Author, ThinkWood Continuing Education Unit on How to Calculate the Carbon Footprint of a Building

In Collaboration with ThinkWood, I authored the report titled “How to Calculate the Carbon Footprint of a Wood Building.” This report aims to describe the methods used to measure the carbon footprint of wood building materials and the ways that these measurements can be used to reduce a building’s carbon footprint. With buildings accounting for almost 40% of global GHG emissions and the current trends of urbanization, it is critical that we set goals to reduce emissions through strategic architecture and engineering. One promising solution to mitigate the environmental impact of infrastructure is to substitute fossil fuel based building materials with wood materials. The sustainability of wood frame construction can be evaluated, quantified and certified through life cycle analysis, environmental product declarations, forest certification standards and standardized best management practices. These tools and systems can help to ensure that wood materials are used sustainably as an alternative to traditional building materials, such as concrete or steel. 

Life Cycle analysis, particularly whole-building LCAs, assess the implications of wood products at every stage in the life cycle, from material extraction to end-of-life. This tool can help architects and engineers to evaluate the environmental impacts of building designs and make material design choices to reduce the impacts of buildings. LCA studies consistently demonstrate the substitution benefits of wood due to the decreased embodied carbon associated with wood materials. 

Environmental product declarations (EPDs) are another useful tool for evaluating material sustainability by utilizing data from LCA reports to provide a standardized, third-party verified label that communicates the environmental performance of a product. EPDs are able to account for the role of the biogenic carbon cycle and assess environmental impacts associated with the various life stages of wood materials. Forest certifications, on the other hand are more suited to capture overall ecosystem impacts. Forest certifications assess a landowner’s forest management against a series of agreed standards related to water quality, biodiversity, wildlife, and forests with exceptional conservation value. The four primary systems in North America, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), and American Tree Farm System (ATFS). Responsibly managing forests can significantly reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere over the long term, and active management will become increasingly important as the climate changes. Although many builders and architects have expressed concern with the impact of increased demand for wood products on forests, studies have shown that increased wood demand leads to increased forest land area and provides an economic incentive for sustainable management for large-scale and small tree-farmers alike. 

Forests and forest products have a key role to play in mitigation of climate change due to the substitution benefits and the potential for long term carbon storage. However, in order to reap the benefits of wood materials, it is crucial to gain an understanding of the implications and life cycle of the materials through the use the tools, such as WBLCAs, EPDs, and certification systems, that are addressed in this report.