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 because it is difficult to source from environmentally sustainable operations.
It is a stunning exotic wood that’s ideal for decking, siding and other outdoor uses, but its alure has caused significant loss of rainforests. While the majority of architects and designers prioritize using responsibly sourced wood, many are unclear or have limited awareness of how to source this prized wood in a sustainable manner. If you are considering Ipe, please take a moment to become aware of the environmental pitfalls and sustainable solutions with regard to sourcing Ipe.
The Particulars of Ipe Wood
From TerraMai: Ipe wood is most commonly used for decking and other outdoor structures, such as the Coney Island Boardwalk.
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. Ipe was used for Coney Island boardwalks and lasted 25 years with heavy traffic, including garbage trucks several times a week, before needing to be replaced. This longevity is why so many architects specify it and it also explains why Ipe is a popular choice for outdoor applications.
Ipe is a unique wood in many other aspects. Ipe has a Class A fire rating, 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 challenging. 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 with delicate trumpet-shaped flowers, it is known for its resistance to attacks by fungi and insects.
Although Ipe is a fantastic wood, there are several reasons why eco-minded designers may be turning away from it. Perhaps the largest issue is the lack of certainty of sustainable sourcing that comes with selecting Ipe. Mature trees only occur once every 7 to 25 acres. In order to harvest new wood from these mature trees, large portions of rainforest trees have to be cleared for roads, harvesting equipment, and the area around each tree, resulting in deforestation and timber waste. The cleared trees often have little to no commercial value and often go unused.
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. 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 sustainability of new Ipe. Romulo Batista of Greenpeace Brazil emphasized this fact: “It is safe to say that it is almost impossible to guarantee if new timber from the Brazilian Amazon can be assumed to have originated from legal operations.”
The Current State of Ipe (And What to Do About It)
For the environmentally conscious architect or designer, avoiding new 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, water reclaimed wood can be a perfect solution.
From TerraMai: Water Reclaimed Ipe is the most environmentally sustainable source for this highly prized wood.
Vast expanses of forest have been submerged in reservoirs in the construction of hydroelectric dams. These forests are perfectly preserved with standing dead trees still rooted to the ground. Expert divers cut the timber and haul it to shore, using less energy than typical logging equipment and trucks. Because the Ipe trees are easily accessible by water, vast expanses of forest do not need to be cut down, saving enormous amounts of energy without further deforestation.
Today’s architects and designers aim to create buildings that are not only beautiful but also environmentally sustainable. Ipe has many tremendous properties, such as superb weatherability, insect and fungi resistance, a Class A fire rating, and extreme durability. As a result, installations last longer than nearly any other material. Because new Ipe requires the clearing of acres 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 only environmentally viable source is Water Reclaimed Ipe. No living trees are cut down, and the energy required to harvest is significantly reduced.