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In the Loop

Reclamation, reuse and the Urban Wood Project

How much wood would a wood-consuming world waste? Formed in 2018 under the auspices of the USDA Forest Service, the Urban Wood Project began in Baltimore to reclaim wood that would otherwise be burned or landfilled.

Redwood discs

By using reclaimed wood in furniture, the carbon remains sequestered. Photo courtesy of Room & Board

Thanks to disease, development or simply old age, roughly 36 million trees come down each year in cities across the United States. And with more ferocious storms ripping through our landscapes — not to mention a changing climate’s impact on our tree’s ecosystems — that number will only increase. (The thousands of trees currently falling across California are a distressing example of that fact.) 

When downed in an urban environment a vast majority of trees are burned, mulched or landfilled, their embedded carbon and an estimated $786 million in annual economic value lost to the ether. 

Meanwhile, our country’s ample appetite for wood products only grows. With a collective consumption habit of 50 billion board feet of lumber each year, throwing away these fallen commodities seems not just wasteful, but downright foolish. 

One has to wonder, why would you waste good wood? 

Enter the Urban Wood Project 

The tossing of downed trees is much the same as the demolition of old building material, a topic I expounded upon a few short months ago. Rather than leveraging the material we have on hand with a bit of gumption and elbow grease, we throw it away in lieu of the new. As I noted then, we need "more distributed organizations within the deconstruction and reuse sector [to] expand the market’s offerings, with the added bonus of building resilience and economic activity in local communities." 

That’s why I was delighted to hear about the Urban Wood Project

Formed in 2018 under the auspices of the USDA Forest Service, the Urban Wood Project began in Baltimore when social service enterprise Humanium and modern home-furnishings brand Room & Board helped form a unique public-private partnership.

Reclaiming wood from structures slated for demolition and urban trees removed for disease, maintenance and storm damage, the project created jobs for those with barriers to employment while diverting waste from landfill and carbon from the atmosphere. In turn, Room & Board created unique furniture pieces from the valuable, salvaged material. The result? A win, win, win, benefiting the city of Baltimore socially, environmentally and economically. 

Since its inception, the Urban Wood Project has collectively rescued an estimated 180,000 board feet of lumber and expanded sourcing across the United States, leveraging material from Anaheim and Sacramento in California; Detroit, Minneapolis and — most recently — New York City.

We strive to utilize more renewable and recycled materials wherever possible. Partnering with cities across the country to divert urban wood from landfills and to create a circular supply chain aligns with our long-term vision.

In its newest incarnation, Room & Board has united with Tri-Lox, a Brooklyn, New York-based millwork and design operation. Together they’re tapping into decommissioned water tanks that dot New York’s iconic skyline and adding to Room & Board’s reclamation efforts. All told, the company diverts an estimated 200 trees annually from the waste stream and offers roughly 30 products sourced from the project’s lumber. 

To learn more about the Urban Wood Project, I emailed some questions to Emily McGarvey, director of sustainability at Room & Board. The following exchange has been edited for length and clarity. 

Suz Okie: Why is the Urban Wood Project a strategic priority for Room & Board? 

Emily McGarvey: Wood is our most-used material. Sourcing it responsibly just makes sense. And with 90 percent of our products manufactured in the United States, we are in a unique position to keep materials and production within the country. 

Since our founding in 1980, sustainable practices have been fundamental to our company. As a founding member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, we recognize there’s more to do, from better sourcing and more responsible materials to investing in the well-being of people and communities. Our aspiration is to be a sustainability leader that positively impacts society and the world. We prioritize social and environmental issues based on their material importance to Room & Board [and] have organized our top priority issues into three pillars: Better Products; Better for People; and Better for the Planet.

In that vein, we prioritize American craft, trend-proof style and being sustainable by design. We strive to utilize more renewable and recycled materials wherever possible. Partnering with cities across the country to divert urban wood from landfills and to create a circular supply chain aligns with our long-term vision. We can prioritize this project because of strong leadership support and customers that bring these heirloom quality products into their homes.

Okie: Tell me a bit about the Urban Wood Project’s New York City expansion and the wood you’re sourcing there.

McGarvey: Each city presents a unique opportunity. In New York City, our partner Tri-Lox is turning decommissioned water towers into the Millbridge Frames (available now) and the Artemis Bath collection (launches in April). These decommissioned water towers are made from Californian Redwoods and Alaskan Cedar. 

Tri-Lox is also piloting with the NYC Park System to use salvaged oak trees and transform them into Stanley Wall Shelves (launching in late January 2023). The city is finding that as its water table rises due to climate change, some of its trees will not react well. These trees include London plane sycamore and white and red oak. 

We are piloting solutions as these trees will ultimately need to be replaced with species that can react better to a changing climate. 

Okie: What challenges has Room & Board encountered in leveraging reclaimed material? 

McGarvey: We are building a circular supply chain for urban wood with many partners. It’s exciting to be part of the process and does require patience and flexibility. In our efforts, we’ve seen three main challenges.

  1. Design: Turning material destined for the waste stream into beautiful, heirloom-quality furniture can be an incredible design challenge. Our designers are creatively designing products to the reclaimed wood’s highest value by understanding its unique quality and character and also by meeting our design ethos: timeless and modern, natural materials, artisan crafted and high quality. 
  2. Sourcing: Within this new circular system, the supply chain needs to be connected and sometimes created. By partnering with the government, nonprofits, startups and existing vendors, Room & Board supports the creation of the supply chain needed to take the material from urban areas to preprocessing to manufacturing and, finally, to Room & Board showrooms. This takes patience and flexibility for a supply chain to grow that didn't previously exist.
  3. Scale: To ultimately scale reclaimed wood, there is a need for a consistent and reliable quantity of quality wood. And more dimensional lumber is needed to create high-volume items like dining room tables and dressers. As the circular supply chain grows and matures, it will become more efficient, bringing costs closer to mainstream costs. That will allow more companies to join us in using more reclaimed wood.

As McGarvey suggests, more organizations, partnerships and links in the supply chain are needed to build a robust system for reuse and reclamation of urban wood. But for those willing to put in the effort, there are economic and environmental savings for the taking: Much like the cities within which they fall, each downed tree represents a unique opportunity. 

At the risk of repeating myself, from where I sit the extra effort feels "well worth it." 

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