Is Wood the Climate-Friendly Urban Building Material of the Future?

Yves here. While it’s good to see serious thought given to how to construct new buildings at lower environmental cost, and wood scoring well, it’s distressing to see the assumption that there needs to be a lot of new building between now and 2050. Construction takes energy and resources. Despite trying to take a more planet-friendly-looking posture, this looks like only a moderate shift from the old status quo when more radical change is needed. And in fairness, the article does raise red flags about the environmental costs of the supposedly necessary tree farms.

By Olivia Rosane, who has covered social movements for YES! Magazine and ecological themes for Real Life. Originally published at EcoWatch

One of the challenges urban planners face as they attempt to fashion climate-friendly cities is how to construct new buildings. Common materials steel and cement are notoriously difficult to decarbonize, yet the number of people living in cities could increase to 80 percent of the total population by 2100, potentially requiring more new construction between now and 2050 than between now and the start of the industrial revolution.

To meet this need without burning through humanity’s remaining carbon budget, the authors of a new study published in Nature Communications Tuesday have proposed a surprising solution.

“We can house the new urban population in mid-rise buildings — that is 4 to 12 stories — made out of wood,” study lead author and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) scientist Abhijeet Mishra said in a press release.

Heavy industry is responsible for almost 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, and steel and cement production are two of the three most-emitting heavy industries, according to the Brookings Institution. The current process of making steel requires coal both to generate enough heat and to chemically transform iron ore into iron. Cement production releases carbon dioxide during the chemical process that derives calcium oxide from limestone. Producing raw materials including cement and steel for new buildings was responsible for 10 percent of carbon emissions in 2020, and using these same materials for new construction could use up 35 to 60 percent of the carbon we can still burn and keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, the study authors noted.

In comparison, building with wood has many benefits.

“Wood is a renewable resource that usually carries the lowest carbon footprint of any comparable, first-time use, and building material,” the study authors wrote. “Moreover, the carbon stored in wood, which was absorbed from atmospheric CO2 via photosynthesis, is partly preserved when the wood is used as a building material, making it a long-term carbon sink.”

The researchers calculated that if new, mid-rise wooden buildings could be constructed for 90 percent of new city dwellers, it would save 106 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2100. The new buildings wouldn’t be built from the plywood planks of single-family homes, but rather cross-laminated timber, a product in which wood is layered in a strong but lightweight construction that can be used for taller buildings, The Hill explained.

Still, all of this wood would need to come from somewhere, and this is where some environmentalists sound the alarm. The study authors calculated that the wooden cities of the future would require a 149-million hectare increase in tree plantations by 2100, as well as more harvesting from unprotected natural forests. They said this could be achieved without seriously impacting food production. However, tree plantations have less biodiversity than natural forests, and some green advocates balked at a plan that would see any of the latter cleared.

“It would be a disaster for nature and for the climate,” Sini Eräjää, Greenpeace’s European food and forests campaign lead, told The Guardian. “Natural, biodiverse forests are more resilient to drought, fires and disease, so are a much safer carbon store than the tree plantations we’ve seen go up in smoke this summer from Portugal to California. Wood can play a bigger role in construction but to double the world’s tree plantations at the expense of priceless nature is just bonkers, when modest reductions in meat and dairy farming would free up the land needed.”

The study authors acknowledged the importance of woodland biodiversity and said it was essential that all currently protected forests remain that way.

“The explicit safeguarding of these protected areas is key, but still, the establishment of timber plantations at the cost of other non-protected natural areas could thereby further increase a future loss of biodiversity,” study co-author Alexander Popp, who leads the land use management group at PIK, said in the press release.

The researchers echoed the sentiment that reducing land use for meat and dairy production was one way to provide space for more harvested trees. Ultimately, the study reveals that there is an opportunity for the construction and land-use sectors to work together on climate solutions.

“The key challenge for global sustainability is the deep co-transformation of land use and construction,” study co-author and Director Emeritus of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research John Schellnhuber said in the press release. “If carefully integrated, these two sectors can remove and store crucial amounts of carbon from the atmosphere without jeopardizing food security or biodiversity. This could become the climate solution we have been desperately looking for.”

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  1. lyman alpha blob

    A 12 story wooden building?!?!? I think I’ll take a pass on living there and let the rich folks try that out first. Rock a bye, PMC babies.

    The solution, of course, is far fewer humans living on this planet. Given the populations of current urban environments, “climate-friendly cities” is an oxymoron.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Well they did build multi-story buildings, but they also often fell down or started on fire and burned down a large portion of the city. And as the wiki article notes –

        “Because of safety issues and extra flights of stairs, the uppermost floors of insulae were the least desirable, and thus the cheapest to rent.”

        I’ll still let the rich folks give these a test run first.

        1. Polar Socialist

          Having a controllable acrophobia and mild height vertigo I can state with a deep felt conviction that anything above 5 stories, no matter what it’s made of, is perverted, unnatural, inhumane and should be demolished as soon as convenient.

          I totally accept the 19th century urban esthetics dictating that houses should never be higher than the street is wide.

