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Monday, July 28, 2014
How good is ipe wood?

Q. Recently the Long Beach City Council hired a firm to rebuild the boardwalk at a cost of $44 million. The city has decided to rebuild using ipe wood as the main material. Do you believe this is the best choice for durability and economy?

A. Your question has been debated by several groups along the Eastern Seaboard as communities rebuild, with reports of vehement protesters, angry that the sanctity of a “board” walk would be violated by proposals of anything other than wood.

It reminds me of George Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon. While touring the sparse rooms once occupied by the father of our country, I meandered out to the terrace overlooking the Potomac, and below me I saw construction workers placing heavy timbers in the earth to repair the old foundations. I was puzzled enough to approach the person holding a clipboard and asked, “Why are they placing large timbers under the terrace?” He answered that the restoration was long overdue, the wood foundation was badly decayed and they were required to put in replacement timbers, just as the original builders had done. I asked if the timbers were treated against termite infestation, etc., and learned that the wood had to be exactly as it was done the first time, ready to accept its inevitable fate. This process has been done over and again at taxpayer expense, in the interest of preservation.

I believe that those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana taught us. To put in material that we know will fail is, in itself, a failure. Ipe (pronounced ee-pay) is an extremely hard wood, imported from renewable rainforests in South America, and a great choice for a new boardwalk — but not the best choice, and its selection condemns us to repeat the process of maintenance and repair, at taxpayer expense.

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