Building out of the Woods


According to the 2015 U.S. Housing Census the number of building permits pulled for the construction of single-family residences was approx. 6,311,000 (compared to 2004 16,314,000). According to Federal Reserve board director, Elizabeth Duke, the nation currently boasts around 14 million vacant homes.  Ironically, some of the areas that are showing the most population growth (and the most construction) also have a disproportionately high vacancy rate of homes and condos. California is third in the nation for most vacant homes (following Florida at number one and Illinois at number two) and Las Vegas, a city that has been steadily growing for the last five decades ( (let’s not even touch the water issues here!) has over 40,000 vacant homes in the while the construction industry continues to grow.


Despite the down turn in the construction industry, the timber industry is mounting pressure to increase the volume of timber extracted from public lands, increasing pressure to privatize public lands, while at the same time our timber exports to China are plummeting and the timber industry is flat lining at job creation.

With 315 million of us living in the states, and over 600,000 people documented by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as homeless in 2012, perhaps the vacant housing could be offered up to the homeless as they have been doing in Salt Lake City (New Yorker Sept. James Surowiecki ‘ Home Free’) with the same positive effect. Two birds, one seed to make a cliché a little more positive.


Perhaps the designers, urban planners and architects of the states and towns experiencing lots of growth could do their part to influence construction that are less detrimental to our forests. The current statistics on the quantities of wood that go in to conventional construction are staggering:  and estimated 16,000 board feet for framing and 17,000 for wood products like plywood, OSB (oriented strand board), MDF (Medium Density Fiber Board) etc (ie the sheathing, flooring and cabinets). That is roughly 9 truck-loads of wood for you AVERAGE house.  Nine truck- loads of wood (we are talking tractor trailer here, not ford pick up) may or may not sound like a lot, but depending on the forest it came from it could represent anywhere from 6 – 25 acres of logged land. The wood itself also only represents a small percentage of a building package and the facet of home construction with the least embodies energy in most homes. In the U.S., we represent only 5% of the global population, yet we use 27% of the world’s industrial wood products (Mark Pipekorn – Greensource). The silver lining (if you want to call it that) is that more than three -quarters of that amount is extracted from our own forests. That roughly translates into us having a little more say in the how and where that timber is extracted, as opposed to timber imports which we have little to no say as consumers other than not purchasing it.

As a builder, teacher, mother and hiking boot (read ‘arm chair’) ecologist I struggle with finding the right path when confronted with the chronic juxtaposition of economy and ecology. In an attempt to get those two concepts to mesh I stress smaller buildings and less wood intensive construction techniques (chiefly straw bale, straw clay and earthen wall systems) with the people that I work with and for, I still find that we all get wrapped up in mire of time, cost and legality. There are a lot of choices people want to make but they are not legally recognized within current building codes: composting toilets, cob structural wall systems, grey water systems, even rain water catchment to name a few! There are even more choices people want to make, but access to materials is limited. Finding ethically harvested wood in urban areas is only as available as the arborists/ fellers who can provide those services and if you combine a tight budget and short time line in there then a significant portion of the choices a person would like to make are limited.

I am fortunate to live close to a lot of building materials, a small scale mill and my neighbors all share a similar set of watershed loving ideals. I do find that even on projects with a feel good name-tag, but top dollar price tag, like large permitted custom residential straw bale structures that they are, with frequency, over built to the point of compromising the insulative integrity of the straw bale walls they boast.

Often I think ‘we should just stop building’ as it feels impossible to not start compromising ecological integrity in its silence as we make ‘consumer choices’ , but that is an extreme answer and ultimately building shelter is an opportunity for us to push towards different economic structures that can work with in the context of the greater ecological ones.

I wake up every morning and take my dog for a walk in the woods. It’s church, it’s therapy, it’s grounding and inspiring. I love the forests around me. They provide more than just timber: water, food, bird song and wonder. In my love of the forest is a deep love of working with wood, just as much as I love working with straw and clay. Wood is so versatile and beautiful and satisfying to work with.  I have the priviledge of working with wood that I know the place where it came from and who milled it with frequency. I don’t have the priveledge of that on every job, as I take work to pay the bills and sometimes it comes from Home Depot at worst, the bigger mill 45 minutes away at not the worst. I find that I am just as guilty of participating in that battle of economy over ecology. It breaks my heart even further as I fully recognize that this economy is a down right fiction, so drilled into us that the concept of ‘jobs’ takes precedent over all else. I am on the game board too, with a child and a car and bills. It’s all a strange, strange dance in this odd little human dominated epoch.




There are so many layers in need of change, it makes me take this life time seriously, if my daughter is going to have a chance at a decent life. From the big picture of public lands for private profit, to the on the ground over use to lumber on over-sided homes ( I have been to housing developments with a 5000sqft MINIMUM!)to the big industry making 2x4s insanely cheap with one hand will squashing labor unions and laying people off with the other, it feels overwhelming.  The timber industry and the construction industry are just two small facets on a multifaceted attack on ecological health. Tho we have been relegated to seeing our personal power via our consumerism we can use that as a tool to demand better forest practices and quality over quantity in housing, but beyond that diminished bit of contrived power we are given by ‘producers’, it is up to use to keep our public lands in our hands, to demand that the common wealth is protected: water, land, air and fauna.