Denver Design Week Spotlight:

Urban Wood Project: Baltimore

Reclaimed Wood. Reclaimed Neighborhoods. Reclaimed Lives.

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DDW session and to buy
tickets, visit here.

It’s not that often we encounter something as heart-tuggingly perfect as this story—so we had to share it. The players? The U.S. Forest Service, a Baltimore human services nonprofit named Humanim, and the furniture retailer Room & Board. Join us on Oct. 22 at Denver Design Week to hear the tale of how these three unlikely collaborators salvaged old growth-timber from abandoned Baltimore row houses to create jobs, keep wood out of landfills and make beautiful furniture in the process. We spoke to Michael Brotman, senior product design and development manager at Room & Board, to get the preliminary scoop on this amazing venture.
Q: How did this collaboration come about?

A: It was a surprise. In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service contacted someone on our team they found on LinkedIn, saying something like, “We have this interesting project we’d like to discuss with you.” It was totally intriguing. Room & Board is all about sustainability, and the health of the U.S. forest system is critical to what we do, so we thought maybe there was something here we could work together on. So we called back and they told us about a program in Baltimore in which they’re deconstructing old rowhouses and reusing the material to limit what is going into landfills.

Q: So why did they contact Room & Board?

A: It turned out that Humanim is a Baltimore nonprofit that provides jobs to people who have barriers to employment, training them, and helping them navigate through life. Humanim provides the labor to remove the materials from these rowhouses, and from there the wood goes to another operation to make it usable for places like Room & Board. It’s a social and environmental enterprise as good as you could ever hope to find. Then the Forest Service comes in to help reclaim the land these rowhouses were on and turn it into parks or other green space. Room & Board was the last to join the party.

Q: What was your initial reaction?

A: We were excited. We flew to Baltimore, met the entire team from the Forest Service to the deconstruction folks, and everywhere in between. And we fell in love with the people, the story, the whole thing. At our first visit, we were sitting around sketching ideas and trying to figure out how to get involved right away. For the next visit, one of our manufacturers in Pennsylvania went to see the materials, and he was so excited, he just loaded up the back of his station wagon with wood, and four weeks later, we had our first sample from the McKean Collection we are selling today—storage cabinets, like media cabinets, consoles, or dining cabinets, and bookcases. We’ve made a lamp, some stools, and a ladder. We’re constantly working on more.

Q: Why is the wood so special?

A: It’s gorgeous! There’s not much old-growth yellow pine standing today because it was almost all harvested for its wonderful traits: It’s super hard, it’s straight, it’s beautiful. It was perfect for building homes and barns and other structures that needed to stand forever. These rowhouses are 100-plus years old, and some of the wood could be 300 or 400 years old. But today, when we machine it up, it looks just like the day it was cut. And that is perfect for Room & Board, because we celebrate the material; if it’s walnut, we don’t put stains on it and things like that. So we are super lucky to be able to use this wood.

Q: And your Design Week presentation will tell this wonderful story?

A: Yes. Now we’re expanding to other cities and working with other partners. The more we’ve been exposed to this, the more we’re finding out that many people are trying to do great things with old urban lumber. And there is often a social component to the work, so it’s helping people, too. There are very few things in life that are such a win-win, and it’s so exciting to be part of this.