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      There is a 16 story hotel a few miles from me that is made of wood. I was surprised when I saw it under construction, but it seems to be holding up just fine.

      1. vao

        The wood used in those constructions seem to be “glued laminated lumber” and “cross-laminated lumber”, all of which rely on adhesives and resins.

        When I see “composite materials” or “glues”, I immediately wonder about the longevity of those constructions, although I am sure that far more robust and durable products are used than for objects of daily use.

        Anyway, my personal experience comprises enough cases of synthetic materials turning into goo, dissolving as powder, or brittling into splinters that I became sceptical about relying upon them for artifacts intended for really long-term use. Even the concrete we use is utter crap in terms of longevity compared to the one that the Romans used.

        1. ambrit

          The “secret” of Roman cement is still lost.
          In new home and apartment construction, laminated particle board and Oriented Strand Board have been the default materials for roof decking for twenty or more years. The rule of thumb for that stuff was to get the felt paper layer on over the deck as fast as possible because those “wood like” materials did not hold up to anything more than a light shower for any extended period of time. I have seen that stuff get soaked and swell up overnight to twice it’s original thickness. It also lost most of it’s structural strength that way.

          1. Polar Socialist

            They started using glued timber in construction about the same time as reinforced concrete, around 1850’s. I gather the new glue laminates are way better than they were then.
            Of course, poor design or neglect can destroy a building, no matter the material. Roman construction examples do have some survivor bias, as in we don’t get to see the ones designed poorly nor the ones that rotted and collapsed a millenium ago.

            1. PlutoniumKun

              The key issue with wood construction is to allow it to breathe. In the UK in the 1980’s they had major problems with timber elements in new homes that were sealed up, allowing condensation build up. Its often a problem that building regulatory requirements for sealing and insulation contradict the need to keep air circulating around timber elements.

              Sometimes its not just a problem with construction – simply painting a wooden element that was intended to be exposed can have a catastrophic impact on its long term stability. A lot of timber windows have prematurely rotted for this reason.

          2. fjallstrom

            The secret to Roman concrete doesn’t appear to be that lost anymore.

            Wikipedia on Roman concrete says: “Gypsum and quicklime were used as binders. Volcanic dusts, called pozzolana or “pit sand”, were favored where they could be obtained. Pozzolana makes the concrete more resistant to salt water than modern-day concrete.[10] The pozzolanic mortar used had a high content of alumina and silica. Tuff was often used as an aggregate.[11] ”

            There appears to be modern research into how to use the wisdom of the romans today, here is an article from 2013 on sci-hub:

            (And if that branch of sci-hub has been taken down by the time you read this, there are other branches. Scientific results wants to be free.)


            The purpose of this study is to compare the effects of Portland cement replacement on the strength and durability of self-consolidating concretes (SSC). The two replacement materials used are high-volume natural pozzolan (HVNP), a Saudi Arabian aluminum–silica rich basaltic glass and high-volume Class-F fly ash (HVFAF), from Jim Bridger Power Plant, Wyoming, US. As an extension of the study, limestone filler (LF) is also used to replace Portland cement, alongside HVNP or HVFAF, forming ternary blends. Along with compressive strength tests, non-steady state chloride migration and gas permeability tests were performed, as durability indicators, on SCC specimens. The results were compared to two reference concretes; 100% ordinary Portland cement (OPC) and 85% OPC – 15% LF by mass. The HVNP and HVFAF concrete mixes showed strength and durability results comparable to those of the reference concretes; identifying that both can effectively be used to produce low-cost and environmental friendly SCC.

            I am no expert on cement research, but it appears that there are scientists today trying to use the roman knowledge to increase longevity and decrease carbon release.

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              In our own day, Iranian concrete design engineers have been working on Ultra High Performance Concrete, to make their critical facilities resistant to big powerful bomb blasts. I don’t know how Iranian UHPC compares to the Roman concrete of old.

              And for something more Iran-specific . . .

              Wouldn’t it be neat if the Masters of Concrete designed a concrete so ultra strong and long lived that they discovered they could hardly even tear it back down when it was that time in the profit-cycle to tear-down and rebuild? They or their masters might be forced to design for the ages if they use a concrete designed to last for the ages.

              Perhaps crumblejunk plastercrap concrete could be banned and only UHPC permitted for building anything at all whatever with. Legally make concrete so very expensive that the users of concrete might as well design and build something that people will still want to use for the next 500 to 1,000 years.

        2. digi_owl

          At least around here things were lab tested to hell and back before being put to use, in order to ensure fire safety and such.

          Also, depending on the construction replacing a section should be of no issue compared to say reinforced concrete.

          That said, some building use a concrete center stairwell and elevator shaft.

  2. Louis Fyne

    No, no, no.

    the best eco building is one that lasts 100+ years.

