The Plywood Dilemma

Among the many perplexing choices facing a sustainable builder, appropriate sourcing of wood ranks high. A lot of wood goes into most buildings, even those that are “straw bale” or feature other alternative building materials.

For the purposes of the Living Building Challenge, and as a responsible builder trying to make good choices, buying lumber that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a great way to go when buying lumber and other wood-based products. The FSC certifies forests, mills, production facilities, wholesalers and retailers to ensure that good practices are being used along the entire “chain of custody.”

FSC-certified wood is a great choice, but what about when that choice comes with other considerations? We faced this dilemma when trying to source FSC certified plywood for our subfloor. After much research into plywood manufacturers, we learned that there are no construction-grade plywood mills in Ontario at all anymore, and no plywood mills anywhere in Canada that produced the type of material we needed with an FSC certification.

The only FSC plywood we could find would need to be imported from Oregon (about 4,000 km away), and that plywood still contained phenolic formaldehyde, a product on the Living Building Challenge’s red list of materials to exclude from the building. After more research, we learned that the Living Building Challenge has accepted use of this type of plywood and made exceptions for distance of travel in recognition of the fact that there are no other suppliers for this material.

As an alternative to importing FSC plywood, we looked at decking our floor with a locally milled pine ship-lap. This wood is not FSC certified, but it comes from a family-owned sawmill (Chisholm’s of Roslin) in our local area, a mill that buys all its logs from the local area (within a 100 mile radius of the mill). We’d be breaking a Living Building Challenge directive in using non-FSC wood, but we’d be supporting our local economy, greatly reducing transportation energy and not introducing any traces of formaldehyde into our building. As it turned out, the cost was very similar between the two materials.

Rather than imported plywood, our floor is decked with a locally milled pine 1×8

 

In the end, we decided to use the local wood. It’s a decision we feel good about. But it’s a great example of the different pathways a sustainable builder can take, and the choices that will be faced along the way. My favourite thing about the Living Building Challenge is the way in which it can make a builder reconsider standard practices. Rather than just using a “greener” version of a conventional product, sometimes the better answer is to change practice altogether.

Interestingly, many of the old-timers who visit our site have commented on how this is how they used to deck houses all the time back in the old days… a good reminder that locally-sourced, sustainable building used to be common practice.

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