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Incremental changes in our material choices will move the needle

Explore the how and why of engineered wood’s environmentally friendly properties in our interview with Kenn Busch, founder of Material Intelligence

It’s a complicated story. But Kenn Busch, founder of Material Intelligence and Climate Positive Now, is determined to tell it. The sustainability of wood materials is an undervalued yet extremely important advantage as the manufacturing and building industries grapple with their impact on climate change and the improvements that must be made to lessen that impact.

Madison, Wisconsin-based Busch left the magazine world to create his organizations, which focus on educating architects, designers and more about how their material choices impact the world. His focus on sustainability has made him an advocate of manufacturers and builders who choose wood because of its reduced carbon footprint in contrast with other materials.

Genesis Products, Inc. had a thought-provoking discussion with Busch to learn more about composite wood materials and their impact on carbon neutrality goals.

Tell us—where does wood’s sustainability story start?

It starts with wood’s natural properties. If we go back to eighth grade science class, we (hopefully) remember learning about photosynthesis. Plants naturally absorb atmospheric C02, split off the oxygen and release it, and turn the carbon molecules into sugars to make their own woody mass. What they can’t use for their own growth is then driven into the ground. This is why the chemical makeup of trees is literally 50% captured carbon.

And then the story continues with the lumber industry and their resourcefulness in using the raw material to its max. When the industry was harvesting woods for flooring, lumber and siding, there was still half of that wood fiber available that wasn’t usable—too knotty, too small. So the industry said ‘What can we make out of this?’ It led to plywood, then Particleboard, then MDF. So instead of just using half the tree now, the lumber industry is using over 99 percent of it. It’s even more than that because the fine little bits of dust they can’t use for any kind of product are put in boilers to heat the plant or run the kilns that dry the wood.

Why is engineered wood specifically a better choice for cabinets and casegoods?

It’s denser, it’s more dimensionally stable and it’s compatible with the most efficient, modern manufacturing technologies. It’s a more efficient use of raw resources. Genesis has the best sustainability story in the world because their laminated wood products allow for very efficient manufacturing and they last a long time once they are installed because they’re so well manufactured and designed.

We hear so much talk about carbon—especially becoming carbon neutral—what does it mean?

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is global warming gas because it traps solar heat. It’s like a big blanket around the planet. Without it, Earth would be a frozen wasteland. But with too much of it—and for the past couple hundred years we’ve been burning fossil fuels to the degree that it’s creating far too much—we throw off the balance. The blanket is getting thicker, and we’re not doing enough to offset it.

So not only is pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere an important and urgent solution, keeping it out is too.

So let’s say you’ve got wood cabinets, storing hundreds of pounds of carbon, and they stay in your kitchen for 40 years. As long as that wood is kept from burning or decomposing, that carbon is kept out of the atmosphere. So if this was a tree in the forest and it dies and falls over, that carbon reenters the atmosphere in a few years as it rots. If that tree burns, all those years of absorbed CO2 is back in the air in a couple of hours. So it’s that pause that makes the difference. Carbon is always going to flow. When we can pause that, it gives us literally a little breathing room in helping us keep carbon out of the atmosphere.

It’s a great efficiency story and one we need to be telling more widely to those who are making choices about materials—designers, manufacturers and others.

Where does most CO2 come from?

Globally, the construction and operation of buildings emit 40 percent of all CO2 on our entire planet every year. For a long time they thought it was concrete and heating and lighting, but there’s been some more recent research that renovation and moving things around the interior of the building is the majority of that footprint. 40 percent is almost as much as China and the U.S. combined.

How does wood compare to other materials?

If you look at a cubic meter of aluminum, it’s possible to measure all of the CO2 that was released in the process, from mining to turning it into a finished product. A cubic meter of aluminum has a carbon footprint of 18,000 kilograms of CO2. The same volume of wood has a carbon footprint of negative 1,290 kilograms of carbon.

The point is that companies like Genesis, that rely heavily on engineered and composite wood, are building with materials that are naturally climate positive. That’s materials or processes that actually pull more CO2 out of the atmosphere than is released in its production or use. Only wood is able to do this.

Knowing all this, how does hardwood compare with composites?

Hardwoods are beautiful. But I want people to use laminated wood panels in things like elevator cabs, where they’ll last an awful lot longer and we won’t have chopped down a Walnut tree because we wanted a beautiful hardwood panel or door in a place where it will soon be damaged. My argument is hardwood is awesome, but use it where it will truly be loved and people will take care of it. In commercial settings where people aren’t going to have a woodworker on staff to repair knicks and gouges, use something that’s got a lot more durable surface.

What are the challenges ahead?

People are not going to stop buying houses, buying furniture or going to the mall. So we do the best we can with what we know. We’re not trying to flip this 180 degrees, we’re just trying to get architects and designers to make incrementally better decisions on the products and materials they’re specifying.

The other challenge on the industry side, on the manufacturing side, is that they don’t have to re-engineer what they’re already doing, they just need to tell their story better. I’m optimistic this is the best sustainability story in the world, but I’m also frustrated that it doesn’t come more naturally to people. The “this sounds too good to be true” factor is one of our biggest challenges.

If we can make some incremental changes on the materials we use in buildings and furniture, that is going to actually move the needle. That’s why I’m so passionate about this.