    Concrete ( steel frame) + aesthetic cladding + proper insulation will last a long time, can look good and have the lowest life cycle emissions

    1. The Rev Kev

      Forget 100+ years. I saw houses built before Columbus sailed to the new world still standing and still in use in Switzerland. You build houses and building to last centuries and a lot of the problems will go away but the modern trend is to make a building and tear it down in only twenty to thirty years. Whenever I see these building being torn down, I always think about the waste of it all and how all those materials will probably just go for land fill. I think that a famous 20th architect said once that any person that made a building to last longer than that should be called a traitor – his words, not mine.

      1. Polar Socialist

        I think you forgot to mention that the Swiss building is wooden. Build in 1287.

        Where I live, the wooden urban houses (2 floors and a masonry cellar) that have survived to this day are all 100+ years, the oldest a few years over 200 now. And there are some churches here that are from the 17th century.

        Oddly enough, our government is preparing a new building code requiring all materials in new buildings to be recyclable.

        All materials. I can definitely see a boom in wooden construction. As soon as the price comes down. If the price comes down.

        1. Anthony G Stegman

          One thing to consider is that older wood structures were made from lumber derived from old growth forests. The wood was of much higher quality. Today’s wood structures are built from lumber derived from tree farms and is of a much lower quality. Most new homes made of wood have a shelf life of no more than 50 years.

          1. TimH

            What is the issue that causes the shorter life for fast growth softwoods? Is there a citation for that.

            Also curious about lifetime for the adhesive in engineered woods such as OSB.

              1. Ron Rutter

                The span tables for beams & joists gave been been modified as a result of the lesser strength qualities of second growth timber. Faster growth, more open grain.

                1. TimH

                  All agreed, but doesn’t explain Anthony G Stegman’s claim that buildings using fast growth softwoods have a shorter life.

                  Most new homes made of wood have a shelf life of no more than 50 years.

        2. digi_owl

          Though at some point you head into ship of Theseus territory, as much of the wood, at least any exposed to the elements, have been replaced multiple times over.

        3. Yves Smith Post author

          I thought some of the buildings on Île de la Cité went back to the 1100s. Former NC writer Richard Smith in a small town new Oxford lives in a house where the first floor was built in the 1400s (two more floors added later but not that much later…..low ceilings throughout! Yours truly is not that tall and I still had to be careful not to bang my head on some doorframes).

      2. Lex

        The amount of energy we expend to throw away buildings, often simply to have new buildings constructed in the same location is astounding. I’d say half my work week is devoted to it. Many times the structure itself is fine. Developers simply don’t want to reuse buildings. And while demolition is relatively conscious about recycling everything it can (some times that’s the profit margin of the firm), not always. Nor is it always possible of “cost effective”. Plus the little things like how my state doesn’t numerically define “lead paint” so instead of recycling, all concrete with lead paint must be landfilled.

        I’ve seen giant block and steel buildings set for demo because the roof drain collars froze when they were abandoned and now all the finishes are wet and moldy. Could be gutted and reused. Will be hauled to the landfill and new buildings constructed.

        1. digi_owl

          By contrast i think at least in UK it is easier/cheaper to get a permit of you say buy an old barn, gut it, and turn it into a house.

          In the end it is all about regulations. And far too often these days they are written by big money lobbyists.

      3. PlutoniumKun

        There are plenty of timber barns a millennium or more old. Europe is full of huge timber cathedral roofs dating from the medieval period.

        The usefulness and longevity of a building has more to do with its form than its materials – organic materials can last pretty much indefinitely in most climates if properly treated and maintained. A large, spacious timber construction such as a barn can find multiple uses over centuries, while a mass concrete brutalist building can be useless in a decade because it can be too expensive and difficult to make the internal changes necessary for changing working arrangements.

    1. Revenant

      The UK has several low carbon construction options:
      – wood
      – stone; you have to win it from the ground but afterwards it can be hammer and chisel…
      – cob: mud and straw, mixed together and laid in 2ft high courses and allowed to dry, gradually building up a wall 2-3 storeys high. Pop in lintels, cut out the windows and doors beneath them and away you go. Great in compression but rubbish in tension so traditional floor plans only please! Plus you get a pond for free where you dug the clay.

      The problem with all these methods is that they are labour intensive.

      If we want greener building, we have to reduce the land cost and increase the construction cost in the price of a building. We will also have more employment, more traditional artisans and more interesting buildings.

      Building a twelve storey wooden house is misguided. There is minimal efficiency to be gained from such a building because it requires a larger land footprint and running costs for internal services and for external services, wider spacing to avoid shading other buildings (and create firebreaks) etc. Low rise contruction of 2-4 storeys is more manageable and will fit the same number of people per acre. Consider the Japanese “eel-bed” houses, with long thin floor plans around internal courtyards and dormer second storey use as storage space.

    2. ChrisPacific

      Brick is terrible in an earthquake. Wood performs really well in earthquakes because it flexes naturally and doesn’t crack or crumble like concrete or mortar does.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        The Bronze Age Myceneans built largely earthquake proof buildings by layering brick over horizontal wood beams – the latter allowed lateral movement in an earthquake absorbing a significant proportion of stress energy.

        One of the worst construction changes was replacing mortar with cement for bricks. This changed a flexible structure into a very rigid one. In coal mining areas in the UK older 18th century buildings have remained perfectly find (if somewhat twisted) over the centuries of subsidence, while later buildings collapsed.

