Again, Who Says It Is More Sustainable to Build With Wood Than Steel?

Kevin Dempsey, president and CEO of the American Iron and Steel Institute, raised an important question recently in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required). Who says it is more sustainable to build with wood than steel? he asks.

“Harvesting wood, which is often cited as a renewable resource, destroys forests, releasing carbon dioxide from mature trees and affecting wildlife, water storage and filtration,” Dempsey writes.

Dempsey says steel should be included in discussions about sustainable building materials. recently assembled some research to support the notion that steel is a sustainable building material.

A Deforestation-Related Heat Dome

A March 2022 report from the Center for Sustainable Economy in Port Townsend, Washington, tied clear-cutting methods of logging directly to elevated surface temperatures.

The report, “Deforestation, Forest Degradation, Heat Waves and Drought: Evidence from the Pacific Northwest heat dome of 2021” by Christopher Still, Ph.D., at Oregon State University, and John Talberth, Ph.D., at CSE, found that “the mean, maximum, and minimum land surface temperature was always higher on … deforested and degraded lands.”

Thus, the CSE report questions whether forest management practices may have made the 2021 heat dome in Oregon’s Coast Range more destructive.

“Maintaining the extent of undisturbed forest and reducing the extent of deforested and degraded lands may be important for mitigating the effects of heat waves, conserving water supplies, and reducing wildfire risk,” Still and Talberth write.

Transitioning to Near-Zero-Emissions Steel

As for steel, McKinsey & Company analysts recently concluded that the steel industry’s pathway to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions looks promising.

The April 2022 McKinsey report, “Net-zero steel in building and construction: The way forward,” shows that lower carbon steel production technologies coming soon “will support the transition to near-zero-emissions steel.” The viable options include natural gas direct-reduced iron and electric-arc furnaces and 100% scrap electric-arc furnaces, McKinsey says.

For example, McKinsey notes that ArcelorMittal Dofasco, Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc., Nucor Corp., Steel Dynamics, Inc. and United States Steel Corporation, all Steel Framing Industry Association (SFIA) members, among other steel mills, are:

  • Replacing iron ore pellets in blast furnace feeds with carbon-free direct reduced iron or hot briquetted iron
  • Using carbon capture and storage
  • Increasing their scrap use
  • Switching from natural gas to renewable power
  • Piloting other technologies to create near-zero emissions steel

Steel Is Durable and Infinitely Recyclable

“CO2 emissions from logging aren’t measured or reported in the same way as other emission sources, raising questions about whether important data is left out,” says Dempsey about the carbon story of wood being incomplete.

Cold-formed steel (CFS) framing products, on the other hand, have been evaluated across their entire life cycles — from raw materials mining and processing to the production of steel coils, the manufacture of steel studs and their durability over a building’s life.

Also, steel meets the sustainability requirements set by all major green building standards and rating programs, including:

  • the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) from the U.S. Green Building Council
  • the National Green Building Standard (ICC-700) for residential buildings
  • ASHRAE Standard 189.1 for commercial construction
  • the International Green Construction Code (IgCC)

Wood Decays, Steel Is Durable

So, what is the full story about the carbon in a wood stud?

“The carbon remaining in any wood construction product is only a small fraction of the carbon in the tree from which it came, and even this is temporary, to be released into the atmosphere at the end of the building’s life by decay or incineration,” Dempsey wrote in the Journal.

In contrast, steel studs can be reused in construction.

  • This is generally not true of wood framing materials
  • Steel can be remade, because steel is infinitely recyclable
  • Steel is the most recycled material in the world

“Steel’s superior performance minimizes environmental impact when measured through the entire life cycle,” the AISI says.

The cradle-to-gate view shows steel to be a sustainable solution for construction. And green steel and other construction technologies, McKinsey says, could enable significant reductions in emissions by 2030 and almost complete abatement by 2050.

Learn more about how cold-formed steel can be applied in your upcoming projects, by contacting our team today



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