Architectural woodwork is a stately, time-honored part of our built environment and will continue to be quite significant within sustainable architecture. The set of challenges going green brings to woodworking ranges from planting seedlings to beyond the architect’s sketch pad. Change toward a more sustainable wood industry is far reaching. Trees now are being sustainably managed and harvested, and glues and finishes can range from high-tech powders to ancient, natural coatings, like beeswax and boiled linseed oil. Sweeping innovations in forest husbandry provide bamboo; recycled lumber; and common use of previously unnoticed materials, like exposed, nontoxic strand board for casework. However, to ensure architects and woodworking subcontractors enjoy these new options for cabinets, counters, artistic elements and the many finishing touches that put design signatures on our buildings, team members must learn how to maneuver the intricate process of securing sustainable materials.

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There are third-party certifiers, such as the Minneapolis-based Forest Stewardship Council and Arlington, Va.-based Sustainable Forestry Initiative, that verify wood came from sustainably managed forests. The Architectural Woodwork Institute, Potomac Falls, Va., does not endorse any single program or solution but is committed to being a good steward of our natural resources. Building professionals can take a similar stance. The difficulty often lies in finding lumber and veneers that are sustainably harvested, common in the traditional supply chain and available in sufficient quantity.

First, architects must use a multi-faceted approach to source the sustainable woods they want to use in a project. They may find local dealers through the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council’s chapter near them, other local green-building groups, consultants or the Washington-based American Institute of Architects’ local chapter. In addition, architects may turn to FSC’s site,, and click on “Find FSC Products.” By typing in the names of various woods, lists of vendors will appear; these vendors may know how to find other forest products they do not stock. As architects become familiar with the network, it will be easier to develop their own database of vendors. Green woodworking materials must be secured during design development.

Smith & Fong/Altereco

This will avoid the possibility of the material being sold out by the time it is needed. Once construction begins, the superintendent and project manager can engage the woodworking subcontractor and pay attention to the actual building processes, avoiding slowdowns caused by materials shortages. To ensure wood has been certified by a third party, architects must contact the grower during design development to avoid snafus when certification of the forest products begin to tie in with payment releases and the green qualifications of the building. Suppliers may be able to provide the green-certification documents, but architects should not wait until the end of the project to secure this information. Even if the building is not being certified under LEED or another rating system, it would be a mistake to use forest products that do not have a paper trail that leads back to the grower. Developing an authenticated green-building portfolio will give an architect a clear reference for future clients. During design development, it is invaluable to work with a veteran green builder who can work well with a woodworker knowledgeable of sustainability. It is important the builder and woodworker also are familiar with non-offgassing glues and particleboards, as well as bamboo or other unique materials being used in the project.

Eric Goethals/FSC

Many questions, like how many extra board feet of lumber will be required to account for milling waste resultant of the lumber, must be discussed. There rarely is room for being cavalier because supply limitations can arise easily. Visit projects completed by the builder and woodworker and talk with their green clients. Watch for clean joinery, poor millwork and ask a lot of questions about how easy it was to work with the builder and/or woodworker. It is important for the building owner to hire a team or construction manager to monitor the construction professionals producing the structure. Building owners can find someone in their area by talking with principals who already have built green in their area. Again, it is imperative to check a construction manager’s credentials and references with other clients.

Eric Goethals/FSC

It is not unusual for projects to diverge from initial design inspirations because of difficulties sourcing sustainable wood. For example, a recent plan called for numerous pieces of very specialized solid lumber, such as a 30-foot (9-m), 1- by 14-inch (25- by 356-mm) piece of solid maple for a shelf and more than 100 feet (30 m) of matching maple 3- by 12-inch (76- by 305-mm) stair risers. The demands of these dimensions not only were difficult to locate among sustainable stocks, but also would cause budget overruns. The 30-foot (9-m) board was redrawn into three 10-foot (3-m) lengths with a splice at each joint. The stairs were redesigned with a combination of solid maple, non-offgassing particleboard and some veneer work. Simple, less extravagant use of our forests also is a part of being sustainable. Limitations often will drive green design, but that may not be a bad thing. “I think to develop a language of design that includes sustainability, an aesthetic that can be flexible enough to grab those salvaged or newly manufactured products and incorporate them has some advantages,” says Polly Osborne, principal of Polly Osborne Architects, Los Angeles.

Sierrapine/Warren Jagger Photography
Sierrapine/Warren Jagger Photography

“Architectural woodworking is an area that lends itself to this flexibility because it forms a bridge between building envelope and interior design by enhancing the first and dictating direction to the second. For instance, if you dismantle a building and have a good store of douglas fir from the old framing, maybe your interior palette is based on harmonious colors with douglas fir. If the salvaged wood becomes kitchen cabinets, this might naturally lead to a linoleum floor because color options in douglas-fir range are numerous. If the salvaged wood has been considered from the beginning of the design process, chances are there are exposed structural elements of the same wood. So the salvaged material becomes an element that ties the house together.” As green building weaves more deeply into the architecture, engineering and contracting processes, a whole new world of green tradespeople, suppliers and manufacturers is learning how to think about and provide sustainable options. Sustainable architecture can broaden the design industry’s approach to beautiful paneling, cabinetry and casework. Although sustainability requires a large network of professionals who now are in the midst of a vast learning curve, eventually it will be innate to how we design and construct our buildings. ANGUS KENNEDY is consultant chief for design development and estimating with The Greenhammer Group and a superintendent, project manager and construction manager for Weaver Builders Inc. in the Los Angeles Basin. He has been building green for several decades, managing construction in the fi eld and working in design development and estimating. He can be reached at or (562) 438-7505.