From Vacant to Vibrant: Forest Service Brings Restoration Expertise to the City

The Forest Service has always been a conservation agency, focusing most restoration efforts during the past 100 years on rural environments. Today, however, the agency can use that century of experience and put it to work in urban areas as well.

The Forest Service and its partners are deconstructing and restoring vacant buildings in Baltimore, Maryland, to the benefit of many. Jobs are created in the process, along with economic opportunities and improved quality of life for neighborhood residents.

The Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) has been involved in deconstruction research for many years, and the Lab played a critical role in the Baltimore project. In 2015, FPL researchers, in partnership with the Coalition for Advanced Wood Structures, completed a feasibility study that provided a framework for collecting, processing, and distributing the material collected from the vacant buildings.

The yearlong study involved securing a contract with the City of Baltimore to complete a pilot deconstruction project involving 50 row houses. Leaders then 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.

Take a minute to watch this short video, where you’ll hear from Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and several partners about the impact of this work on the surrounding communities. You’ll see that the Forest Service can fulfill its unique mission, “caring for the land and serving people,” not only in the wilderness but also in the heart of the city.

Helping on the Home Front: War-Worn Wood Relishes in Retirement

From building aircraft parts during times of metal scarcity to educating Department of Defense employees on the best ways to package materiel for shipment to the front lines of World War II, researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) have always been willing to lend a hand to support the military in a time of need.

But sometimes, the mission is less conventional than providing for an operational force in a foreign land.

The Wood Crate Design Manual is a popular historic example of FPL research in collaboration with the Department of Defense.

Here in the United States, the U.S. Army estimates that there are over 250 million board feet of lumber and timber in World War II-era buildings slated for demolition. Since the 1990s, FPL scientists have worked cooperatively with the Army to recycle and reuse more than 4,700 cubic meters of this lumber and timber in new construction projects.

To find this in action, look no further than the Research Demonstration House at FPL. The flooring in one of the upstairs bedrooms is made of old-growth Douglas fir salvaged from military barracks originally built in the 1940s. The flooring material was provided by the Ft. Ord Reuse Authority in Marina, California, and stands in contrast to the adjacent room, which uses new, albeit small-diameter, Douglas fir. In addition to keeping wood out of landfills, the floor bears the character of 60+ years of military service, including original nail holes from its previous career.

Recycling this material has been limited by a lack of appropriate science-based grading rules and engineering design values, and consequently, much of it ends up as waste in landfills. FPL researchers continue to work on developing new and accurate grading systems to ensure that residual properties of recycled lumber and timber will meet the performance requirements of new applications. This way, with scientific data and performance information, industry and design professionals can be confident the integrity of their buildings is not compromised.

The military is only one potential source of recycled wood, however, as it is estimated one billion board feet of lumber is landfilled in the United States each year. Deconstruction offers a means of reusing this material for valuable products, and in some cases, recycling operations can provide economic opportunities for local communities.

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FPL’s Research Demonstration House is home to a host of innovative approaches for using wood. A bedroom on the second floor utilizes recycled Douglas fir provided by the U.S. military.

Although these efforts are sometimes overshadowed by the wooden propeller and ship manufacturing industry of years ago, they play an important role in this nation’s defense industry. Recycled lumber and timbers in new construction conserves existing forests, encourages the most efficient use of harvested materials, and makes our military, forests, and communities stronger.

For more information, please see FPL publications Evaluation of Lumber Recycled from an Industrial Military Building, and Engineering Evaluation of 55-year Old Timber Columns Recycled From an Industrial Military Building.

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.