The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN for short) is a non-profit that identifies flora and fauna threatened with extinction. They’re committed to conservation and to provide the world “with the most objective, scientifically-based information on the current status of globally threatened biodiversity.”
The Emerald Ash Borer beetle arrived in Michigan from Asia in the late 1990s via infested shipping pallets. Without predators they’ve spread rapidly. In their larval stage they bore a channel under the bark that girdles and kills the tree. Tens of millions of Ash trees in North America have died as a result. An entire Ash forest can be wiped out within six years of infection. The IUCN just classified five of the six most prominent Ash tree species in North America as “Critically Endangered.” The sixth Ash specie is assessed as “Endangered.” The only classification beyond “Critically Endangered” is “Extinct”, which means that the IUCN has just reported that Ash trees in North America are on the verge of extinction.
It’s hard to imagine the North American deciduous forests without Ash trees. They are a key component to the forest ecology providing habitat and food for squirrels, birds and insects. They are also a valuable timber used in the production of furniture and flooring. Ash has beautiful white and creamy colors with a grain pattern as distinctive as Oak. Its natural elasticity and a high resistance to impact made it a favorite wood for tool handles, baseball bats, and hockey sticks. It’s quite possible that we’ve held Ash in our hands more than any other hardwood. Planet Hardwood recognized early signs of stress when many flooring mills removed Ash from their menu. Mainstream flooring production with the color consistency necessary to qualify as a “select” grade of Ash has been unavailable for over two years. There’s a frantic effort to stem the destruction, but the Ash Borers’ range naturally increases with higher average temperatures, threatening six billion trees. Human activity via the movement of lumber and firewood unintentionally contributes to the spread. Every Vermont state park has signs that remind people of the danger.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this. Only a tiny fraction of Elm trees proved resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. It’s caused by an invasive spore that attaches itself to bark beetles. Postcards from the fifties still showed Elm trees, with their fluted profile, providing a beautiful tunnel of green for city streets in Burlington Vermont. By the time I got here in the 1970’s most were gone or dying. The most famous instance of an invasive species impacting our hardwood forest is the Chestnut blight. It’s estimated that the American Chestnut tree was between 1/4 and a 1/2 of the entire volume of hardwood that grew within its range. The contribution Chestnut made to the forest ecology and to human survival is difficult to appreciate. Its wood was used in all phases of construction; its bark was a source of tannins for making leather; and its nuts provided nourishment for wildlife, livestock, and people. Chestnut was soft enough to work with hand tools, and its natural resistance to environmental degradation made it a popular wood for hand-hewn post-and-beam construction. In the beginning of the twentieth century a fungus was imported from Asia and within fifty years ten billion Chestnut trees succumbed. When it comes to the destruction of an entire well-established species by a disease, it’s hard to find an example in modern history that compares to the Chestnut blight.
American Chestnut flooring is only available now using wood rescued from old buildings, and it’s very expensive. Ash might follow a similar path. As for your old baseball bats and hockey sticks?… Hold on to those. Anything made from Ash could be the last of its kind.
Some of you may have seen the 60 Minutes piece about Lumber Liquidators (LL) this past Sunday. If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so (the youtube link may be liable to change but here’s a current link to the report). Reading with interest the blogs and feedback on their web and Facebook pages, and from our experience here at Planet Hardwood, I’d like to dispel some commonly held misconceptions:
- Within the industry “laminate” refers exclusively to plastic laminate which is the product category in question. This product is a layer of clear melamine plastic over a picture of wood (or tile or your cousin Henry) on a substrate of high density fiberboard (HDF). Outside the industry it is very common to incorrectly include wood engineered flooring in that category of “laminate” since thin layers of anything satisfies the dictionary definition of that word. Formaldehyde emission mis-labeling is not a problem in the wood business. It’s about as unlikely as finding something other than rice in the rice box at the supermarket.
- Not everything produced in China is suspect or deficient. Also, the Chinese don’t conspire to mis-label and confuse. Remember, this is a factory producing a private label product to a Lumber Liquidator specification packaged in a box designed by Lumber Liquidators. Lumber Liquidators brands it and that’s how they conduct their entire business. They’ve never produced a square foot of their “own” flooring. The Chinese mill managers immediately answered the tough questions posed by the undercover 60 Minute “buyers” in an entirely honest and forthcoming manner. This has also been our experience at Planet Hardwood when dealing with Chinese mills. You either pay for quality or pay for crap… there are no secrets. The customer is boss.
- Planet Hardwood decided years ago not to sell plastic laminate flooring. Or carpeting. Or vinyl. All of these products leave toxic trails in production, have a limited life span, will spend most of their time on this earth leaching poisons into the environment, and are unhealthy to live with while in your home.
At Planet Hardwood we get a full range of reactions to the consideration of engineered wood flooring. Engineered wood flooring is an all-wood floor that puts the specie one desires on the top layer only. The rest of the thickness has layers of wood arranged alternately lengthwise and crosswise thereby making it stable.
