Ipe! Yipe! Lions and tigers and bears!

5 Aug

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;

Image Credit: MYOCMEDIA.com

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;

Trex, and some of the  similar plastic lumber products aren’t made from “recycled and sustainable source materials” like you’d think.

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.

Stay tuned.

photo credit; Ipe  photos – National Hardwood Association


6 Responses to “Ipe! Yipe! Lions and tigers and bears!”

  1. ted yrizarry August 5, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    I hate to erase my typed “thoughts”. Partly because I only can mandge 4 or 5 words a minute..and also because while I am writing I have no device to measure the correct distance to far. As in, have I reached to far yet? But I did so I did.
    I will try and draw a proper bead on my aim and narrow the engagement area in my mind while attempting a nearer reply.
    I was worried you had gone over the the “dark side” Alex.
    The entire argument/discussion/debate over what is or is not truly “green” drives me up the proverbial wall.
    If making a cauldron of toxic waste is discoverd to be bad after centuries of knowing nothing else…fine. Do something different. If the replacement is better but not Nirvanaitious enough for those living like Yoda…is it wrong? Is some improvement over the previous bad if it is not the absolute perfect, most bestest thing that can be?? I sure hope not.
    Yet that is how I am left feeling whenever I hear this debate. Like I am being scolded for not doing “This or THAT” and I must hate the planet and have sprung from the loins of Satan. Does a certificate truly make a product green? Really??
    Don’t use that it doesn’t have a white (not even the paper is green) certificate provided stating it was harvested and is Earth friendly…
    Ok…Mr/Mrs Green know it all. What are all my options? Do all of them…Each and every single option you give me, do they ALL have ZERO impact? Are they all 100% green. Doubt it.
    There really is only one way to ensure we humans don’t disrupt the natural order of things but I seriously doubt it would be very popular. I know I wouldn’t go for it. What is it? What is this perfect answer to ensure we mean and nasty humans don’t destroy the planet…?
    Remove ourselves.
    No other way to make 100% certain that we homosapians don’t wreck this big sphere called Earth.
    Sorry…I ain’t going for that!
    So we come back to where I started. Is an improvement wrong?
    Ipe Lasts much longer than many other species of wood. It doesn’t require what folks have determined to be bad, chemicals, in order to last a while. uh…ok? Better, lasts longer, and no chemicals…yet it is bad because of the way it is harvested.?. Well…I just don’t know what to say to that. Clear cutting forests is horrible. I spend a great deal of my time in the woods and mountains so I can appreciate the trees for what they are. Thanks trees!But do I feel bad about throwing some dead wood on my campfire? Not even a tiny bit! I love it!
    The real issue of clear cutting reverts to my explination of the 100% fix. Remember…no more peeps? As we make all these improvements to our lives, what we eat, medical care, etc… Folks just live longer lives. And there are more born everyday! Will we reach a point in the future where nobody ever passes away? Would we stop breeding then? Doubt it. So what am I blathering on about now? Am I nuttier than Ronin? Some one wing or the other sickO?
    No…I’m just pointing out that as more people inhabit the earth the more resources it will require to support them. Doscounting the bandwagon jumpers and trend following lemmings…All I am asking is that perhaps, just maybe, We could get a break from having “Do it green or die” crammed down our throughts.?. Please?
    By all means that doesn’t mean we stop looking and researching better ways to do what we do now. That does not release us from teaching our offspring the better ways, the things that form good habits and maybe make them wonder if they can do it even better…Certainly we should continue improving day by day. But stop the drivel and scorn and let us work through the fact that green is a color of many shades!

