While furniture availability was far from most people’s minds as the pandemic began, a shortage of finished pieces and the raw materials to produce them has become a significant issue.
Families who previously conducted most daily activities outside the house are now rushing to create suitable spaces for them and their children (searches for “desk” on Amazon alone rose 600% between July 11 and Aug. 15).
The “ Urban Wood Project” partnership between Minneapolis-based furniture brand Room & Board and the United States Forest Service (USFS) could offer the framework for a longer-term solution: Repurpose old wood at scale and turn it into quality home furnishings.
In 2015, the USFS was refining a model describing the components of a successful “urban wood economy,” noting existing tree canopies in cities and the economic opportunities around recycling old wood. They were missing a mid-level manufacturing partner as one link that could bring reclaimed wood to market, so their team began outreach and created a relationship with Room & Board.
USFS Urban & Community Forestry National Program Manager Lauren Marshall says that in the year 2002, 17% of municipal landfill waste was urban wood and major opportunities were being missed to strengthen forests and neighborhoods through a reclamation program. (What’s more, a 2019 study estimated that urban tree biomass loss equated to 7.2 billion board feet of lumber annually valued between $89 million and $786 million depending on what products were produced from the wood.)
“It provides so much benefit to communities,” she says. “It helps build new parks and [drives] reinvestment into urban canopies.”
The partnership with Room & Board, which now spans four cities across the U.S., has elevated the credibility and significance of the program, adding a mainstream consumer sales link.
“Our goal is to create volume using the material to have a positive impact on the environment and to aid in the creation of jobs and professional development opportunities,” says Gene Wilson , 52, Room & Board’s director of product and design.
Although big-ticket furnishings are the focus, Room & Board has created small “Urban Wood” utensils, hooks, and game boards. Larger items include live edge coffee tables, media cabinets and bookcases of varying sizes.
The smaller items begin at $20. Bookcases range from $599-$1,100, and larger media and storage cabinets sell for $2,099-$2,699.
The Urban Wood Project got its start in 2017 in Baltimore through a multi-tiered partnership as the USFS introduced Room & Board to economic pathway non-profit Humanim . At the time, the organization was providing employment opportunities to disadvantaged adults and ex-criminals looking for a path back into working society.
Many of these jobs revolved around harvesting wood from old row houses in the city and preparing them to be sold to an affiliated wood seller that would further prepare the salvaged wood to be sold to builders, developers, and the like. The first furnishings were released in January 2018.
“The stuff we’re salvaging was initially harvested in the 19th century, made of trees that don’t exist anymore and with a density and color you don’t find in new wood,” says Max Pollock , founder and owner of wood shop Brick & Board . The salvage operation was initially a part of Humanim and Pollock took ownership of the business as a standalone entity last June.
He estimates that the company has sold 70,000-80,000 board feet of reclaimed lumber to Room & Board, with a staff mostly composed of those with “barriers to employment” as he puts it. The wood is primarily yellow pine and Douglas fir and has distinctive attributes that are highlighted and featured through Room & Board’s designs.
The material “has a story that you don’t find in new wood,” Pollock says. “Somebody lived in and built with this wood. It has all of these human connections.”
WHAT’S THE GOOD?
Marshall says there’s much more benefit beyond diverting wood from landfills.
“A huge part of the model in Baltimore is job creation,” she says. “These are sustainable jobs that can’t be exported.”
As the initial program in Baltimore was getting off the ground, the USFS worked with outside impact investing firm Quantified Ventures (also based in Maryland) to build the business cases around urban wood from deconstructed buildings and urban forestry operations. These business case analyses examine not only the economic model for urban wood, but also the other benefits that can flow from these systems, including creating jobs for underemployed people. The result was an 80-times return on the initial investment by sparking further investment from the city and state.
“It’s easy to get people excited about it because the data is there to support it,” she notes.
Earlier this year, the Urban Wood Project expanded to Sacramento, Calif., working with the Sacramento Tree Foundation to source reclaimed wood for “cookie” style coffee tables, which get their name from their circular shape (coming from the body of the tree). The first 100 pieces of this collaboration were recently released.
Using data from a 2018 study funded in part by the USFS, Room & Board estimates that for every 10,000 board feet repurposed, 33 tons of carbon dioxide is sequestered from the atmosphere. This equates to 13 metric tons of carbon dioxide saved through the initial Sacramento releases.
Additionally, Room & Board was a founding member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council (an advocacy group and certification program).
Although the first few years of the project have presented significant scale, sales only represent 1% of what the company sold in 2020. Wilson notes that finding more consistent sources of desirable reclaimed wood will be a challenge, at least in the short-term.
“We’d love to find a great source for fresh cut, dimensional lumber as that’s where the volume is,” Wilson says. “We’ll sell a higher volume of something with clean lines [as opposed to the ‘cookie’ tables] and we want to create a supply chain with trees turned into that kind of lumber.”
Beyond that, he hopes to expand the program to more cities while the USFS continues educating city and state leaders about how an urban wood system needs to be designed to nurture growth, positive momentum, and sustainability.