Building as if the Forests Mattered by Sim Van der Ryn
First, a confession. I designed and built my share of wood homes, some of them out of old-growth materials. Wood, in the form of dimensional lumber, is simply a wonderful material: easy to work with, warm to the eyes and hand, natural, reasonably durable, the material that defines the trade of carpentry and the standard material for houses and light buildings in North America.
But there are reasons I’ve looked for other ways to build. I was born in Holland, a country with almost no forests and lots of clay. There, as in most of Europe, masonry is the material of choice for light construction, and it is the building industry standard. Visiting the United States for the first time, my Italian son-in-law was incredulous at our profligate use of wood — a material he considered inferior to masonry in terms of durability, fire resistance and maintenance.
About thirty-five years ago, I started experimenting with alternatives to standard wood construction. My partner and I designed low-cost housing with an early panel system using 4x8 plywood sheets bonded to styrofoam cores. I built a weekend home for my family using this system for floors, walls, and roofs. Then I discovered recycled materials, which in the 1960s and 70s could often be had for nothing if you showed up at the right time with a flatbed truck at a demolition site. The house I live in now has windows from old East Bay trains, beams from a dismantled Mendocino mill, stairs made from recycled wine tanks — all free for the asking.
Ancient old-growth forests are the keystone species of unique and awe-inspiring ecosystems — the lungs of our planet, and the host to the greatest diversity of life — whose value to society far exceeds any monetary value to a forest owner. Cutting and using any newly cut old-growth woods — our forest relatives — is the moral equivalent of murdering our living grandparents. I built the exterior of my cottage walls out of salvaged old-growth straight grain Douglas fir that had already spent a useful life as the floors of chicken coops. Thirty years later, they show no wear. Why? Study the growth rings on trees that grew slowly. The densely packed cells in the rings of winter growth may be as many as twenty to the inch. Then examine most newly harvested second- and third-growth timber that has grown up rapidly. The summer sapwood growth between the dense winter rings now fills most of the space. In the weather, it oxidizes and rots quickly unless it is constantly painted, and even then it won’t last more than several generations.
The Case for Local Solutions by Dan Imhoff
It has been said that one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the late 20th century is the fact that the Earth is a community, and that what happens to any part of that community also affects the whole. If this is true, and the Earth can only healthfully function as an interrelated and diverse community, it follows that our outlooks, approaches, and solutions must become more locally oriented. Considering the globalizing trends of cultures and economies, such an emphasis on community interdependence and local knowledge may seem outdated or even implausible. Yet creating diverse sets of local resources is among the greatest accomplishments we can achieve in the 21st century.
This realization of the importance of reviving vital, diverse communities comes at a time of unparalleled ecological threats. Global warming, species extinction, and pollution of all kinds are the by-products of cultures increasingly addicted to faraway sources of basic necessities and luxury items, oblivious to how or by whom these products are created and what their real environmental and social costs are.
Consider contemporary residential construction. While many practices of yesteryear are happily forgotten, in the past 50 years we have strayed far and wide from the community approach of bygone eras. Materials and vernacular designs, once derived from local labor and resources and informed by regional climatic conditions, have become homogenized. It is as common to see Southwestern-inspired architecture outside the Southwest today as it is to find imported wood or stone featured in a region that is, or once was, abundant in local sources of both. It is even more increasingly common to find gigantic houses that don’t blend in with either the landscape or the regional architecture and that are dependent upon consuming vast quantities of outside energy for heating, cooling, and electricity. We are living in the age of the industrial house, where traditions and limits seem no longer to apply. To build without a sense of history — of regional architecture or of the origins of the materials that go into a project — is to work in a vacuum without connection to place or future legacy.
Building A Vision: From Exploiters to Optimizers
This book, the second in a trilogy, is about building methods and materials, particularly those that optimize, minimize, or substitute for wood and wood products that are recycled or third party-certified ‘well managed.’ While its main focus is to present a conceptual overview of ways we might reduce our transgressions on the Earth’s increasingly fragmented and diminished forests through our building projects, it also pertains to a larger movement in which many people are deeply engaged—that of restoring resourceful solutions to creating shelter. We are fortunate that the environmental building community has been actively growing and evolving in all parts of the country for well over three decades. Even though real progress in ‘green’ construction may just now be getting underway, a great many models, examples, resources, and products exist to reduce wood consumption, provide alternatives, improve materials use, and move us toward ‘construction without destruction’ and ‘building as if forests mattered.’ On the other hand, time is running out for the last of the Earth’s great native forests, which can’t afford to wait for the many generations it may take to create truly sustainable forestry and revive diverse building communities.