Building Materials Matter

Life cycle view supports informed choices, contributes to sustainable design
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Operational Impacts

While building materials tend to have the greatest environmental impact during extraction, processing, and manufacturing, their influence continues into the operations phase.

Energy Efficiency

It is fairly well known that wood products sequester carbon and typically require less energy to manufacture than other building materials. However, their performance related to operational energy efficiency is often overlooked.

From a thermal perspective, wood-frame building enclosures are, in fact, inherently more efficient than steel-frame or concrete construction—because of the insulating qualities of the wood structural elements, including studs, columns, beams, and floors, and because it’s easy to add insulation to wood stud walls.13 Options also exist for insulating wood-frame buildings that aren’t available for other construction types. For example, while requirements for lighting systems or mechanical systems do not change based on structural material, wood’s versatility related to building-envelope configuration gives designers more insulation flexibility.

For example, between 2004 and 2011, the Bethel School District (BSD) in Washington State reduced energy use by more than 7.6 million kilowatts and saved $4.3 million in utility costs—equivalent to the cost of electricity for 15 of the district’s elementary schools for one year. BSD reports an 81 percent ENERGY STAR rating overall, and several of its 17 elementary and six junior high schools have a rating of between 95 and 98 percent. While size, configuration, and age of the 23 facilities vary, one thing remains constant: each is wood-frame.

To become steel, iron must be melted and reprocessed to reduce its carbon content and remove silica, phosphorous, and sulfur, which weaken the steel.

Photo courtesy of Ozden Nasif , iStock by Getty Images

To become steel, iron must be melted and reprocessed to reduce its carbon content and remove silica, phosphorous, and sulfur, which weaken the steel.

Occupant Health and Well-Being

Although not included in an LCA, there is a growing body of research supporting the idea that visual wood in a building can have positive effects on the health, productivity, and well-being of occupants.

Humans have a natural affinity for nature. Being in a natural environment—a forest, park, or garden—can make us feel more relaxed. The term “biophilia” refers to this phenomenon. Although most of us understand the connection intuitively, the stress-reducing effects of outdoor nature are also scientifically documented. Exposure to nature has been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and aggression. Nature also increases the ability to focus attention and perform concentration and creative tasks.

For example, one landmark study of hospital patients recovering from abdominal surgery found that patients in rooms with a view to nature had shorter post-operative hospital stays and required fewer analgesics than patients with a view of another building from their window. Another study demonstrated that the presence of visual wood surfaces in a room lowered sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation. The SNS is responsible for physiological stress responses in humans. A third study examined available research on the human response to natural elements in the built environment, concluding that it is reasonable and desirable to employ more wood in healthcare environments.14


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Originally published in Architectural Record