Highrise Harvest: Vacant Buildings Ripe with Resources

Baltimore, Maryland, a city of more than 600,000 people locked in the largest urban corridor of the United States, seems like an unlikely place to find the rich resources of the forest. Look a little closer, or rather, inside of, the nearly 16,000 vacant homes and buildings however, and a different kind of landscape emerges—a landscape that researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) see great potential in. Behind the crumbling brick and stone facades lie wooden floors, beams, and other construction material that await to be re-purposed by savvy entrepreneurs willing to become the lumberjacks of these “urban forests.”

The city of Baltimore, Maryland, has 16,000 vacant homes. Reclaiming materials through deconstruction and establishing market outlets can create value where not currently exists.

The city of Baltimore, Maryland, has 16,000 vacant homes. Reclaiming materials through deconstruction and establishing market outlets can create value where none currently exists.

FPL researchers, in partnership with the Coalition for Advanced Wood Structures, recently conducted a feasibility study that aimed to provide a framework for collecting, processing and distributing this urban woody biomass in Baltimore. Instead of simply disposing of the rubble from the demolished buildings, the material is carefully collected, sorted, and eventually sold to companies that will turn it into new products.

The yearlong study, which comes to a close in July, involved securing a contract with the City of Baltimore to complete a pilot deconstruction project involving 50 row houses. Over the course of a year, the project leaders tracked the volume of extracted wood, analyzed the costs associated with the deconstruction activities, and built partnerships with organizations to establish a distribution chain and market outlet. The final report is scheduled to be released next month.

Although many municipalities have found innovative ways to use their urban wood supplies, this is the first study that stresses the idea that urban forestry can stimulate lasting economic growth in cities. A key component of the urban woody biomass project is to create more job opportunities for chronically unemployed and under-employed urban residents. In addition to the countless jobs that could be created with companies that use the biomass material in manufacturing, the researchers estimate that Baltimore gained more than 60 jobs as a result of the pilot project.

The team hopes that a permanent sort yard would serve as an industry hub, with up to 100 new employees collecting and sorting material from construction sites, local arborists, and urban wood waste collection efforts.

Other than being economically friendly, urban deconstruction and recycling efforts are environmentally friendly too. In a world with finite natural resources, re-purposing existing material will be an integral part of building a more sustainable tomorrow. The foresters of the future may have to trade their axes in for jackhammers to reap the fruits of this urban landscape, but their goal will remain the same: manage local resources in a sustainable way that’s beneficial for the community, local industry, and the environment.

For more information, see this Research in Progress report.