Exploring the Potential of Wood: Sustainable, Stylish, and Cost-effective

Wood is a preferred building material in many countries, often due to its availability, cultural significance and efficient building practices. We can mention countries as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Japan, Austria, Germany, New Zealand, United States and Estionia as countries where wood often is the chosen building material. These countries highlight using wood as a sustainable, efficient, and versatile building material, demonstrating its potential in various climatic and cultural contexts. 

NTI is an important partner for LCA.no

We have interviewed Norwegian Institute of Wood Technology (NTI). NTI is Norway’s leading research environment in wood utilization and continuously works to create competitive solutions through targeted R&D, knowledge dissemination, and quality documentation. Since 1949, NTI has been at the forefront of innovation, sustainability, and quality in the wood industry. With 111 member companies and a strong focus on research and development, the institute helps shape the future of wood solutions.  

NTI is an important partner in the wood industry for LCA.no. The team working with LCA and EPD at the NTI has grown significantly over the past year and now consists of seven skilled employees who have contributed to this article.  

Promoting the Use of Wood

After World War II, there was a need for the Norwegian industry to keep pace with global developments. Some pioneers gathered the forestry and lumber industry to form the Forestry and Forest Industries Research Association, which founded the Norwegian Institute of Wood Technology in 1949. At that time, there was a high demand for lumber to rebuild Norway, and the institute aimed to research how to utilize forest resources most effectively and efficiently. Today, NTI aims to promote the use of wood by providing updated knowledge about timber—its properties, processing, and use. 

Photographer: Martin Nerhus Øen

The images show Svalbard Folk High School, an example of innovative use of wood materials. The images are taken from the Annual Report of NTI 2023.

Long Experience with Environmental Documentation

Interest in environmental documentation at NTI was established as early as the 1990s when NTI worked on several industry programs to document environmental performance in the wood industry. Most of the work was done at the industry level until 2010, when several companies wanted to develop their own EPDs.

High R&D Activity in the Industry

We asked about the kind of R&D activities NTI participates in: “Today, we are engaged in several research and development projects on topics relevant to our time. Much of the current research focuses on how we can use resources more efficiently, extend the lifespan of products, or achieve a higher rate of wood reuse,” explains NTI.

Importance of Industry Involvement in R&D Work

NTI always tries to involve partners from the wood industry to link research and industry from the start of project work. Involving industry representatives in research and development projects is important for several reasons: Industry representatives provide insights into the practical needs and challenges faced by companies. This ensures that the research is relevant and can be directly applied in the industry. Collaboration with the industry promotes the development of innovative solutions that can give companies a competitive advantage. This ensures that research results become concrete, market-oriented products and services. The wood industry can offer resources, including funding, equipment, and expertise, which can be crucial for the execution of research projects. This gives the projects greater execution power and scale. With industry representatives involved from the start, it becomes easier to implement and commercialize research results. This allows for faster transfer from research to practical use. Industry participants can provide continuous feedback on the research process and results. This helps to ensure the quality of the projects and that they meet industry standards and expectations. 

NTI publishes important results during the projects as news on the institute’s website and newsletter, and regularly participates in joint seminars in clusters and industry networks. The institute publishes several scientific articles and actively participates and speaks at conferences. 

LCA and EPD are Important for the Wood Industry

“The construction and building sector accounts for a large share of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. Therefore, EPDs have been particularly important for producers of wood materials, primarily because parts of the construction industry have wanted to address this downside by documenting emissions. In recent years, EPD data has been able to meet documentation requirements from various market schemes and national requirements. It can also be useful for internal or external sustainability reports. However, the potential of an EPD is greater than just a requirement from the construction industry. Beyond the results an EPD provides, the work involved in the life cycle assessment we conduct offers the opportunity to identify which phases of the wood product’s lifespan have the greatest environmental impact, and break these phases down further. How much does forestry and timber transport matter compared to further production? Which processes in material production have the most impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and how much will better sawmill yield affect the results? The possibilities for diving into one’s environmental performance and improving are virtually limitless. We can help find out what really makes a difference,” they explain. 

Significant Potential for Improvement in the Data Collection Process for EPD

NTI is involved in many projects (also with LCA.no) on the development of EPD for the wood industry. Initially, NTI provides its project participants with an overview of the producer’s mass flow and process details that will meet declaration requirements according to EPD standards. Then the advisors tailor data collection templates with a cost/benefit approach, as it is the data collection that NTI sees can be most challenging for the producer and where they see the greatest potential for streamlining the work. 

