Are Milwaukee apartments greenwashing? Why wood isn't that sustainable – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Residents of Milwaukee may have noticed a recent surge in mass timber construction projects, and with it, a prevailing narrative around the unmatched sustainability of wood when compared to other materials.
The latest is The Edison, a 32-story riverside apartment building proposed by the Neutral Project, a development firm with an expressed commitment to carbon neutrality. Promotional materials say the project will become the tallest mass timber building in the world and “sets a new standard for building design and construction practices.”
Later this year, Hendricks Commercial Properties is debuting its first mass timber project, The Grain, just 25 miles outside of Milwaukee. And last year, a seven-story mass timber office building was approved for construction north of downtown. Both were similarly advertised as environmentally friendly, low-carbon options.
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Mass timber’s rise comes at a time when sustainability is not just a buzzword but a necessity. However, the data on wood’s environmental impact is often confusing. Too-good-to-be-true claims from interest groups and industry studies that lack transparent methodologies can make it difficult to separate fact from fiction.
“Greenwashing” refers to misleading information about environmental sustainability that puts “more emphasis on green marketing than sustainable development” or launching a “marketing campaign about new sustainable initiatives before anything is done to support those initiatives.” While any new building project contributes to Milwaukee’s economy and culture, the sustainability claims of mass timber projects deserve more scrutiny.
For an accurate look at the environmental impact of wood, life-cycle assessments (LCAs) should consider the environmental impact from harvesting and transportation to maintenance, disposal of unused materials, and more. Ignoring one or more of these phases results in incomplete environmental impact analyses that mislead city planners and dwellers alike.
While innovation in construction is welcome, Milwaukee deserves better than speculative claims. Legitimate conclusions about environmental impacts require detailed LCAs, not simplistic marketing tools or claims of one material being inherently superior.
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A critical factor often overlooked in the conversation surrounding mass timber is the source and sustainability practices used in acquiring wood. As little as 36% of a harvested tree ends up as a wood product meaning 64% of the tree is discarded due to unusable sections. While some scraps might be used for smaller projects, a sizable portion of the tree ends up burned, left in the forest to decay, or landfilled, releasing harmful toxins into the environment and invalidating any of the environmental claims of using wood in the first place.
By comparison, American steel contains 93% of recycled material and is 100% recyclable, representing the circular nature of steel’s supply chain. Discarded structural steel does not end up in landfills or incinerators like wood – it ends up right back at the front of the steel production line, in an electric arc furnace where it is melted, using electricity, into new steel without any loss of quality. Structural steel will get even greener as the U.S. power grid becomes less dependent on fossil fuels. Mass timber’s long-term impact on the environment, however, remains shrouded in mystery.
Moreover, the energy-intensive manufacturing process and transportation requirements associated with mass timber contribute to its overall carbon emissions. Long-distance travel for mass timber significantly increases the project’s carbon footprint, calling into question its status as a sustainable building material. To build the Ascent, for example, developers relied on international resources for the construction. Wood and structural parts were sent from Austria, resulting in unnecessary challenges, such as intercontinental shipping delays and added costs, that could have been avoided by using domestic steel.
Unlike mass timber, whose true carbon impact can be obscured by incomplete data, steel’s life-cycle assessment is well-established and boasts impressive environmental strides with full transparency. As the industry prioritizes efficiency, its embodied carbon footprint is constantly decreasing. American steel leads the world in clean, energy-efficient steel production, which benefits our economy, our climate, and our planet.
Proponents of mass timber often tout faster construction times, but questions remain about its durability and long-term maintenance needs as compared to steel or concrete. The technology is still relatively new, which can lead to higher upfront costs than steel or concrete. Additionally, skilled labor experienced in mass timber construction is limited in the United States, further impacting costs.
As we navigate the complexities of urban development on Milwaukee’s skyline, let us not be blinded by greenwashing, but rather stay committed to the safety, sustainability, and resilience of our communities. Transparent discourse, grounded in data, is imperative to ensure Milwaukee’s growth aligns with true sustainability principles. For in the pursuit of sustainable progress, the true measure of success lies not in reaching new heights, but in building a foundation that stands the test of time.
Brian Raff is vice president of the American Institute of Steel Construction and leads the association’s sustainability and government relations efforts.