‘Is Wood Good?’ Event Summary

March 22, 2011

Is Wood Good?

Presentation and discussion hosted by the Brooklyn Bridge Forest

Greenspaces, 394 Broadway, New York NY

March 16, 2011

  • Introduction – Scott Francisco
  • EcoMadera – Peter Pinchot
  • Patagonia Sur – Divya Mankikar
  • TerraMai, Reclaimed Woods – Andy Kjellgren
  • Brooklyn Bridge Forest – Scott Francisco
  • Group Discussion

The “Is Wood Good?” event was a great success. Many thanks to Greenspaces and everyone who attended. A video recording of event highlights will be available on through Facebook.

The evening began with introductory remarks by Scott Francisco of Brooklyn Bridge Forest. He started by raising the question about criteria for sustainability in terms of architecture and building materials, using a quote from Peter Buchanan’s Ten Shades of Green. http://www.tenshadesofgreen.org/10shades.html

“…Green design is not only about energy efficiency…it involves a whole nexus of interrelated issues, the social, cultural, psychological and economic dimensions of which are as important as the technical and ecological… ‘Ten shades’ refers to ten key issues that need to be considered to create a fully green architecture: 1.low energy/high performance, 2. replenishable sources; 3. recycling; 4.embodied energy; 5.long life, loose fit; 6.total life cycle costing; 7.embedded in place; 8. access and urban context; 9.health and happiness; and 10.community and connection. “

Scott went on to describe “embodied energy” and the difference in the energy embodied in wood compared to other common building materials:

“…The common building material with least embodied energy is wood, with about 640 kilowatt-hours per ton (most of it consumed by the industrial drying process.) Hence the greenest building material is wood from sustainably managed forests. Brick is the material with the next lowest amount of embodied energy, (4X) that of wood, then concrete (5 X), plastic (6X), glass (14X), steel (24X) and aluminum (126X).

Scott then introduced the first presenter, Peter Pinchot, who spoke of his EcoMadera project. ( http://www.pinchot.org/gp/Ecomadera) This project in Ecuador is protecting forests from agricultural expansion by creating economic alternatives for local communities through a new business venture. Ecomadera is a multifaceted forest business based on a mix of forest products such as plantation Balsa and limited harvesting of old growth hardwoods strategically extracted without the creation of new roads. Peter emphasized the need to balance the harvest of tree species that reflect the diversity of the forest. Ecomadera has developed a hardwood flooring product that combines several wood species to encourage this diversification.

Next we learned from Divya Mankikar about Patagonia Sur’s ( www.patagoniasur.com)  success in reforesting large areas of degraded pasture in Chile’s Patagonia region. This business has successfully created massive reserves of existing and recently planted forest. This effort is sustained by a for-profit business model that mixes ecotourism, carbon offsets, and sustainable land development. Patagonia Sur’s success has been made possible through a combination of local stakeholder involvement and investment from developed global economies.

We also heard from Andy Kjellgren of TerraMai ( www.terramai.com), a company that specializes in the reclamation and re-use of wood as a means of extending the material’s life cycle. Terra Mai is particularly focused on reclamation of tropical hardwood. Andy cited several projects which exemplify his company’s business model, including, most notably, the latest phase of the High Line decking, which was built from reclaimed teak rather than the old-growth ipe used in the first phase of construction. He also presented ideas for re-use of the wood that will be salvaged from the Brooklyn Bridge boardwalk. Potential uses include down-cycling the wood into city projects like benches and other exterior applications which could create local employment and new cottage industries.

Scott Francisco began the Brooklyn Bridge Forest presentation with the new mission statement, refined through ongoing research and conversation with collaborators, critics and advisors: The BBF mission is to create a global landmark in rainforest conservation by leveraging the prominence of the Brooklyn Bridge boardwalk to secure sponsorship funds, research support and oversight partnerships. Local community stakeholders are considered to be critical partners in economic, educational and social dimensions of the project. Global “transparency” was also emphasized as a critical mission of the project; i.e., how can the Brooklyn Bridge Forest help to build world-wide awareness of real life long-term environmental impacts of consumption? It was also stressed that the Brooklyn Bridge Forest is based on the educational and research potential of a ‘bounded’ land area that will be used to study long-term impacts of the forestry model as well as provide opportunities to visit an actual place that provides the wood for the Brooklyn Bridge.


Following these presentations the discussion lasted past 10pm, interspersed with wine, cheese and snacks. We heard from a wide variety of participants in the conversation. Tim Keating from Rainforest Relief led with questions to the panel on the assumptions of sustainability, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. This in turn led to a much more detailed conversation about the relationship between different tree species, forest ecosystems, wood quality and outdoor service lifespan of old growth versus young/plantation species.  While there were many different and sometimes conflicting viewpoints, it was generally agreed that a holistic view was the only way to assess the benefits and potential pitfalls of any particular model, and that “long term impacts” were the ultimate test of success.

Questions and comparisons were raised between tropical species and domestic species such as black locust. (It was noted that this wood has been used recently in NYC with mixed results.)  Tim Keating asked: why not use the BBF project to cultivate a domestic forest (eg black locust) to supply material needs, and thus preserve an acreage of untouched rainforest? The answer from Scott Francisco was that the BBF project is not simply about finding the most sustainable material for the boardwalk, but rather about advancing rainforest conservation. It was raised that the primary value of the BBF project was to fund a visible and sustainable example of rainforest protection at a global level, a bulwark at the frontier of rainforest destruction, and that the project must be scalable and/or catalyze other change.  The financial resources that the Brooklyn Bridge Forest unlocks should be used strategically in the area of greatest need for long term rainforest protection.

Other strategies discussed included: architectural design focused on sustainability, reforestation, well-managed timber harvest and valuable timber products, forest certification and sourcing certified products, carbon offset projects that reward conservation, increased indigenous ownership and governance of forests, and taking pressure off tropical forests by recycling wood and utilizing North American species to serve North American markets.

Conclusion: With many different viewpoints, organizations and fields of expertise represented the event was lively, and productive. Speakers and audience represented a wide range of valid strategies for addressing the threats to tropical forests and the communities within them. Many new connections were made with opportunities for follow up. It was widely agreed that this was a rare opportunity to bring proponents of different strategies into a common dialog and to see how we fit into a larger picture of sustainability.

Our next event will follow a similar format, but we intend to address new themes and topics. We hope to recruit another line-up of interesting contributors, and gather at a larger venue. Please make sure you are on our mailing list to get the next event notification!


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