        1. c_heale

          Wikipedia mentions Polymer cement mortars. Can imagine those breaking down due to decomposition of the plastics in the next 20 years.

  3. ambrit

    Nothing about the recycling of metals for construction use. I have seen steel ‘C’ beams, or steel studs used on both commercial and residential buildings. It is an art to use them, like anything else, but has already been worked out.
    There are more than enough stocks of discarded metal items sitting around to make them a potential useful resource. As for the heat needed to rework those metals; there are many possible “green” methods of generating that heat: recycled rubber from tyres, scrap wood from lumbering, solar furnaces, etc. Often today, the prime reason for using a heat source is ease of application. Once we realize that nothing is going to be dead easy for ever, the sooner we can ‘progress.’
    Then, as mentioned just above, there is always “The Jackpot.”
    A ‘Jackpot’ adjacent idea is the one that posits a massive drop in the living standards of the mass of the population. Instead of purpose built mid-rise apartment blocks, we go straight to favelas, everywhere. Given how greedy and bloody minded today’s elites are, that’s the one I’d put my money on.

    1. Joe Well

      The problem with building favelas in the US, particularly the wealth blue metros, is the elites are so dead set against it and have guarded every inch of land with the threat of ruthless violence up to and including killing and imprisonment in horrific conditions. Just look at what happens to homeless encampments. Instead, people are crammed into apartments way over capacity and sleep in cars or in tents. Certainly, that is the case here in Boston.

      People can just take over plots of unused land in Latin America because in many ways their governments and elites are less prone to violence, especially incarceration. Also, the people are more inclined to correctly see their elites as the enemy and to organize collectively against them.

      1. playon

        In Jamaica it has been common for people to squat on undeveloped land (often on undesirable places such as the bank of a gully which takes refuse to the sea) and then build shacks and houses there. There are quite a few reggae songs talking about it –

        With the present population of the planet, I seriously doubt there are enough natural resources to go around, especially wood, so I’m not sure where the author is coming from in suggesting that this is some kind of solution. Perhaps after the coming reduction in our species there will be plenty of lumber to go around…

        1. c_heale

          Have to agree with the last paragraph. They are already turning to woodburning to deal with the self imposed gas shortage in Western Europe…

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Steel recycling is a very messy and dirty business, its not really clear that there is much of an environmental benefit from it.

      Most concrete and rubble can be easily re-used in construction as fill or other better quality uses. The biggest obstruction is liability issues – its just simpler for buildings to specify virgin materials, even if at times the alternatives are cheaper.

      When the UK brought in a fixed fee landfill tax in the 1990’s, one result was that by one estimate, all houses were about 6 inches higher – builders were inclined to use as much on-site materials as fill rather than carting it off for tipping. Whether this was a real environmental gain, I’m not so sure – poorly sorted fill material can create all sorts of long term problems. A family members house in Birmingham, UK, needed very expensive work to the foundations because the original builders, back in 1922, used coal spoil as a foundation – over many years the sulfur went to work on the concrete and rotted it.

      1. ambrit

        Perhaps I was thinking of aluminium recycling. A completely different lifetime resources use formula.
        I do wonder at the feasibility of landfill mining. Perhaps it’s like oil. One has to wait for the costs of extraction and processing of ‘virgin’ materials to rise to meet the costs of extraction and processing of ‘recycled’ materials. A simple cost benefit relationship.

  4. Gusgus 2021

    I discovered when I built a sawmill that its insane how much wood can be used on one house ,a 4 story building literally uses a 10 acre plot ,
    I also suspect that the turnaround from planting to harvest just isnt fast enough .
    Plus the weather keeps killing trees( at least mine)
    The idea any of this can just keep going is just crazy ,someday people may have to live within limits .

    1. digi_owl

      As long as the banking system can print money at will (see BoA once again throwing mortgages at anyone with a pulse, and the correct skin tone) it will keep going.

  5. HotFlash

    I think this is going the wrong way. What are all those city dwellers going to eat? It would make more sense to spread people out where they can farm, pasture, fish, forest, and live in small villages where trades could be plied, not requiring a lot of energy-guzzling transport for people and stuff. A 12-story walk-up? Elevators may be fine when electricity is cheap and abundant, but designing with the assumption that that will last forever is, IMO, short-sighted.

    1. Joe Well

      Energy-guzzling transport is precisely why we want people to live in dense clusters. All those spread-out villages will necessitate destroying vast tracts of field and forest. Unless they are turned into serfs, those people will want to travel to visit family and friends, use services including healthcare, and just escape the monotony, so transportation use skyrockets.

      As for elevators, they’re the original electric cars, used by multiple people at that, and at any rate, a lot of density can fit into four or five-story buildings where elevator use can be rationed.

      Even in ancient Rome, farmers could produce food for many more people than themselves. Having more than 5% of people working in agriculture is ludicrous. Plus, vertical farms.

      The world you’re advocating is an ecological nightmare that would kill the planet and the fact that that isn’t obvious to everyone represents a major communications failure of the environmental movement.

