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Thinking about adding something to your home—a new deck, a master bedroom addition, or a kitchen remodel? Given today’s bright focus on green building, let’s look at ways to get the same great result using less wood.

The most important thing you can do is plan your project carefully.  No matter how large or small it is, there are plenty of ways to avoid waste.

First, don’t build more than you really need.  If 150 square feet of new room or deck is all you need, why make it any larger?  Yard space for landscaping and recreation is just as important as finished living space, and probably easier to maintain.

As you move on to framing, be aware that some common practices sacrifice trees and energy efficiency, yet add nothing to the strength of the structure. You can use less wood, less time, less money in the framing by not using double trimmer studs and sills at window openings, 4×12 headers at openings in non-bearing wall, three-stud corners. Instead, employ Optimum Value Engineering or OVE and use studs placed at 24” on center rather than the common 16”, single rather than double top plates (bearing walls must have joists and rafters stacked above the studs), two-stud corners, and a variety of other practices. These practices can save up to 30% in lumber expense.

You can also consume less raw wood by working with engineered lumber. Engineered wood is made from small-diameter, fast-growing plantation farms and are usually straighter and stronger than solid-sawn products. Ask for products such as truss joist I-beams (TJIs), parallel-strand lumber (PSLs), oriented-strand board (OSB) and laminated wood products. These manufactured lumber products are all in common use today.

When you do build, build to last.  Most commonly used woods will not stand up well to insects or the weather, and all of them (unless especially treated) are subject to fungus damage when they gets wet and cannot dry out.  It’s critically important to understand which materials to use outdoors, and how important flashing details are where the construction is exposed to rainfall.  A 1” mis-cut at a crucial flashing junction can lead to thousands of dollars worth of damage in only a few years.  Water resistant finishes—paints and penetrating oils—are also important in keeping the wood safe from fungus damage.

There are a lot of manufactured products available now that take the place of, and weather better than, the wood used outdoors just a decade age.  Cement-based siding installs and looks like wood when painted conveys the same look.  There are a variety of composite decking materials that look much the same as, and last much longer than redwood decking.  Vinyl fencing is now available in a variety of styles, and has the added advantage of never needing paint.

Most molding profiles are now available made from plastic with wood veneer, that will cut, stain, finish, and install just like hardwood trims.  Beautiful “engineered” flooring of hardwood veneers comes prefinished and can be installed in much less time than hardwood nailed down strip by strip and sanded and finished in place.

There is a world of new products and techniques out there.  If you take the time to educate yourself in their proper application and installation, you just might help keep some of the trees in the forest, and some of the green in your pocketbook.

David Hirzel is a Green Point Rater and residential building designer serving the Peninsula and the central California coast since 1983.

(First published in San Mateo Times, August 13, 2009)

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