Steel Versus Wood in the Sustainability Issue

As the global move toward green buildings and sustainable building practices gains ground, we unearth more and more valuable information on how and why we do what we do. One debate that has arisen over the years is the role of steel versus wood as a sustainable building material.

On the surface, we think of wood as one of the ‘greenest’ building products, don’t we? We keep planting trees, they keep on growing with very little intervention – it’s the perfect cycle. However, not everything is as it seems. Let’s consider a few facts.

Steel Versus Wood

A fascinating article in buildings.com begins with the following statement: “All construction products have some environmental impact, whether they’re made from wood, steel, concrete or plastic. When assessing sustainability, it is important to measure all of a product’s impacts, including the atmosphere, the environment, means of disposal, and durability” 

So, when we talk about sustainability, we need to factor in how they are made, how long they last, and how they are disposed of. 

CO₂ Emissions

Of course, a steel manufacturing plant certainly generates greenhouse gases, the industry as a whole has been working effectively to decrease these emissions over the years. The article mentioned above says of wood, “The current power generation process that burns half of a tree in order to generate the energy to convert the other half into structural materials can produce up to 50 percent more CO₂ than coal-burning power plants. This is not a “renewable” and “sustainable” practice.”

Recyclability

We know steel to be infinitely recyclable without losing its innate characteristics. In fact, the ratio of recycled steel used in manufacture today far higher than ever. When wood reaches the end of its useful life, there are few options for it. Most wood from old structures ends up in landfills where it decomposes fairly quickly – which is a good thing. The downside, however, is that it releases CO₂ and methane into the atmosphere. 

Supply and Demand

The planet-wide outcry over deforestation shows no signs of abating, and as the population grows, so does the demand for energy and products. So far, we are stripping forested areas faster than we are allowing them to grow, degrading soil and endangering wildlife. Steel, as mentioned above, is mined once, but can be used again and again. 

It’s up to each of us as business owners and decision-makers to choose wisely when faced with a wood versus steel option. We vote for sustainable steel.

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