I’m working with a family that wants to build an ISBU home.
(5) steel boxes, ISBUs all in a row… side by side, to form a big flat box fulla “Corten Coolness”.
(Yes, I told them to consider setting containers a distance apart and spanning the gap. “NO!” They hollered back!)
They have “a plan.”
One of their concerns is dealing with the roof. Where they live, they don’t get snow, (or even heavy weather) so they’re thinking about a staircase…
But wait! I said that they’re building a single story house, Right?
Well… that staircase will run up to a SIP (Structural Insulated Panel) roof, that will get a waterproof membrane, and then some decking and railings. You see, they want to use that roof area to form additional entertainment and “green” deck terraces.
In fact, they want everything that they can use to be as “green” as possible.
And you know me. I’m on record as stating that I love “green stuff.” If it’s energy efficient, or sustainable, or contributes to less maintenance over time, hey… I’m there.
Here’s what IPE looks like;
They’d seen a photograph of a completed deck that was stunning.
(I can’t show you “that” photo due to copyrights, but you can Google it. It has a couple of kids playing on it.)
It really IS gorgeous wood. IPE makes terrific decks. They look like this;
So… they wanted IPE on their roof. End of story.
Hoo boy… Here we go:
As you can see… Ipe (BTW: It’s pronounced EE-pay) decking is beautiful and a wonder to behold. But using it really has to make you think about how we decide “what is green, and what isn’t.”
For the record:
Yes. Ipe is a “tricky wood” from an environmentalist viewpoint.
So, we’ll need to address the social and environmental benefits of using Sustainably Harvested (FSC-certified) wood.
IPE comes from Brazil, so there is another OMG factor to consider. Deforesting South America is terrible; however, let it be said that as long as the wood is sustainably harvested, the use of hardwoods like Ipe in construction reduce maintenance and repair energy input and costs for homeowners.
Anyone in the industry already knows that for the last several years, Ipe decking (from Brazilian hardwood trees) has been the “ooh and awwwwe” factor for some green builders. This is the real deal, a beautiful wood that looks like mahogany, doesn’t require a finish (and those finishes are often petroleum-based products), and doesn’t have the disadvantages of some softer woods.
Also, Ipe is tough stuff. It’s like iron.
It’s durable and it’s said to have a lifespan of about 25 years outdoors, compared to 10 to 15 years for other commonly used decking materials. A contractor will tell you that all these qualities make Ipe “very green”. Or does it?
Um… here’s the bad news. These Ipe trees most often come out of the rainforest (some people refer to this area of the planet as “the Earth’s Lungs”), and harvesting them is speeding along destruction of an ecosystem that can’t be replaced. Oy. That’s not good.
Contractors will tell you that lot’s of cities, states, and “wonderous places to behold” are using this same wood.
Lot’s of places are using this wood. In fact a mayor in NJ got his butt handed to him for using it to deck a city boardwalk.
According to New Jersey environmental activist Georgina Shanley: “Unfortunately what they’re using here (she was talking about the NJ job) is uncertified ipe rain forest wood from Brazil. It’s like walking on a coffin.”
Many groups, including one called “Rainforest Relief” have launched campaigns in America, that actually try to discourage people and corporations from using Ipe, as it’s often harvested illegally, and then sold.
But, because Ipe is just about the perfect wood for decks and boardwalks, more and more people are using it anyway.
When you are working sustainably, “materials choice” is one of the most difficult issues to navigate through.
In this case, “Certified” Ipe is available, and it is MORE expensive, to be sure.
And there are some alternatives, but you have to be careful there to.
Some people will start hollering about “the use of plastic lumber” but that doesn’t resolve any issues, either. For example, I’ve been sent this banner about 30 times;
FACT: While plastic lumber products do contain SOME recycled material, it’s the minority component of the formula. Most of the product is produced using massive amounts of energy and virgin petroleum products. Truth.
What’s worse, plastic lumber isn’t all that “friendly”. In my own personal experience, it can warp or splinter, and it can look lousy in no time at all. It has some pretty serious overheating and expansion/contraction problems that have to be resolved before I’ll even consider using it. While lots of people swear by it, I’m not one of them. I’ve seen too many failed jobs.
(And I’ll point out that plastic lumber is not very expensive compared to products like Ipe. I WISH it worked “without fail”, as MY home building families would use a LOT of it. We just haven’t had very good luck with it, across all regions.)
So, we’re right back where we started… trying to figure out a good path to a tough place. I suppose that an alternative to boycotting it would be to use Ipe wood that is certified by somebody like the Forest Stewardship Council, or another (reputable) industry recognized group that inspects and regulated wood industries to insure that the wood is sustainably harvested. In fact, that’s the logical track to take.
Why am I telling you all this?
Well, it’s easy to understand why they want to use IPE, if they can. It IS the perfect decking material, for all of the above reasons.
I’m not environmentally insensitive, I do recognize that this wood has “issues” that should be noted. But, if we get it from a clean source (with certification) it’ll be something that they will be proud of for a long time… like 25 years or so. So, it’s their decision.
If it was me, I’d use IPE if I could afford it. After all, it’s already here and it’s already cut.
(Oh stop it! I know what you’re thinking. If I don’t buy it, nobody else will and then they’ll stop importing it. Right? Wrong. That’s not logical, it’s idealistic.)
Look, I know that’s a double-edged sword hanging over my head, but hey…
I know that IPE is a good wood (maybe even the perfect wood) for this use and it’s available.
While I’m sorry that it’s “a tree in a tough spot”, I understand how the home owner feels.
My advice is to try and get the Ipe from a source that can guarantee us (thru certification) that it’s “clean.”
And, when the local environmentalists show up at their house with burning brands and pitchforks because they used decking cut from trees in the Brazilian Rain Forest, they’ll have the right answers, as they turn the garden hose on them… from up there on that elevated terrace. 🙂
And, if the GREEN thing is a deal breaker (and for some folks it surely is);
There ARE new heat treated wood products that use heat as a preservative in natural woods. They are said to last a long time (although each varies as they start with the unique hardness of each wood as a “limitation”) and reports from the field say that they work well. I will point out that they aren’t as hard, or even as attractive as Ipe.
Look for products made by Cambiawood, Purewood, and Keim.
But remember, there are no miracle woods, just like there are no miracle insulations. Each has it’s advantages and disadvantages that must be carefully weighed before a selection is made.