      1. Bruno

        “people will want to travel to visit family and friends, use services including healthcare” etc. etc.
        The Amish seem to manage all that better than anyone else, without “dense clusters” and the rest.

        1. digi_owl

          Not sure if it was a NC comment or somewhere else, but someone recently talked about making bucks being a chauffer for their local Amish population.

          And people traveled plenty before the advent of the car. Though it often took longer, and needed to be planned better.

          And given time, services will come to the people. the transition period may be harsh though, in particular for those accustomed to the old ways. But it always has been.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        The pre-Columbus Amazon Indian spread-out rural village civilization did exactly this without any ecological nightmares at all. In fact, they eco-upgraded and bio-terraformed a hundred thousand square miles of Amazonia before the explorers came and would have kept right on bio-terraforming Amazonia if the explorers had stayed home. And they numbered roughly 6 million people before the Great Exploration Germocaust.

        So it all depends how you do it.

      3. Henry Moon Pie

        I think a number of your assumptions are questionable. Humans managed to get along very well without driving two days or flying 2,000 miles to “see relatives.”

        In any case, one thing I’m very sure of. Those people crammed into cities are a lot easier to control than your “serfs,” really peasants, living on subsistence farms. The city folk will be 100% on some kind of system/authority for their entire sustencance. Plus all those peasants will be engaged not only in growing food but in restoring ecological balance through their regenerative and permaculture methods. If they’re doing it right, they’ll even be removing carbon from the air. It’s a two-fer.

        Your 5% can feed us all is a very fossil fuel dependent and chemical/pesticide dependent way of growing food.

        At another level, how might we correct course after getting so out of sync with Nature? By doubling down on urbanization so that your 95% not engaged in agriculture are essentially removed from Nature? Or by retracing some steps back to a lifestyle more immersed in Nature?

        1. Joe Well

          I mean, in a major city, a ton of your friends and relatives are in that metro area. In a world of sprawling villages, that is impossible.

          Also, right now the carbon footprint s of actual existing rural North Americans are much bigger than the inner city dwellers, largely due to transportation and home heating. Real rural America is not the hippie commune some imagine it to be.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            When the food stops, and the water stops, and the heat stops, and the power stops; the inner city dwellers carbon footprints will go to zero altogether.

            1. Joe Well

              They, or at least some of them, would go wherever the food is, and if that’s the countryside, so be it. If they meet opposition from the locals they will have the advantage of overwhelming numbers, whatever remains of the cash and/or barter economy, and quite possibly superior military-grade weapons and certainly police-grade weapons. What happens to the people who were already in the countryside? What always happens to the people who are “already there” in a situation like this? When a society collapses, all bets are off.

              That is assuming they weren’t expropriated at an earlier stage of this grand collapse.

              Better for all concerned that we keep society going as long as possible and not think too wistfully about what might come after.

  6. Paul Whittaker

    as some one who worked in a local lumber mill, and planted 30,000 red pine in one spring planting season, with a shovel, a selective cut in eastern Ontario allows a harvest approx every 30 years. While there used to be a lot of waste back then, very little now: 2X4 on up leave slabs which are chipped for particle board, chip board, wood pellets for heating, and even the bark gathered for mulch. Currently our Provincial government allows ariel spraying to kill hardwood and brush growth, this used to be agent orange back then.

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Not great for the wild-life though. We have to do this ‘sustainably’ – in all senses of the word.

  7. LY

    This ties in with using wood for the upper floors of the 5-over-1 building types.

    Those type of buildings are what I see getting built for infilling urban/suburban areas to increase density. Which is important for changing land use policy, walkable neighborhoods, and making mass transit work better.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I used to visit friends living near Chicago. They lived in a suburb of detached houses . . . built out along the rail lines so the primary breadwinner went to work by walking to the nearest train station and taking the train in to downtown Chicago.

      So railroad suburbias were certainly possible, as proven by the ongoing existence of some of them.

  8. Carla

    We need fewer people altogether and definitely many fewer in coastal cities. I think Yves is right: there should be as little new construction in the next 50 years as possible. Meanwhile, reduce, REUSE, recycle: we have “rustbelt” cities with excess housing given the size of their current populations. Many are located in the center of the country in regions where the climate is expected to remain conducive to human life for quite some time. An intelligently governed country would incentivize environmentally sound redevelopment of those assets.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Perhaps the relevant rustbelt regions can figure out how to intelligently govern themselves in the teeth of a national elite who will try to obstruct and destroy intelligent self governance in every possible way. The first step towards intelligent self-governance of rustbelt regions is for the rustbelters to admit to themselves that they are under Enemy Occupation by a National Business-Fascist Occupation Regime, and try to govern themselves in the teeth of it. Or by treating it as damage and working around it every which way they can.

      If they can redevelop their own little regional and local survival economies, they might be able to afford to create enough subsistence-job opportunities that people satisfied with subsistence-survival jobs might be willing to come back and live in the “surplus” houses. A way might have to be found to pry the fingers of banks and pirate equity house-hoarders away from around all the houses they are hoarding.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Would different kinds of wood with different initial qualities at the wood-stage cook and compress down to different kinds of superwood with different kinds of superwood qualities?