  2. Madrigorne August 6, 2010 at 9:05 am #

    Ronin, I agree with you – be aware of what your choices mean locally, globally, ecologically, environmentally, and then make your informed decision.
    We are children of this earth – and we were meant to be here, but its our home and we should try not to wreck it too much.
    Myself, I would be content to compress and heat form many layers of non-recyclable plastic into rough slabs and use them as decking, as they are not useful for anything else… I would use those slabs as two by fours in my house too – mold won’t eat it, nothing can. Build a glass bottlewall of cool green as a privacy fence against the neighbors eyes. It can be done tastefully, without looking like some organic amorphous blobular monstrosity.
    How long til I am mining our landfills, extracting the useful and non useful elements for my own nefarious guerilla homebuilding purposes. Could that plastic be ground finely and inset in resin as a different wallboard? Inset as gravel in cement and concrete? I’m not saying make more of it, I’m saying lock up the stuff we have already made into permanent/semipermanent structures so its not out there crudding up our world.
    Along those same lines, I think I will have to build me a slab-boat and hook up a weed eater paddle wheel with a carry barge behind and set sail for the mid-pacific gyre to start dredging the yuck-of-it-all back out of the ocean.
    Did anyone notice how clean the streets and parks got once cans and bottles were returnable for a nickle? I have got to find some worth in all the plastitrash, something it’s good for. Can I convert it back into petroleum – and then to gasoline or fuel oil or some fuel ready hydrocarbon? It should be useful for something, something that provides more than a garbage whirlpool.

    Remind me to tell you about the sand sometime.


    • ted yrizarry August 6, 2010 at 9:35 am #

      *Quote* I have got to find some worth in all the plastitrash, something it’s good for. Can I convert it back into petroleum – and then to gasoline or fuel oil or some fuel ready hydrocarbon? It should be useful for something, something that provides more than a garbage whirlpool.*endquote*
      Madrigorne… In an effort to tone down my other, grumpier message and in response to what you wrote…
      When I was in school back in the 80s I had an Uber-intelligent sub-teacher that was from England. By the time I met him he was in his late 60s-early 70s (and still going strong!) He would often spend our class time lecturing or just talking about some of the incredible things he had seen and done in his life.Really neat guy.
      But one of the things I remember him talking about way back then was recycling waste into fuel. He was involved with some think tank that was taking wast out of the dumps, processing it with some machinery they created, and basically out popped fuel. Sadly I don’t remember what the particulars were…was it gasoline type fuel? Heating fuel? Diesel? No idea…But what I do remember was him stating that it was done. It was horrendiously inefficent but it could be done. Seems some of the trash was the problem IIRC. Stuff like garden hoses and mattresses and nylons would get caught up in the machinery and reek havok. Shame…that. But I won’t give up hope that someday everything we modern folks discard willy-nilly in our disposable mindset can be efficently reused, recycled, or reborn!
      Ronin.Sorry to have strayed so far off topic. I did want to say that I was a little surprised at the lack of support for the man made decking? I had thought that the mere concept of making decking from leftovers would be a good thing? I would agree that much of the stuff out there is not what it claims. As in not created using the lions share of recycled or post consumer products. But some of it seems to have been a decent thought at least? The blending of say…old plastics from what/wherever blended with sawdust from mills etc…to create a more wood-like chunk of decking…thats not better than felling a tree just so Mr. trump can have a teak toilet seat? Maybe I don’t know enough…(likely) and maybe I just need a little break and be allowed to look at things from other perspectives…
      Or maybe I just need a beer…lol!

  3. David August 6, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    Have traveled into the interior of Sumbawa and Sumatra in Indonesia over the last couple of years and massive tracts of land are being deforested just like in Brazil, for farming, mining and to make money out of the lumber. The richest people in the villages are often associated with the lumber trade which is mostly virgin Ipe being milled and sent to us in the west for our nice looking decks.

    • renaissanceronin August 7, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

      Hi David,

      Again, [sigh!] “material specification” is fraught with peril.

      I’ve said over and over again that I am NOT a “card carrying environmentalist”, I’m a guy trying to do what’s best for my families, and the legion/tribe/Corten cult… 🙂

      I try to use the best material for the job, and if it’s “green”, that just a huge bonus.

      I really do try as hard as I can to keep things green and sustainable, but in some cases, some people will always get mad.

      At the end of the day, common sense prevails.

      Something that Paul Hawken recently said haunts me. In fact , after reading the comments here, you and Ted, and that rascal Madrigorne 🙂 have inspired my next post.

      And we all grew up with the stories of “Lumber Barons” here in the US. I remember the fairy tales we were told as kids. I suspect the same holds true for the rest of the planet.

      While I do try to keep things “pointed green”… every once in a while you’re going to have to test your “beliefs and principles” as a new material gets introduced that sits on the fence.

      “Green” is murky color, at best…

      Thanks for commenting!


  4. ted yrizarry August 8, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    They are the inspirationalists….I’m just the stick they poke you with…LOL!

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