Special Content: Sustainable North American Hardwood Flooring as a Key Element of Biophilic Design

Sustainable North American Hardwood Flooring
Photos Courtesy of NWFA

I have been in the North American hardwood business for nearly 34 years and have sold millions of board feet of hardwood to flooring producers of all sizes. In some cases, I took orders for more than 40 truckloads at a time and as low as 500 board feet for a custom job. During the past 14 years, I have been fortunate enough to have traveled around the world, talking to more than 15,000 architects and designers about using hardwoods in their designs.

A decade ago, I realized that these disparate architects and designers share a primary interest in designing healthy interiors with carbon neutral and sustainable materials. All of them understand biophilic design and the sense of wellbeing it brings to the occupants of their built environments.

Biophilic design speaks to the yearning, on a cellular level, that all humans have to connect with nature, especially in our interior spaces, where we spend about 90 percent of our time. Numerous studies have been conducted around the world during the past decade to empirically verify that connecting with trees in any form will lower our body’s sympathetic nervous system reaction to daily stressors. Wood floors are the largest piece of furniture in any interior space and will lower stress levels in those who walk on them even without them consciously recognizing that fact. It is proven that wood floors, cladding, and millwork increase productivity in the workplace, and increase focus and retention in classrooms and libraries. In health care facilities, biophilic design with wood results in shorter hospital stays and patients requiring less pain medication.

In my presentations, I always ask my audience to mount a cogent argument against the idea that a wood clad space is simply a better space. I have not had one contrary opinion or debate on the thesis. While it may be difficult for people to clearly articulate why a wood-clad space is more comfortable, it is a feeling shared around the world. It is incumbent on the flooring industry to seize this moment and talk to designers and architects about the many benefits of using real wood in their built environments.

The Importance of Sustainability Credentials in Biophilic Design

There is no material for interiors that can boast greater sustainability credentials than North American hardwood. Our forest resource management model has been incredibly successful during the past 130 years, and for every tree harvested, 2.4 trees take its place through natural regeneration. The United States possesses approximately 9 percent of the world’s hardwood resources, yet satisfies more than 25 percent of the world’s appetite for hardwood for flooring, furniture, and joinery while growing more than twice what is harvested each year.

Having clearly established amongst those of us in the hardwood industry the inherent value of wood flooring in residential, commercial, institutional, and educational spaces, it falls to the hardwood flooring community to help get the word out to designers and architects about the many benefits of real wood floors. The companies that produce synthetic look-alikes will spend millions of dollars each year to convince consumers and designers that cutting down trees is harmful to the environment. Those of us in the hardwood industry know that simply isn’t true, but there are vast numbers of people in the design industry who hold these misperceptions in their minds as they work on their biophilic designs.

Wood Floor Finish Types
It falls to the hardwood flooring community to help get the word out to designers and architects about the many benefits of real wood floors.

The subliminal messaging starts with emails that say at the bottom: “Don’t print this email,” as though cutting down trees is destroying the planet. Whether it is softwood or hardwood
forests, those who manage U.S. forest resources are dedicated to responsible, sustainable management assuring an ongoing wood supply for many generations to come.

Here in the U.S., the value of forest land is placed on the trees that grow on that land, whereas in many countries around the world the value is placed on the agricultural re-use of that land for livestock grazing or planting rapidly renewable crops like bamboo or palm. In many cases, useable timber is wasted to repurpose the land.

Using Exotic and Tropical Woods in Flooring

I understand that the wood flooring industry incorporates exotic and tropical lumber to create beautiful floors, and I am not in any way disparaging these hardwoods for use in flooring. It is critical, however, that the flooring industry recognizes the importance of verifying where product is sourced, based on the sustainability, legality, and responsible management of the forests where the lumber is being harvested. My background is in North American hardwood, and I know that our hardwoods have been managed sustainably and harvested legally for more than a century. I can’t say the same for all exotic and tropical hardwoods.

A Brief History of North American Forest Resource Management

Oak Trees
Our forest resource management model has been incredibly successful during the past 130 years, and for every tree harvested, 2.4 trees take its place through natural regeneration.

The sustainable management of North American hardwood began in the late 1800s when an inquisitive young man named Gifford Pinchot wanted to become a forester. He went to Yale, and even though he graduated, he did so without learning anything about forestry because Yale didn’t offer any forestry programs. After graduation, he went to Nancy, France to study forest management. After a year, he returned home, and in 1889, George Vanderbilt hired him to be the resident forester for the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. He was recommended to Vanderbilt by Frederick Olmstead, Vanderbilt’s landscape architect. Olmstead also designed Central Park in New York, as well as the landscape surrounding the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Pinchot stayed at The Biltmore for three years, establishing what was called “scientific forestry” of the nearly 125,000 acres of rugged forests surrounding the estate. As he left to run the newly established United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, he recommended Dr. Schenck of the University of Darmstadt in Germany.

Dr. Schenck established the Biltmore Forestry School in 1898 and turned the Pisgah National Forest into a living classroom that lasted for 14 years. Mr. Pinchot was the founder of the Society of American Foresters, growing our national forest reserves from 56 million acres to 172 million acres within the five-year period between 1905 and 1910. He always took the long view, and he laid the foundation for what has become the national standard of responsible and sustainable forest management that continues to this day. He was the father of natural resource conservation, having famously said, “Without abundant resources, prosperity is out of reach.”

We Have a Great Story to Tell

It is important that we all understand the history of North America’s sustainable hardwood management because it is a very important part of the story we get to share with the design community.

After working for Frank Miller Lumber Company for more than 20 years, I have continued my work of educating and inspiring designers and architects about the use of sustainable, carbon sequestering North American hardwood. In 2018, I became co-founder of the Timber and Forestry Foundation as a way to educate designers, architects, and consumers about the use of American hardwood in biophilic design. That same year, I wrote and delivered a TEDx talk on the topic of how American hardwoods improve our lives. This talk has been shared with thousands of people around the world.

My passion for the great benefits of using North American hardwoods has never waned. It is more important now than ever to convey our great story, allowing for more harvest of our forests to keep them healthy and productive for future generations.

Criswell Davis, a 34-year veteran of the forest products industry, is president of Mighty Oaks Consulting in Louisville, Kentucky, and founding director of the Timber and Forestry Foundation. The foundation represents American-based companies and trade organizations associated with the timber and related industries, including lumber, veneer, plywood, flooring, cabinetry, moulding, and furniture. To learn more, visit timberandforestry.org.

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