      And as strong as bamboo already is per weight, would bamboo be a candidate material for cooking and compressing down to superbamboo?

  9. Mikel

    Why did “The Fog of War” just pop into my mind?
    Robert McNamara: Fifty square miles of Tokyo were burned. Tokyo was a wooden city, and when we dropped these firebombs, it just burned it.

  10. Carolinian

    Where I live residential construction is almost universally of wood and even the siding is typically wood composition boards. However commercial and government building seem to prefer steel frames, concrete poured floors and steel stud interior walls. I believe this has to do with different fire codes for a public building.

    In other words in America at least this “solution” is mostly already in use. In less forested parts of the world concrete construction equally as universal.

    As for our American forests and AGW, can we at least not turn them into wood pellets to be burned?

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      It isn’t we who are strip mining all our forests for pellets to burn. It is EUrope who is doing this to our forests in order to pretend they are creating sustainable electricity.

      We would have to ban the export of wood pellets in order to stop this process.

      Of course since some of this tree pelleting is being done to forests of Appalachia, where roads are treacherous and narrow . . . if something kept happening to those roads just enough to make it impossible for the pellet hauling trucks to keep hauling pellets, an aroused local woodland citizenry might try making it happen that way.

  11. Clark Landwehr

    Not and expert on construction, but seems to me the big problem is that ease of construction and cheapness is prioritized. That is profits. The “worse is better” design paradigm. Throw stuff together and unload it on the suckers as quickly as possible. Then walk away.
    Agree with Mr. Fyne: Doesn’t matter what materials are used if the structures last a really long time, like for centuries. Also don’t think we will need that much construction. Demographic collapse will take care of that.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I remember some decades ago an economics professor at University of Tennessee named David Cole ( I think) told my father about how in Austria, the government would somehow oversee making 2% 50 year mortgages available to homeseekers but only on homes built up to a durability standard including things like 2 foot thick stone walls and so forth.

  12. Jeremy Grimm

    I believe there will need to be a lot of new building between now and 2050. As the poles melt, and the oceans rise, as temperatures rise, rain patterns shift, droughts endure and flooding increases, as aquifers dry up, weather patterns shift, as patterns of employment and industry shift, as populations move and migrate, as old buildings crumble and near end of life, many existing buildings will have to be abandoned — although I am uncertain how many will need to be replaced. As the climate conditions continue to shift, many of the existing buildings will prove unfit for purpose — which is not to suggest they ever were especially fit for purpose. For these reasons and many other reasons I cannot foresee, there will be need to construct a lot of new buildings between now and 2050, and probably a need for a lot of new buildings before that time. And ignoring Climate Chaos … as fossil fuels increase in cost Le Corbusier’s urban utopia — his Radiant City — will grow dark. As diesel grows ever more costly, the long distance flows of goods will grind to a halt. This will radically change the parameters of land use, urban planning, and city design. It will affect the cost patterns for building materials and should significantly impact building design.

    This post suggests wood will be an important building material for the future … because it “is a renewable resource that usually carries the lowest carbon footprint of any comparable, first-time use, and building material.” Wood is also going to be a renewable, low carbon footprint energy source for the future — a bio-fuel. Too bad modern Humankind is only now discovering the value and importance of wood and as a second thought, the value of trees. All this Green Glow shining from wood is only one consideration, but there are engineering considerations that moderate whether to select wood as a building material. And long before engineering considerations there are far more important design problems that must be worked before selecting what materials to use for construction. I believe current building designs are ill-suited for the future. The ways people will live in the future must change if Humankind hopes to adapt to the brave new world of Climate Chaos and depleted resources. Among many other changes and adaptations, this means housing must change.

    Using wood as a primary building material is hardly innovative or controversial. It is a nice safe Green way forward for buildings, even something of a reversion to the past. Assuming that more and more people will be moving to the cities is a nice safe assumption extending current thinking while very nicely requiring the least introspection — better to worry about food production and suggest the substitution of wood farms in place of reducing land use for meat and dairy production. I believe thinking of this depth sustains little hope for the future.

    Humankind quails at the entrance to a bottleneck, at the entrance to a harsh anvil. This post offers little of solace or hope for a future for my children — even for myself as changes accelerate and worsen. Do we live in an age of severely withered imagination?

    1. Tom Pfotzer


      I am delighted to read this post.

      Do we live in an age of severely withered imagination?

      Yes, indeed we do. We don’t like thinking all that much, either, and that’s why we quail at the mouth of the bottle.

      That’s some great imagery.

      To your point about imagination: if you were to build a house tomorrow, in your current neck of the woods, what materials and major design themes would you select?