Engineered wood in other building applications is either fundamental (like plywood) or a signature of quality (like joists and rafters). In wood flooring it’s perceived most of the time as a “less-than” option to solid wood flooring.
Some of this is sound judgment, as the cheapest, crummiest, poorest performing, ugliest (in our opinion) wood flooring is engineered.
But, the best performing, most versatile, most efficient, most developed, most stylish wood flooring in our showroom is also engineered.
So engineered wood flooring occupies every rung of the ladder in terms of quality and value, but most people’s frame of reference is with the crummy stuff.
Sustainability and Engineered Flooring
I’ve come to appreciate engineered flooring from a resource-use, or sustainability, standpoint.
The North American profile for solid wood flooring is pretty familiar: 3/4″ thick and tongue-and-grooved. I distinguish it by North American because it’s fairly exclusive to us. They take a different approach in the rest of the world to wood flooring, and here’s one of the reasons why:
The only theoretically usable portion of that 3/4″ tongue-and-groove profile is from the top of the tongue to the surface. However, when refinishing the floor, one of the first investigations of a sand-and-refinish crew is how much of that distance above the tongue is left from the previous and/or initial sanding(s). If anything approaching half that distance is gone, they run the risk of making it too thin on the groove side to survive a footfall without cracking.
The equipment is simply too big and heavy and the sandpaper too gritty to offer a consistently fine enough tolerance to avoid that risk.
So in practice, the only usable portion of that piece of solid wood flooring is about half the distance from the tongue to the surface. With our 3/4″ profile that translates to 1/8″. This end result is that with a solid wood floor around 80% of the resource is wasted.
A quality engineered wood floor offers the same usable top wear layer as a solid wood floor with a support package of ‘lesser’ woods arranged in an alternating 90 degree stack. This makes the flooring six times more stable than its solid counterpart, allowing its use below-grade and/or directly on concrete.
The lesser woods could mean lower grades of the same species, faster or plantation-grown species, pre or post production wood waste or plywood. All of these options take the pressure off the primary forest and ultimately maximize the yield from the log.
Making the right choices when sourcing wood
Some of the flooring mills that supply us have the versatility to take the raw material downstream in production and make either a solid or an engineered floor. In two recent cases we directed the mills to produce the engineered format.
In one case, it involved a species available to us only sporadically. It comes from an environmentally certified mill that manages their forest to the highest environmental standard in the world. The restrictions result in a harvest-driven menu of choices, not a market-driven menu. Years could separate access to this species. By maximizing the usable material through the use of the engineered format, more total square feet of flooring becomes available.
The other case involved a figured domestic hardwood rarely found in wide dimensions, but the raw material could result in flooring up to 7″ wide. It would have been irresponsible to waste 80% of the Canarywood or Birdseye Maple resource. Instead, we multiplied the square footage.
All of this is to point out that whether we’re looking at sustainability, product availability or performance aspects like stability, a quality engineered wood floor is not a compromise in any way and often, it’s the best recommendation.
Nearly 25% of all industrial wood consumption is from plantation sources, and that number is expected to double over the next 50 years. Most of the Teak flooring sold in America is sourced from plantations in Central America, and just about all of our Southern Yellow Pine is plantation grown. Radiata Pine plantations occupy nearly 8% of New Zealand’s land area and Palm Oil and Rubberwood plantations occupy over 80% of Malaysia’s arable land.
Plantations are a mixed blessing. They remove pressure from the primary forests and can additionally reclaim degraded lands, halt soil erosion and sequester carbon. However, they can also replace a bio-diverse native forest with a mono-specie. Most woods do not lend themselves to plantation forestry and can only grow in a natural habitat. (more…)
Let’s start with running a “green” business. Businesses are making marketing hay out of good standard business practices which qualify as “green”. Here’s the secret: reduce waste wherever you can and be more efficient and productive. For any good business, that’s an ongoing effort especially when impacted by a sudden increase in costs, like fuel. Consume less and steer your purchasing of operational necessities towards responsible products. This is stuff your mother told you: shut the door, turn off lights when not using them etc. etc. Anyone, like myself, who grew up with parents who lived through the Great Depression, started getting their “green” education early on.
As far as being in a “green” business, there are several challenges, beginning with the basic question: what is “green”? “Green” has replaced “natural” as the most abused word in the English language. Everything is “green” these days. (more…)
To identify the most environmentally responsible building material, the choice would logically rest on two fundamental principles:
- It is a renewable resource.
- It is a biodegradable resource.
Wood is the only common building material that satisfies those criteria. Measured against plastic, steel, aluminum, concrete, or cloth, wood is the most environmentally friendly in terms of low emissions, energy consumption and toxic by-products. Every part of the tree has a use.
Trees are mostly carbon. The carbon comes from the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, and through the process of photosynthesis is converted to wood fiber. This carbon is “fixed” in the wood, and can only be released if the wood is burned or allowed to rot above ground. A young growing forest helps to balance the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. This is an ongoing renewable natural process.