Wood has been a valuable and effective structural material since the earliest days of human civilisation. With normal good practice, wood can deliver many years of reliable service. But, like other building materials, wood can suffer as a result of mistakes made in storage, design, construction, and maintenance practices.
How can you ensure long life of a wood building? The best approach is always to remember that wood meant for dry application must stay dry. Start out by buying dry wood, store it carefully to keep it dry, design the building to protect the wood elements, keep wood dry during construction, and practice good maintenance of the building. This approach is called durability by design.
If wood won't stay dry, you have two choices in approach. Because wet wood is at risk of decay, you must select a product with decay resistance. One choice is to choose a naturally durable species like Western red cedar. This approach is called durability by nature.
Most of our construction lumber is not naturally durable, but we can make it decay resistant by treating it with a preservative. Preservative-treated lumber is more reliably resistant to decay than naturally durable lumber. This approach is called durability by treated wood.
The level of attention you give to durability issues during the course of design depends on your decay hazard. In other words, the more that your circumstances put wood at risk, the more care you must take in protecting against decay. In outdoor applications, for example, any wood in contact with the ground is at high risk of decay and should be pressure-treated with a preservative. For wood that is exposed to the weather but not in direct ground contact, the degree of hazard correlates with climate. The fungi that harm wood generally grow best in moist environments with warm temperatures. Researchers have developed hazard zones in North America using mean monthly temperature and number of rainy days. This map in particular shows the rainfall hazard and applies to exposed uses of wood such as decks, shingles and fence boards. A high degree of hazard would indicate a need to carefully choose a wood species or preservative treatment for maximum service life. In the future, building codes may provide more specific directives as a function of decay hazard. For wood not exposed to weather, such as framing lumber, this map is only moderately useful. This is because the environmental conditions in the wall may be substantially different than those outdoors.