      1. Rod

        Indeed, JG is clear thinking in what he expresses, and I too was delighted to read his comment.
        I could wax long on this topic, having a forty year plus career as a Carpenter in the Building Trades—the Whole Career Ladder—Apprentice to Company Owner and back. Industrial, Commercial and Residential.
        Maybe 500+ Structures across the USA.
        Yes, I have a visible legacy which makes for an interesting ride about.
        Imagination is surely a Necessity that appears to be short supply for such a creative Industry.
        Of course there is Labor—another topic.
        And Profit too.

        PK below states:
        A far better approach is to actively discourage all demolition in favour of re-use in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
        Which I took to mean having a Plan.
        Long long ago I stopped doing any work(other than repair) where the owner did not have a Plan (sliding scale depending—Sketch to Stamped).
        We really have no Plan.
        And, IMO, having a lifetime of seeing what goes into the dumpster, any Plan only starts from the premise, acceptance, and cultural mandate for Radical Conservation.
        It would be great to have one solution for all problems, but… that’s why we need imagination rooted in Radical Conservation.

        1. ambrit

          Yes to Radical Conservation.
          I have encountered the phenomenon of Demonized Poverty. As in, I once used to go to the town dump and scrounge for bicycle parts to make Frankenbikes. I did this out of necessity. Now, I find that scrounging at the dump is illegal, and the law regarding that is enforced. Being poor is now a crime.
          Everything is financialized.
          As the Borg say: “Resistance is futile. Prepare to be assimilated.” What isn’t stated plainly is that, if one is not amenable to assimilation, one’s other option is Death.
          I wonder where Gibson originally got the idea of “The Jackpot” from.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I will give it a try.

        I do not know enough about construction methods and materials, or the engineering and architectural problems in designing a dwelling. However, I am fairly sure that current large show homes with multiple large rooms will not fit the future concept of a well-designed home. I believe bedrooms must become much smaller. The dining room, family room, and large living room with a chimney fire place will not be needed. Based on my own lifestyle and observations of the way others live, I believe the kitchen will assume the functions previously served by those other rooms. Central air conditioning and heating will be replaced by zone heating and cooling — used sparingly as an occasional supplement to the careful use of natural wind and air flow patterns — a hand wave for something I do not understand well but something I have seen and experienced in an old ship captain’s house. I believe bamboo which matures in closer to four years than forty years, selected from the large variety of bamboos each offering a variety of climate adaptations and uses will supplement trees for providing shade and cooking fuel. I believe homes will make cold weather use of the residual heat many appliances generate, and better vent that residual heat during hot weather. I believe many appliances will become too energy costly for use and some of them may be adapted to use human pedal power in place of their compressors and electric motors.

        Speculating on construction methods, materials, and engineering and architectural problems — I am attracted to designs that use reinforced concrete posts for structural support — however, I am interested in materials other than rebar as a reinforcing material. I have read about the use of bamboo and plastic fibers as reinforcing materials. I am not enthusiastic about the ordinary mix of concrete or cement because of its weight and the difficulty I foresee in moving it from its source to a building site. I think I would use a commonplace mix of cement, or if available pozzolana cement, to encase a truss structure constructed from some stiff material compatible with the cement — not rebar. For walls I like the idea of cellular cement wall sections reinforced with plastic fiber and mixed for a light weight that can be tilted and placed using a small tilt mechanism — like a special cherry picker lift. I am not sure what to use for beams to support a roof. I would probably use the metal trusses like those used in constructing warehouses, but where I have chosen to live I would need a shed roof with a fairly steep angle to deal with snowfall and ice. I do not know what to use for a roofing material. I would like to find a material that would not pollute the run-off water. I hope I might collect that for use during dry times. I think a cistern would be a useful addition to my dwelling along with some kind of water purification system. I have no idea how to implement either of these. For my bathroom, I am attracted to the ideas of the Humanure system, but again I know very little about it or its practicality or issues of its legality in even the relatively rural area where I live. I worry about how to deal with heat and humidity during the hot months and have no good ideas beyond recognizing that a conventional air conditioner will be impractical. I would also try to live off-Grid while attached to the Grid. The Grid is very convenient but although I do not expect a full collapse during my remaining lifetime, I am not optimistic the Grid will be available in my children’s future. I do worry about my children’s future even though I am growing pessimistic about the future of my own children. I like foam materials for their light weight, and heat and sound insulation capabilities. I do not know the best design for a building envelope. I got the impression that is still an area of controversy

        I could wander on, but the great scope of the problem and the too limited scope of my knowledge quickly reaches greatly diminished returns.

  13. Solarjay

    My question is about “recyclable”

    Wood could be if you grind it up for OSB or similar. But you can’t or currently no one does make small wood that way. 2×4 etc.

    But as best I can tell concrete is 100% recyclable. The rebar is melted down and made into rebar again. The concrete is ground up and used as base rock for new concrete.

    So I don’t understand how this precludes steel or concrete buildings?

    Is it because “recyclable” really means to those people organic materials?


    1. Tom Pfotzer


      How is the rebar extracted from the concrete? It’s embedded pretty good (strong physical bond between concrete and bar). How do they separate @ recycle moment?

      I happen to be a big fan of concrete, esp. reinforced concrete. Composites (2 dissimilar mat’s, fusion of the two creates a hybrid mat’l that has best properties of both constituent mat’ls) are a much underappreciated materials strategy.

