Reduce, Reuse, Rehab: Using Sustainable Sources of Wood in Historic Home Maintenance

In historic homes, old-growth wood was used in various elements, including window frames, columns, doors, and newel posts

In historic homes, old-growth wood was used in various elements, including window frames, columns, doors, and newel posts

Historic-home inhabitants know that wood elements require maintenance from time to time. The cornice may rot over time, or pieces of the stairway balustrade may become significantly damaged. If a historic-building inhabitant is unable to repair the wood element, and needs to replace it – either in part or in total – how does s/he make the most healthy and environmentally sustainable choice?

Two of the most common environmentally sustainable choices are certified sustainable wood and reclaimed wood.

To accurately claim the wood they harvest is “certified sustainable wood” landowners must create specific management plans that pass evaluative criteria devised by conservation organizations that recognize not only environmental impacts and factors, such as a forest’s ability to re-grow, but also economic and cultural factors, such as workers’ rights and indigenous rights. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a non-profit, non-governmental organization, is one of the leading accreditation and certification organizations. Certifiers like SmartWood evaluate wood based on the FSC criteria.

The FSC is only one of the organizations with a system for sustainable wood certification. For example, the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) focuses on non-industrial private landowners in their mission and certification process, and the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC) serves as an international umbrella organization that promotes certification programs worldwide. Many of these criteria advocate non-chemical methods of pest repellent and restrict genetic engineering, thereby avoiding unwanted toxins that can harm people and historic materials.

Because certified sustainable wood manufacturers harvest their product from non-old growth sources, the quality of the wood does not always compare to that of wood used in historic architecture. Despite that, certified sustainable wood is a healthy, green alternative to other modern wood sources, and it is available where other wood products are sold, often at comparable prices.

Carriage barn in Slaterville Springs, NY, soon-to-be disassembled due to the widening of Six Mile Creek.

Carriage barn in Slaterville Springs, NY, soon-to-be disassembled due to the widening of Six Mile Creek.

If a historic-building inhabitant wants the quality found in historic-architecture wood, reclaimed wood would be a better choice. Reclaimed, or salvaged, wood comes from the deconstruction of existing buildings, abandoned railroad trestles, and other historic construction. As a non-forest source of wood, reclaimed wood accomplishes two goals in environmental sustainability: preventing the total loss of historic fabric in the event of a building tear-down and avoiding further forest destruction with the reuse of already-harvested wood.

Conservation organizations and sustainable wood certifiers acknowledge the environmentally sustainable benefits of reclaimed wood. SmartWood even has a Rediscovered Wood Program that recognizes the need for the timber industry to seek creative, green alternatives to unsustainable practices and products.

Reclaimed wood is usually of high quality, originating from old growth trees, and it offers species no longer readily available in the modern market. In addition, its initial harvesting often occurred before modern chemical pest repellents and resins became commonplace, so the wood itself usually poses little harmful effect to people or historic materials. Though high quantities of certain types of reclaimed wood may require more time to find, reclaimed wood can be purchased at comparable or lower prices than modern wood products. See the July 2009 issue of Reduce, Reuse, Rehab for more information on architectural salvage stores and online sources.

So then, how are other modern wood products less environmentally sustainable and more harmful than certified sustainable wood and reclaimed wood?

In historic buildings, wood was and is one of the most ubiquitous materials used, from structural elements like joists to detail elements like wainscoting. Though it used to be a plentiful resource, its quality and quantity have precipitously decreased due to unsustainable logging practices.

Reclaimed wood taken from the disassembled carriage barn in Slaterville Springs, NY, for use in a local historic home.

Reclaimed wood taken from the disassembled carriage barn in Slaterville Springs, NY, for use in a local historic home.

Much of the wood available today rarely demonstrates the same qualities of the wood found in historic buildings – wood that was harvested from centuries-old trees that had been allowed to grow and flourish naturally over time. Today’s available wood frequently features less tensile strength and more defects. Because it is forced to grow and dry more quickly, modern wood is wetter and weaker than wood used in historic construction.

In addition to modern wood’s weaker composition, the wood products offered for building construction and maintenance often contain formaldehyde resin binders, which are considered volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These composite pressed wood products are used in subflooring, shelving, and cabinetry (particleboard); wall covering and furniture (plywood paneling); and as drawer fronts and table tops (fiberboard). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), formaldehyde emissions can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, fatigue, allergic reactions, and even cancer. Though formaldehyde emissions decrease over time, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has placed restrictions on the use of the chemical, the most significant levels of exposure to formaldehyde in houses come from pressed wood.

When undertaking any maintenance solution in a historic building, it is best to fully research each potential product. Certified sustainable wood and reclaimed wood offer the environmental sustainability-conscious, historic-building inhabitant with more options to fully realize their building’s green potential. As more research reveals the harmful effects of VOCs found in pressed wood, these green products not only provide environmentally sustainable options, but healthier options for building inhabitants. As they contain natural materials free from toxic chemicals, these gentle, environmentally sustainable options also avoid harming historic building materials, making them the most holistically beneficial maintenance solutions for inhabitants of historic buildings.

All photographs by Kristen Olson.

For More Information:

Breathing the Air Indoors,” Green Home, Inc.

Building Green

diCostanzo, Dianne, “Five Steps to Sustainable Wood,” The Green Guide for Everyday Living.

Graham, Christi, “Alternatives to Old Growth and Virgin Lumber,” Green Home, Inc.

Green Home Environmental Store

An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs),” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

National Geographic Green Guide for Everyday Living

US Green Building Council Green Home Guide

Weaver, Martin. Conserving Buildings: A Guide to Techniques and Materials. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993.

Disclaimer: This newsletter is intended to provide a non-expert reader with basic information. For professional advice, please consult architects, contractors, and/or engineers. If you own a property encumbered by a historic preservation easement granted to the Trust, we strongly recommend that you discuss any proposed maintenance plans with Trust staff to determine if approval by the Trust is required.