if ever — while some of the great sequoias and coast redwoods are protected in California — and while the tallest trees on Earth may have been Douglas firs in the Pacific Northwest, felled and milled routinely, early in the 1900s — Douglas fir of all ages, up to and including giants several centuries old, is still viewed by many as an inexhaustible commodity in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

Natural ecosystems are typically resilient to impacts up to a certain level, at which their resiliency is exhausted or overwhelmed. At this point, rather like a steel beam under increasing strain, the typical ecological response changes from slow degradation into rapid failure.

In June, 2012, 22 leading scientists co-authored a review paper in the leading scientific journal, Nature, titled Approaching a state shift in Earth's biosphere. This major paper outlines the concept and science of ecosystem collapse, and the strong evidence that cumulative land use changes across Earth are approaching the level of 90% of land altered.

Ninety percent change is enough to put most ecosystems into a state of irreversible collapse.
The Corruption of Wood (Architecture Week)

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