      I am also a big proponent of “build once, use forever” and stone, concrete, even steel if protected properly….lasts a very long time.

      Speaking of steel…it’s a fabulous material. Formable, weldable, recoverable, ubiquitous, strong, cheap…it’s probably my favorite mat’l to build stuff with.

      1. Solarjay

        Hi Tom
        The concrete is crushed and broken up. As it is, the rebar is exposed and separated.

        Yes that takes energy and big equipment to do.
        Vs say wood which would be first separated into good /bad wood then ground up.

        One difference is that concrete is made everywhere vs wood OSB only a few places. The wood has to be transferred to that facility vs the crushed concrete is ready to go in your local concrete plant.
        As others have pointed out, concrete is 100 yrs+, wood not so much.

        I still am curious about the definition of recyclable and how it then influences policy

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          This is Making Shit Up. Concrete is not recycled now to any meaningful degree and there are reasons why, as in technical problems not solved.

          The biggest barrier to using recycled concrete has been the variability and uncertainty in the quality and properties of the recycled material and how this variability affects the strength, stiffness and durability of reinforced concrete structures. Kurama’s team is trying to develop an understanding of how using recycled concrete affects the behavior of reinforced concrete structures so that buildings using large amounts of recycled material can be designed for safety and to serve their intended purpose without undesirable consequences in performance.

          You made an airy assertion with zero substantiation. I do not have time to clean up you misinforming readers. I will not approve further comments from you unless you provide evidence. You’ve been doing this regularly and it has to stop.

        2. BillS

          And i would add that the lifetime of steel bar reinforced concrete is less than 50 years in most cases (as a result of water infiltration and cracking as the rebar rusts and expands).

          Recycling of concrete is rare, but I have seen used concrete broken up and utilized as filler material in roadbeds and under railroad sleepers.

          Concrete production (and probably any recycling) is a highly energy intensive process using enormous quantities of oil or gas in lime slaking kilns. Wood processing is much less energy intensive.

          1. Polar Socialist

            I would add that wood is much better thermal insulator than concrete (like seriously better) and yet it “breaths” – it’s easier to have a healthy microclimate inside a wooden building than a concrete building.

            And when that fails, in a wooden structure it’s often possible to change the rotten parts. Heck, where I live, some decades ago it was popular to buy old log houses not in use, dismantle them carefully marking the logs and then reassemble the house in a new place. Can’t do that with a concrete house, at least not within a few weeks.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      The issue of recycling concrete is… well, complicated. In nearly all cases re-used concrete is used for lower grade uses, such as hardcore and fill. Since concrete is made from very common products (sand and limestone essentially), its not really clear there is a big gain from re-using it. There is also the complication that a lot of concrete products are made using another waste product – pulverised fuel ash. And its not particularly good to re-crush this material, precisely because it is stabilized within the concrete (the PH of limestone cement is particularly good at preventing leaching). Some older concrete structures used flue ash which is highly toxic – this stuff is best left alone. Back in the 1990’s some flue gas material from an incinerator in London was ‘accidentally’ mixed in with bottom ash for concrete block construction. Nobody knows where those blocks were used.

      IMO, direct recycling of all building materials is a bit of a waste of time for all but the most high value materials. It makes sense to use most sorted hard materials from demolition for fill and other purposes, and metals of course can be (and usually are) resold for scrap. Its not clear to me that laminates and other internal fitting materials can be usefully recycled.

      A far better approach is to actively discourage all demolition in favour of re-use in all but the most exceptional circumstances. And building regulations need to ensure that buildings are constructed in a way that allows for constant redesign and re-use. The reason so many buildings from the mid to late 20th century are demolished is not that they are structurally unfit – its that their layouts and floor to ceiling heights make them impracticable for modern uses, and its too expensive to change these, so developers simply find it cheaper to demolish and rebuild. In my local area, I’ve seen 1970’s offices demolished for this reason, while 18th century buildings have continued to be both very attractive, and endlessly modified for contemporary uses.

      Just as a little example, on my daily journey to work I pass an 18th Century court building which is still perfectly functional for modern use. Across the road from it was an early 1970’s office building, 8 storeys high. The latter was empty for about a decade, and there were several attempts to turn it into either apartments or offices. But all proposals proved unviable because of its mass concrete structure and low floor to ceiling height. It was demolished and replaced with a cheap hotel, which I would estimate will probably last for about 3-4 decades before it in turn will have to be demolished (the layout would make it almost impossible to use for anything but a hotel). I’m sure by then the court building will still be a perfectly good court building.

      1. ambrit

        Depending on population fluctuations, The ‘cheap’ hotel could also end up as tiny “efficiency” apartments. A number of older motels in this region have been and are being remodeled into one bedroom efficiency apartments. They are being rented out to the University crowd and poor folk. We also see motels not being remodeled and still being rented out to the poor. The phenomenon of renting by the week has been common for several decades now. Extended stay motels is the term of art. How the landlords get around the zoning regulations is a question for the ages.

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