Ipe (pronounced ee-pay) wood is one of the world’s most unique woods, but many architects, designers and builders have been refusing to use it. It is a stunning exotic wood that’s ideal for decking, but ipe presents many environmental issues that shouldn’t be overlooked. While the majority of architects and designers prioritize using responsibly sourced wood, many feel unclear or have limited awareness on what is needed to do that. If you are considering ipe, please take a moment to become aware of the environmental problems and concerns with sourcing ipe.
The Particulars of Ipe Wood
From The Spruce: Ipe wood is most commonly used for decking
Ipe, also called Brazilian walnut or lapacho, is a dense and resilient wood that comes from the forests of Central and South America. Like other tropical woods, ipe bears some unique characteristics. It’s a particularly durable wood that weathers fantastically and looks beautiful. The Wood Database notes that ipe was used for Coney Island boardwalks and lasted an unbelievable 25 years before needing to be replaced. This longevity is why so many architects have long used it, and it also explains why ipe is a popular choice for decks.
Ipe is a unique wood in many other aspects. According to the Wall Street Journal, ipe has the same fire rating as concrete and steel, and its density means it won’t float in water. Because it is so dense and hard, it is also difficult to work, making sawing and nailing problematic. In commercial applications, ipe may come into consideration when designers want an exterior material that will hold up to a lot of wear and tear.
The Sustainability Concerns of Sourcing Ipe
From Rainforest Alliance: While beautiful ipe species are eye-catching, mature trees are hard to find, leading to deforestation
Although ipe is a fantastic wood, there are several reasons why eco-friendly designers are turning away from it. Perhaps the largest issue is the lack of sourcing certainty that comes with selecting ipe. Ipe is quite rare and only grows in low densities. FSC certified ipe is available but it isn’t overly common. The Wood Database states that mature trees only occur once every 3 to 10 hectares (300,000 to 1,000,000 square feet). In order to reach those mature trees, hectares of rainforest trees have to be cleared, resulting in tremendous deforestation and timber waste. The cleared trees often have little to no commercial value and most often go unused. Moreover, ipe is sometimes mistaken for cumaru, another South American timber, and that error can lead to even more waste.
Unfortunately, since ipe has been in use for decades, there is little left. The Rainforest Alliance reports that ipe is already overharvested due to its widespread use in construction projects. Thus, the continual sourcing of ipe may eventually lead to outright extinction. This is one of the biggest factors that’s causing environmentally minded A&Ds to say no to ipe. In an article for Landscape Architecture Magazine, Rainforest Relief co-founder Tim Keating spoke of the dangers of using at-risk woods like ipe: “The fact that towns are willing to go back to tropical hardwood is incredible. Materials are not a free ride—they are taken from somewhere, and we forget that at our own peril.”
The Murky Waters of Ipe and FSC Certification
From World Resources Institute: Illegal logging is one of the many problems with ipe wood
Given that ipe is so sought after, it comes as no surprise that it’s often illegally harvested. Illegal logging is a large scale problem with rainforest timber, as groups like Greenpeace have documented. However, the problem is particularly pervasive with ipe due to its tendency to fetch high prices in the market. To make matters worse, Brazilian loggers often work with corrupt officials to cut down more ipe than is legal. This makes it difficult to ascertain the legality of ipe. Romulo Batista of Greenpeace Brazil emphasized this fact: “It is safe to say that it is almost impossible to guarantee if timber from the Brazilian Amazon can be assumed to have originated from legal operations.”
There are other issues with the harvesting of ipe. Notably, it’s hard to ensure that ipe is truly certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Ocean City encountered this snag after planning to use over a hundred thousand feet of ipe for boardwalks. Although the City Council was originally informed that the ipe was FSC certified, it later emerged that this was likely not the case. Rather, the ipe was being sourced from Forestal Venao, a Peruvian company infamous for illegal logging. This predicament isn’t limited to Peru either. The two largest exporters of Brazilian timber, Pará state and Mato Grosso, are notorious for unlawful logging. As a result, 78% of Pará’s exported wood and 54% of Mato Grosso’s yield is illegal.
While illegal logging is common with many types of wood, it’s almost an inevitability with ipe. As such, more architects and designers are keeping their hands clean and choosing more ethically sound woods.
From TerraMai: Reclaimed teak is an ecologically mindful alternative to ipe
In addition, considering that ipe and illegal logging are so intertwined, it’s possible that logging companies are transmitting inaccurate or outright false information to the FSC. This could result in illegitimate Chain-of-Custody certification that misleads buyers. With recent changes to the Lacey Act, trading of illegally sourced woods, even if they have FSC documentation, could have consequences for those unknowingly purchasing illegal woods.
The Current State of Ipe (And What to Do About It)
Ipe decking is still very popular, and it’s likely this trend will continue until knowledge about ipe harvesting practices reaches the mainstream. That being said, ipe is rarely used for applications outside of decking or flooring.
For the environmentally conscious architect or designer, avoiding ipe is a must. Moreover, it’s important to spread the knowledge about how ipe is sourced so that other professionals can make informed decisions. Thankfully, reclaimed wood can be a perfect solution, and there are several types that can replace ipe in a building project. Reclaimed Cumaru is one excellent option. It’s extremely similar to ipe in both appearance and function, and it can be sustainably sourced through underwater salvage methods. Reclaimed Teak is another choice that offers many of the same benefits; strength, durability, rot resistance, and insect resistance. And because Teak is not as dense as ipe, it is easier to work with during installation.
Today’s architects and designers aim to create buildings that are not only beautiful but also environmentally considerate. Since ipe requires the clearing of hectares of other trees that end up unused, it’s far from a sustainable or eco-friendly option. This glaring disadvantage is only magnified by the fact that ipe is often illegally logged.
The bottom line: If you prioritize sustainability in your projects, ipe is a wood to avoid. Policies that prohibit specifying and purchasing newly cut rainforest wood will help advance sustainable land use and business practices while protecting forests and biodiversity. Opt for reclaimed materials like cumaru or teak.