Salvaging Baltimore with the USDA Forest Service

Deconstruction helps salvage tons of wood flooring and other materials

When you think about the USDA Forest Service, you probably picture Smokey Bear, trees, and mountains. As part of a new partnership, Room & Board has learned this government agency’s reach goes far beyond America’s rural areas and is deeply rooted in urban forestry as well.

In Baltimore, the USDA Forest Service has brought together Humanim, a social services enterprise, and Room & Board in a unique public-private partnership aimed at improving the Baltimore community both environmentally and socially. “Our project in Baltimore is thinking about how we can deal with the vast number of vacant homes that we have… in order to restore the communities that we have. And that’s part of our mission with the Forest Service—how can we serve the people and care for the land,” explains Morgan Grove. Grove is the research social scientist and team leader, of the USDA Forest Service Baltimore Field Station.

Baltimore has thousands of abandoned row homes
Row homes slated for deconstruction in Baltimore.

When the Forest Service reached out to us as a potential partner in using wood reclaimed from Baltimore’s aging row homes, we were immediately intrigued. As a founding member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, sustainability is a cornerstone of our company values. Throughout our history, we’ve sought out recycled or reclaimed materials to use in our products. Along with American manufacturers who share these passions. “The work that Humanim and the USDA Forest Service is doing is amazing,” says Gene Wilson, director of merchandising and vendor management at Room & Board. “They saw the potential to take a challenging situation and turn it into good. It’s very humbling to be part of it—to be asked to join and help support and grow it.”

Deconstruction creates jobs and reclaims materials
Crew members from Details Deconstruction carefully remove joists from a row home.

Two Humanim entities, Details Deconstruction and Brick + Board, employ people who have barriers to employment, from incarceration to a lack of education. Rather than simply demolishing vacant row homes, Details crew members carefully remove salvageable materials within the walls. This includes century-old floor joists, ceiling panels, and wall lath. In fact, Humanim estimates that for every one job created by a demolition project, deconstruction creates six to eight positions. All while keeping thousands of pounds of materials out of landfills. With more than 17,000 homes currently identified as vacant in Baltimore, there is plenty of work to sustain the program.

For every one job created by a demolition project, deconstruction creates six to eight positions. All while keeping thousands of pounds of materials out of landfills.

Reclaimed lumber at Brick + Board in Baltimore
Reclaimed lumber ready at Brick + Board in Baltimore.

The materials harvested from row homes are brought to Brick + Board to be sorted and prepped for use. “The yellow pine we get from these Baltimore row houses is old growth or second growth. It’s trees that pretty much don’t exist anymore, so the quality of yellow pine that we get in these 100-year-old buildings is far, far superior to the quality of yellow pine that you’d find at the big box stores,” says Max Pollock, director of Brick + Board.

A woodworker takes reclaimed lumber through the planer
A woodworker at Brick + Board inspects reclaimed wood.

That’s where Room & Board comes in. We take the wood that’s prepped at Brick + Board and send it to our American manufacturers to be made into furniture, like our McKean media cabinets and Etting bookcases. Specifically designed to showcase the beauty of reclaimed wood, these pieces close the loop on the deconstruction process. What was once in a home comes full circle to be re-used in another home.

For more information about this inspiring story, read the in-depth USA Today article or shop the products here.

Images and video by Room & Board

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