A group of scientists has begun to compare the total environmental impact of building materials. By Matthew Power

Better late than never. A group of 15 scientists calling themselves the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials (CORRIM) has begun to forge a "Life Cycle Assessment" of the environmental performance of wood and alternative materials throughout their useful life--from acquisition to ultimate disposal.

One interesting virtual case study is already under way. The scientists modeled stick-built homes that might be built in Atlanta and Minneapolis, and compared them with alternative materials--steel in Minneapolis; concrete block in Atlanta.

So far, the numbers have come out as might be expected, with wood as the clear environmental winner, but the really big questions of a product's life expectancy remain unanswered. Only with this data in hand (they're working out the modeling) can scientists hope to accurately compare life-cycle impacts of the various systems.