Stronger, More Sustainable, Wood Houses

Saving trees, one OSB at a time.

| May/June 2002


Oriented Strand Board: OSB. In the construction trade they call it—forgive me—Old Shit Board. Not from disrespect for its positive attributes, which are considerable, but for its composition. Any old wood scraps and a bunch of glue. It’s ratty-looking and untested for the long haul (if, for instance, you hope your house might last a hundred years), but on the other hand, it’s stronger, cheaper, truer, and more sustainable than actual new lumber. Conventional new lumber today warps and twists and is generally rife with knots that result in waste and can compromise its strength. OSB, though light in weight, is strong, easy to work, and reliable. Builders love it. Coming to the decision to use OSB for floor joists in our new house has been a major compromise—not a rational or practical one, but emotional.

Thomas and I both grew up in Oklahoma. Not the flat/wheat/oil/cattle/sagebrush part, but the rolling hill/muddy creek/deciduous woods part. Even after thirty years on the Front Range plains of Colorado, which we’ve long since come to call home, we both miss the trees. We spent a lot of time as kids sitting up in trees, reading in trees, dreaming in trees, communing with tree bugs, falling out of trees. Post oak, pin oak, black oak, sweet gum, walnut, pecan, hickory, osage orange, magnolia, black locust, elm, willow, redbud—these were our friends and neighbors. Red, gold, and maroon in fall, misty chartreuse and tender pink in spring, layer upon layer of elemental, humid green through the hot summer—we miss it. Thomas even still dreams of trees, big trees, often.

We also grew up in a time of abundant, good, structural lumber. That’s what houses were made of. Good wood houses were sheltering, warm, creaky, alive. You could go up into the attic and be carried away by the clean, spicy smell of sawn lumber, even in a house that was a half-century old. We had never thought of building a house that didn’t use “real” wood until our architect started laying out the realities.

The most compelling of these was that OSB saves trees. Cut a tree for conventional lumber, and there’s a huge amount of waste. It has to be a big tree to begin with, and then much of it ends up as odd scraps and sawdust. Cut down a tree for OSB, a small, fast-growing, sustainably harvested tree, and 100 percent of it ends up as OSB. And that OSB will be considerably structurally stronger than lumber of the same dimension. We’ll be using OSB as I-beams under a concrete slab floor, so the extravagant amount of glue that holds it together won’t outgas formaldehyde into our living space. It will probably feel right at home with the recycled plastic foam and concrete exterior walls.

We’re lucky to have a stash of walnut cut off an uncle’s farm some thirty years ago, and that will find a prominent place in the new house, a visible reminder of those woods of childhood. And we’ll plant a lot of trees.

Linda Ligon is publisher of Natural Home. This is part of the ongoing saga of her new natural home, which will consist of a hole in the ground by the time you read this.

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