Another challenge NTI encounters is related to requirements in the verification process. “We are constantly seeing some change in focus within environmental categories. Greenhouse gas emissions are usually in focus, but land use is also increasingly important in Norway. I must also mention circularity. Another area that can be difficult is handling biogenic carbon. This is quite simplified in EPDs, and in more complex LCA studies, we see that including the entire carbon cycle can provide a slightly different interpretation of the benefits of wood materials. It is interesting to reflect on the wide range of these studies. LCA done in an EPD is still important building blocks in how a more comprehensive environmental account should look. When we experience disagreements on how basic calculations should be carried out, we see the importance of working with standardization related to EPD, and this can be demanding,” they convey. 

NTI Plays a Central Role in Promoting Sustainable and Environmentally Friendly Solutions in the Wood Industry

The institute has long experience and high competence when it comes to the environmental aspect of processes in the wood industry. NTI is well acquainted with what and how things are done and has built up a large experience base with relevant data that the organization can use to identify which improvements yield good results. The institute’s role is to collect and analyze data and communicate the most relevant results to the wood industry. 

The environmental team at NTI is currently working on two exciting research projects with the potential to incorporate EPD data. In the first project, CircWood, the environmental team leads the work package for environmental analysis. The goal of the work package is to create a MFA (Material Flow Analysis) model that will visualize how materials and carbon flow through the value chain for wood materials in Norway. It is then possible to use EPD results at the product level in the modeling. Moving on to the second project, WoodLCC, NTI leads the work package for developing a tool for estimating the life cycle cost (LCC) of buildings. Here the project estimates how much materials are used throughout the entire life cycle of the building. 

Challenges the Wood Industry Faces in Environmental Work

We challenged NTI to highlight the main challenges they experience with member companies when it comes to environmental work. Here are the most central factors and the measures being worked on.

Managing Time Constraints

A busy everyday life at NTI’s member companies means that time is not always sufficient. This increases the need for good planning. In addition, thorough work with data collection increases the opportunities to work actively with improvements and reduce the climate footprint. It can also be challenging to extract the requested data. NTI must then adapt to individual companies’ needs and systems to reach the goal as easily as possible. A constructive follow-up meeting is often all that is needed.

“Translating” Data Between Different Environmental Schemes Can Be Challenging

Sometimes the producer needs to extract data from EPD work that is requested through other environmental schemes or imposed requirements. Member companies find that “translating” data between these is time-consuming and, in some cases, impossible for them to achieve. Here we touch on the importance of standardization work, which NTI participates in both nationally and internationally. While the requirements for environmental data from various sources need to become more aligned, we see that basic LCA calculations in the value chain for wood materials are done differently depending on the consultant, and so far without the main rules managing to provide a clear answer on how it should be carried out. The research institute has been working on harmonization in this area for several years. Further delays in the standardization work also make this challenging for NTI.

Differences in Methodology Can Lead to Different Results

For some Norwegian producers, differences in methodology may be the biggest reason for different results compared to some foreign competitors, but this is not always the case. Apart from this ongoing harmonization challenge, the research institute is focused on making the basis for producers completely uniform, and perhaps directing focus towards actual environmental performance rather than the result in the environmental declaration itself. Good measures should provide documented returns in the long term. In some cases, more specific data from their suppliers may be what is needed to be satisfied.

EPD Costs Are Still Perceived as High by Parts of the Market

Many still find the development of EPD too expensive, and this is something NTI has not been able to ignore. In recent years, more providers of EPD developers have entered the market, and as the work has been streamlined, we see that prices have naturally gone down. Lower prices for the work can mean compromising on data quality, which is the great paradox in environmental declarations and LCA work. NTI aims to maintain good quality but sees that the effective total costs in EPD assignments are decreasing and should continue in that direction.

Need verified environmental documentation as input for sustainability reporting? Learn more about EPD here.

Collaboration with Providers Like LCA.no in EPD Work Has Changed

We asked the team to reflect on NTI’s collaboration with EPD software providers like LCA.no. “This has changed a bit over time. We previously collaborated very closely on the development of company-driven EPD generators for new product categories. The direction has become more that LCA.no provides the system, while NTI helps more to acquire their own tool or make individual EPDs. Previously, we made these individual EPDs without any form of collaboration, but in recent years we have started using LCA.no’s platform so that we can benefit from the advantages that a verified tool and a lot of pre-verified background data provide. The path is made while we walk it, and in some newer assignments, LCA.no leads the project more by providing a producer with their own tool, while NTI assists with data collection and data quality,” they state.

Do you want to know more about the opportunities within EPD and LCA for your company? Contact us here.