The Role of Wood Products in Green Building

Sponsored by Think Wood
1 AIA LU/HSW; 0.1 IACET CEU*; 1 GBCI CE Hour; 1 AIBD P-CE; AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines; AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.; MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the NLAA.; This course can be self-reported to the NSAA; NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; OAA 1 Learning Hour; SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning

Learning Objectives:

  1. Explain the role wood products play in sustainable building design and construction.
  2. Describe common green building standards, certification and ratings programs and identify some of their similarities and differences.
  3. Recognize terms used for green building and understand how things like forest certification, EPDs and LCAs can be used to meet green building standards.
  4. Discuss green building trends regarding building codes, building types and procurement policies.

This course is part of the Wood Structures Academy

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Building Sustainably Using Wood

When designing to meet green buildings standards, wood adds value on a number of levels. Wood is the only major building material that is renewable. As trees grow, they release oxygen and absorb CO2. And when those trees are harvested, the carbon is sequestered and held in the wood for as long as the wood remains in use.

When wood is used for the structure of a building, it reduces the carbon footprint in two ways – through carbon storage and through avoided greenhouse gas emissions, since wood products use less energy from fossil fuels in their manufacture than other materials. In fact, wood products comprise 47 percent of the industrial raw material manufactured in the U.S., yet consume only 4 percent of the energy needed for production. Every ton of wood used in place of an alternative building material potentially avoids 2.1 tons of carbon, or 7.7 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

Wood building materials also provide benefits for the ongoing operating efficiency of a building. Wood has a relatively high R-value which provides good insulating value. Wood also has lower thermal conductivity than other materials such as steel or concrete, making wood-framed buildings more efficient to insulate. Light-frame wood, mass timber, and prefabricated wood construction can all be used to create an efficient building envelope.

One of the most effective ways to improve indoor air quality is to reduce the use of materials that emit pollutants. Wood’s natural beauty can also be left exposed to a building’s interior, eliminating the need for additional interior finishes which could add VOCs. The Oregon Conservation Center in Portland, Oregon, left its wood structure exposed to the interior, creating a natural finish for tenants.

Demand for wood products provides an incentive for forest owners to keep their lands actively managed and healthy. A young, growing forest produces 1 ton of oxygen and absorbs 1.4 tons of CO2 for every 1 ton of wood. When a forest is left unmanaged, older trees eventually stop absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and then release carbon when they decompose or die from wildfire, insect damage, or disease.

Wood Building Systems

Wood construction can support green building of many occupancy types, including multifamily, mixed-use, office, industrial, education, healthcare, and more. Three common framing types all provide green building benefits.


Light-frame is the most common form of wood construction, accounting for roughly 80 percent of wood-framed construction in the U.S. Wood can be used in structural applications such as roof, floor, and wall framing, but also for other components such as doors and windows, exterior and interior finishes, trim, siding, and decking.

The two predominant types of light-frame wood construction are:

  • Type III, used primarily for multifamily residential building
  • Type V, which permits wood to be used for all structural elements of the building

The Orchards at Orenco project in Hillsboro, Oregon, is a good example of a light-frame wood structure that added sustainable value through its energy efficiency. Designers used 2x10 dimensional lumber to frame the walls, which gave them width to add extra insulation, reducing overall energy use of the complex by 60 to 70 percent.

Mass Timber

Mass timber framing uses large, solid wood members for walls, roofs, and floor structures. Common mass timber building components include glue-laminated (glulam) beams, cross-laminated timber (CLT), nail-laminated timber (NLT), dowel-laminated timber (DLT), and others. Mass timber fits green building goals in several ways. It replaces other more carbon-intensive structural materials with a renewable and carbon-sequestering option. Mass timber components are fabricated off-site to precise specifications, which reduces waste, speeds construction, and lowers labor costs; it also results in improved energy efficiency because the controlled fabrication process means they can build a tighter building envelope with fewer air gaps. Type IV, also known as heavy timber construction, first included CLT in 2015. The 2021 International Building Code (IBC) allows mass timber structures of 8, 12, and 18 floors. Tall wood structures make efficient use of building sites, another consideration for green building certification.

Prefabricated or Modular Wood

Use of prefabricated assemblies and full modular construction is growing because both approaches offer many benefits to green building in terms of efficient, cost-effective approaches. Both are suitable for light-frame wood and mass timber construction of multifamily, office, retail, and other types of building occupancies. A 2019 study by McKinsey & Company found that modular construction can trim costs by 20 percent and speed schedules by as much as 50 percent. Precise fabrication also improves the quality of the building envelope by improving airtightness. Plus, the controlled material procurement process ensures that certified materials are used.

Green Building Codes

When building codes initially began focusing on green building, they were concentrated primarily on improving energy efficiency. Now, building codes reflect a broader global movement to mitigate the impacts of the built environment by promoting material resource efficiency, waste reduction, indoor air quality, site selection and utilization, and more. Green building codes are designed to take a project beyond the minimum requirements in terms of energy efficiency and sustainable features. While many jurisdictions have their own requirements for sustainable building, the IgCC and CALGreen are among the most influential.

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Originally published in October 2021