Home remodelers discover ‘urban timber’


Contractor Jake Grimes made all the cherry cabinetry in this remodeled kitchen using wood that was locally sourced. (Photo by Chris Amos/PHOTO BY CHRIS AMOS)
November 11, 2011

The first-time visitor to John Scudder and Regan Knapp’s recently remodeled attic getaway over their Ann Arbor, Mich., garage will be captivated by the space. This home office/guestroom has the coziness of a room tucked in under the roof but also the spaciousness of a room with a regular ceiling height. Each end features large windows, the sloped ceiling has a big skylight, and all the equipment and paper that tend to clutter up an office have been hidden inside built-in cabinets.

But the most intriguing detail will not become apparent until the owners point it out. The wood for the cabinet counters that run the length of each side of the room and the wood encasing the small section of exposed roof trusses came from two pine trees that once stood in their back yard.

The idea of reusing their trees in this fashion came “serendipitously” on an otherwise ordinary afternoon walk in her neighborhood about three years ago, Knapp said. About halfway up her block, she noticed a truck belonging to a tree service that advertised “custom lumber.” As explained by Rusty Hull, the tree service owner, this meant he could take down her trees and turn it into lumber that she could use.

It was an idea whose time had come; she had two diseased trees that had to be removed. But once Hull had taken down the trees and processed them, it took the couple and Marc Rueter, their architect, some months to figure out how to use it. The obvious application was flooring, but the pine was too soft and would scratch easily. They finally decided that using the pine for the countertops, trimwork and the stair rail was a way “they would touch it everyday,” Knapp said.

Similarly, Eric and Sally Pauls decided to use local wood for their recently remodeled Craftsman-styled cherry kitchen cabinetry. Their decision to use local wood was driven by the irregular shape of their 1920s kitchen, which precluded the use of standard-sized stock cabinets. When the Pauls compared the price for factory-made custom cabinets to contractor Jake Grimes’s price using local wood, it was almost the same. They loved the idea of having their cabinets made with southeastern Michigan cherry by someone they knew.

In both of these projects, the type of wood that was used is called “urban timber,” a term that refers to trees that are removed from private property in urban and suburban areas or municipally owned parks or right of ways because they are diseased or standing in the way of construction.

Nationwide, such trees account for nearly half of the commercial hardwood harvested each year in the United States, according to Stephen Bratkovich, a St. Paul, Minn.-based consultant on urban wood use. Less than 5 percent of this wood is used for anything other than firewood and landscape mulch, Bratkovich estimated. Most of what is used goes to generate heat or electricity; less than 1 percent of urban timber ends up in a building, he said.

Urban timber has remained largely untapped as a building material for several reasons, Bratkovich said. There is little public awareness of the possibilities, and the wood has little appeal for large-scale commercial loggers and sawmill operators. The trees are often embedded with nails and other metal pieces that make a commercial sawmill’s sophisticated machinery malfunction, and commercial loggers are geared to operate at a fast pace, cutting at least 50 trees a day. Because of nearby buildings, an urban forester may need an entire day to take down one tree.

With these limitations, urban timber is more suited to small-scale, community-based businesses that can process the wood taken down by local tree services. In some parts of the country, “it’s starting to get on the radar screen,” Bratkovich said.

Appraising urban timber from a very local level, Gary Murphy, a tree service owner in Ann Arbor who has turned his own trees into flooring, cautioned that homeowners need to have realistic expectations about the quality and the cost of using wood from their back yard. They might have two or three large trees but discover there’s only a small quantity of usable wood, and they have to cover the cost of processing the tree — getting the log rough-sawn, kiln-dried and milled.

Murphy’s partner, Charlie Brown, added that some species of “backyard wood,” including red oak and maple, are so readily available commercially that “it doesn’t make a lot of economic sense to process your own unless you are really attached to it.”

But the story behind the wood is exactly why people buy from him, said John Haling, an urban-timber recycler based in Whitmore Lake, Mich. Haling only uses wood that he gets from local tree services. When potential customers hear that his wood may have once been standing in their own neighborhood or across town, most are ready to sign on, even though his prices may be slightly higher than lumber sold in nearby big-box stores.

Haling has a Web site, but this is very unusual. Most of the people in his line of work do not advertise and get their business by word of mouth. This means that homeowners who want to use urban timber will have to be creative in locating a source. Until the concept is more widely known, the best way to find a person like Haling in your area is to ask the people who purchase this type of wood to make things – local craftsmen, including cabinet and furniture makers.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Michigan. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail or at katherinesalant.com.

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