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The Benefits of Wood: Using Wood in Commercial Construction

July 06, 2009
Author: Suz-Anne Kinney

Last month, we ran a story on commercial construction as a source of increasing demand for lumber and other building products. Here’s one set of construction industry statistics that caught our attention shortly after that issue went to press. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the private non-residential construction category constituted 42 percent of the total value of construction put in place during April and May; total public non-residential construction constituted roughly 32 percent of total construction. Private residential construction, on the other hand, was 25-26 percent of the total in May and June.

By comparison, during January 2006—the height of the housing boom—private residential construction was 57 percent of the total, while private non-residential was 23 percent and public non-residential was 20 percent.

These numbers indicate that the opportunities for the wood products industry to capitalize on this market are real. This month, we’ll take another look at commercial construction, focusing on the misconceptions of using wood in conjunction with or instead of other construction materials.

One of the misconceptions about using wood in non-residential construction concerns its durability. With proper design and construction techniques and regular maintenance, however, wood structures are extremely durable. A survey of commercial structures demolished between 2000 and 2003 in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota demonstrates this. Though the sampling of the study is small, approximately 100 structures built of concrete, steel and wood, wood had the longest lifespan of the three building materials.

The following table is compiled from the study, which was undertaken by Jennifer O’Connor, a research scientist with Canadian firm, Forintek.

Age of Demolished Commercial Structures by Material

age of demolished commercial structures by material - july 2009


*Percentages are approximate, as the graphs published in the study do not include exact data points in some cases.

In addition, O'Connor concluded that "the service life of most buildings are probably far shorter than their theoretical maximum lives. While wood is believed to have a short life expectancy due to risk of fire or biodegradation, the wood buildings in our study had the longest life spans."

Another misconception about wood is that additional insurance and maintenance costs make construction with wood cost prohibitive. According to Pat Schleisman, regional director of WoodWorks Southeast, this is not the case. "Construction with wood can save 10-30 percent of a project's cost. For a $3 million project, the savings over steel or concrete will be anywhere from $300,000 to $900,000. This upfront cost savings more than pays for any extra insurance or maintenance costs."

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