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Wood, one of the oldest building materials in human history, might also be the greenest.

According to the USDA, one 3-5 story building built with emerging wood technologies has the capacity to offset the pollution of over 500 cars. Not only is wood easy to replace (by planting new trees, an act which is green in itself) but wood itself helps store carbon. For instance, when a tree decomposes it releases carbon dioxide, however, wood is 50 percent carbon by dry weight, so for the lifetime of the building this carbon will be kept out of the atmosphere.

Photo Courtesy of Amy Mahler.

Photo Courtesy of Amy Mahler.

According to Woodworks, a nonprofit that works with the USDA to encourage wooden infrastructure, not only is wood greener, but due to its relatively lighter weight, it’s better in an earthquake. Furthermore, studies have found that cross-laminated timber panels, which are made by laminating solid lumber in layers, are fire-resistant enough to meet tall building codes, and due to the fact that they char slowly, according to the Forest Foundation, they perform as well, if not better, than steel in a fire.

In fact, in March of this year, the USDA announced that they would plan a prize competition in order to develop a sustainable high-rise design using wood. A similar competition in Stockholm has already produced a 34 floor wooden skyscraper, and the US could be looking at similar skyscrapers of our own.

Furthermore, existing technologies to improve the quality of wood are becoming more and more common (especially in Canada and parts of Europe).

On such technology is thermally modified wood. It’s a green, emissions-free method of making wood studier. Thermal wood works by heating wood in steam at temperatures of at least 180 degrees Celsius in the absence of oxygen. This is a higher temperature than conventional treatment and changes the chemical and physical composition of the wood. Wood becomes darker in color, and, more importantly, due to esterification and cross-linking bonding, the wood becomes sturdier, more resistant to microorganisms (such as termites) and less hydroscopic (able to absorb moisture from the environment).

The Forestry of Toronto reported that not only does the wood swell up 90 percent less, but its equilibrium moisture content is also reduced by as much as 60 percent. This reduced moisture prevents decay and rot.

So not only is wood green, it’s getting stronger. And while we all thought that tree houses were just for kids or log cabin presidents, wooden infrastructures could be the way of the future.

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Nicole Levin is a rising senior at Harvard College where she studies government. She is an editor for the Harvard Crimson and writes for the Harvard Lampoon, a comedy magazine on campus. She is from Fairfield, California, home of the Jelly Belly Factory and her dog, Baby.

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