Green and sustainable building for commercial and institutional projects is expected to exceed 55 percent as early as 2016. This presents a need for new and creative sustainable construction materials, and technological developments have helped modified lumber emerge as a smart and sustainable choice.

Softwood has been used for centuries and now comprises 80 percent of the world’s timber production. New wood treatments are helping to teach an old dog new tricks—improving sourcing and transforming it into a sustainable, high-performance building material. Europe has been building with treated softwoods for quite some time, usually in high-profile commercial, residential, public or marina projects, often with distinctive architectural qualities. This trend has spread to North America and is paving the way for the future of sustainable building. Soft woods are treated with a bio-based liquid resulting in the permanent alteration of the wood’s cell structures and the ability to perform with the sturdiness and durability achieved by leading hardwoods. 

After years of research and development, technologies of this kind are poised to position modified woods as a way to build long-lasting structures while preserving the world’s limited and dwindling supply of hardwoods. The two types of lumber aren’t normally interchangeable, but technology is now making it possible. While this development provides a sustainable alternative from an environmental perspective, it’s also sustainable in terms of longevity. Modified woods can withstand the harshest outdoor elements for up to 25 years and better tolerate exposure to water, with 40 percent to 60 percent less expansion than untreated woods. All of this makes modified woods an ideal choice for regions exposed to extreme environmental conditions.

Because softwood typically performs poorly outdoors, large-scale commercial and institutional construction projects have turned to alternative materials that don’t require constant maintenance or replacement. In a recent study from Deloitte, 75 percent of companies that switched to sustainable office buildings did so for reasons related to operational cost savings from energy efficiency. Modified lumber has become the more cost-effective choice, due to its intrinsic benefits and ability to perform at a high level. It doesn’t need to be sanded and re-stained like most woods and remains smooth in spite of time and weather.

For all of these reasons, modified lumber is best used in outdoor construction projects such as decking, cladding and roofing. One project that highlights this use-case is Hunter’s Point waterfront park in New York City. The project’s progress was halted in 2012 due to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, shedding light on the importance of durability, stability and longevity in outdoor commercial building projects. By using materials such as modified wood decking, projects can leverage strength and water resistance that will put up a long fight in the face of exposure to extreme weather.

In addition to outdoor projects, modified woods are enhancing building structures. In 2013, softwood lumber was included in an official environmental product declaration by the American Wood Council. For the first time ever, there is an incentive to use softwood lumber in LEED certified projects and other elite building programs. Modified softwoods provide construction teams with the structural pieces they need to build sustainable and energy-efficient structures, without compromising on outward appearance.

With the emphasis being placed on smart building from the green movement, it’s imperative for large-scale construction leaders to be in the know about the industry’s newest sustainable trends. Modified softwood lumber is going to continue to establish itself as a choice sustainable material that benefits both the environment and construction industry. 


Adrian Pye is international sales director for Kebony, a sustainable real-wood alternative to tropical hardwoods. For more information, visit www.kebony.com or follow @KebonyWood.