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Salvaging Lumber: A Worthy Green Goal

Like many of our readers, one of the first pages I turn to in each issue of Green Builder Magazine is the Green Builder Index. I am always fascinated by the surprising facts and statistics included there by our crack editors. One item in particular from our November issue caught my attention. According to the EPA, 1 billion board feet of salvageable structural lumber are disposed of in the United States every year.

A billion of anything is a big number, but what does a billion board feet of lumber amount to in real terms? To begin with, a board foot of lumber is 12 inches wide by 12 inches long when it is 1 inch thick. So when we divide a billion by 5,280, the number of feet in a statute mile, we learn that such a hypothetical board foot would be almost 190,000 miles long!

That is still a pretty abstract way to express the point I am attempting to make, so let's look at it another way. I visited several Web sites related to timber and lumber production, and I found a fairly wide variation in the estimates of the total board feet of lumber that can be harvested from a typical acre of soft-wood forest in North America. The figures generally ranged from 2,000 to 3,500 board feet per acre.

For the sake of easy arithmetic, which I'm definitely in favor of, let's assume a net harvest of 2,500 board feet per acre. When we execute the division, we find that we're talking about 400,000 acres of forest that is "disposed of" every year. That is an area slightly more than half the size of Rhode Island getting trashed annually, year after year.

Now, let's take a look at this in builder terms. I spoke with Ed Hudson of the NAHB Research Center and asked him how many board feet of lumber are in an average American home. Ed did some investigating and reported that according to the latest figures (from 2003), the "average single-family detached home, based on 2,300 square feet, uses 15,200 board feet of lumber (treated and nontreated)." He went on to explain that "of course, if we add the engineered-lumber board feet eguivalent, it brings us to about 16,000 board feet per home.

Are you ready? This means that we are collectively wasting enough lumber to construct 62,500 average American homes every single year. I don't know if I can express a more damning testimony to the careless handling of an important building material. Even though lumber is generally considered a renewable resource, the shamefulness of these numbers is undeniable.

We are entering an era when all industries, and perhaps especially the building industry, will be sharply scrutinized to determine how well they utilize natural resources and respond to environmental challenges. I can think of at least one obvious and important example that builders can use to improve their score.

Credit: Ron Jones, Green Builder

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