Story at a glance:
- Hardwoods are often used for flooring for their durability and low maintenance.
- Resilient Douglas fir is a popular softwood used in timber frame construction.
- Western red cedar is loved for its flexibility in design as well as its acoustic properties.
Wood has long been one of the most widely used sustainable building materials in the world.
What type of wood a builder or architect may choose often depends on the project.
Wood for construction varies widely from hardwoods like oak or walnut—often used for floors, walls, and ceilings, and floors—to softwoods like cedar or fir—more commonly seen used for things like doors and furniture. Western red cedar is one of the lightest commercial softwoods and popular both for its lightweight properties and its aesthetic benefits.
Here we explore some of the most popular types of wood for construction.
Common Types of Hardwood
Hardwoods are often used for flooring for their durability.
Sustainably speaking, refinishing hardwood flooring surfaces can also reduce the carbon footprint by more than 75% compared to floor replacement, according to the experts at Bona.
Some of the most common types of hardwood include but are not limited to:
Oak is loved for everything from flooring and cabinetry to furniture. White oak has some water resistance, so it’s also been a choice for things like boats. Oak is durable and resists damage from insects. You’ll often find oak used in engineered wood flooring, too.
Delta Millworks is among the many manufacturers reinventing oak. Their exterior woods include the new thermally modified Mojave collection—available in oak, hemlock, radiata, and Ponderosa pine.
Delta’s Kebony, Accoya, thermally modified oak, and thermally modified radiata pine are also great choices for decks, according to Delta CEO Robbie Davis. He says these sustainable products typically don’t need to be treated with anything to maintain their structural performance during an extended life cycle, which saves clients money in the long run and allows them to show off the naturally aged wood.
Maple is often used in luxury furniture, flooring, and cabinetry.
Maple is one of the most common commercially available woods in the US and is among the highest density, durable American hardwoods. It’s also typically moderate in price.
Walnut is commonly used for everything from furniture and cabinets to flooring and paneling.
Walnut is often used because it’s easy to cut, shape, and sand, according to Woodworkers Source. It has a fine yet open grain with distinct patterns and color architects love.
TimberHomes in Vermont uses Black Cherry in many of its projects both for its strength and its beautiful red color.
Cherry is one of the most popular domestic woods in the US and is also loved for its workability, according to Family Handyman.
Birch may be light, but it’s also strong, which makes it great for plywood.
Birch plywood uses multiple sheets of birch veneer, and it’s one of the strongest and most stable plywoods in the industry.
Poplar is also often used for construction plywood and construction grade lumber. Poplar is commonly seen used for smaller, single-family homes and sheds.
Builders Surplus notes its medium density, which allows paints and glues to easily adhere, making it a top contender in the world of hardwoods.
Common Types of Softwood
For wood frame construction of a single-family home, a popular softwood choice is standard SPF, or spruce-pine-fir, lumber. This timber is milled from softwood trees like spruce, fir, and pine—sawn and machine-planed to standard dimensions, according to Eco Home. The wood doesn’t undergo much transformation during processing, has a low embodied energy, and is a renewable resource that stores carbon.
Think Wood defines softwoods as those that come from cone-bearing trees. North American softwood species have needle-shaped foliage instead of the leaves found on hardwood trees.
Softwoods include but are not limited to:
Douglas Fir is considered one of the most resilient softwoods out there.
Douglas fir was used for this Georgia house’s timber frame, tongue and groove ceilings, and the trim around windows and floorboards. The project was designed by New Energy Works with reclaimed wood from Pioneer Millworks and fine woodworking from NEWwoodworks.
“This project represents a good compromise between high design and high performance in that we didn’t make any sacrifices to the aesthetics, but we were able to bring in some high-performance features,” architect David Shirley of New Energy Works previously told gb&d.
Eastern White Pine
Eastern White Pine is found in heavy timber frame construction all over the world.
Its softness makes it easy to work with, but it’s quite strong for its weight and doesn’t have the tendency to twist as much as some hardwoods do, according to the Northeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association (NeLMA). Because it grows so tall, you can also easily find Eastern White Pine timber that spans as much as 20 feet across.
NeLMA says the species also doesn’t shrink as much as many others when properly treated, and it has a strong cross-grain fiber that prevents it from checking too much.
Redwood is one of the strongest natural building materials, and it’s a great fit for areas like decks, as it’s naturally resistant to insects and decay. It does not warp and split easily, and it stays comfortable beneath your feet on a deck on a hot day.
Redwood is also a great alternative to plastic decking from a sustainability perspective.
Save the Redwoods League supports selective harvesting on previously cut-over lands and says such harvesting can prevent forest conversion to non-forest uses and lessen the impacts of climate change. Redwood can be purchased with an FSC label, indicating Forest Stewardship Council certification and ensuring products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. Conversely, plastic decking products often produce pollution as a byproduct and can end up in landfills whereas redwood can be recycled throughout its useful life.
Western Red Cedar
Architects are increasingly turning to western red cedar for beautiful, sustainable projects. Also naturally rot resistant, it’s one of the widest spread growth ranges on the West Coast and can be finished in a variety of ways. You can even add pigment if you want.
“We like cedar because it brings a warmth, a softness to what are otherwise pretty modern buildings, and we like making these homes more livable and comfortable to be in,” says Greg Mottola, BCJ’s lead principal on both a Los Altos modern ranch project and a beautiful farmhouse in Calistoga.
WRC’s large, open cell structure makes the wood less dense than most other softwoods, so it’s also easier to move from place to place on the job. The versatility of WRC is one of the primary reasons it has been used for appearance and outdoor living applications for centuries.
Its open cell structure also helps to block noise. As an interior paneling or exterior siding, WRC’s low density makes it an acoustical barrier of much greater quality than many products marketed for those applications.
More than 20,000 square feet of thermally modified white pine was used at the award-winning Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus. The wood came from a forest located just 30 minutes away from the building site, according to Arbor Wood.
Jon Heyesen says the project was intended to showcase the region’s natural history and called for a natural wood facade that was produced domestically, FSC-certified, installed without the need for finish or stain, and would last 25-plus years.
Minnesota-sourced white pine was harvested, thermally modified, and milled to meet this requirement and was the largest commercial installation of white pine cladding in the country.
Thermally modified wood is defined as a natural wood product that has undergone some chemical changes using heat and steam to improve durability and stability. It can be used inside and out, and architects are increasingly turning to thermally modified wood for its many benefits.