Wood products from urban sources a growing trend


Climate solutions logo. Image: Asher Freedman

By Liam Jackson

Urban wood could help save the environment and small businesses at the same time.

“When I walk through the woods now compared to 20 years ago, I notice the trees getting smaller and smaller because they are getting over-forested,” said Jason Tervol, the owner of Tervol’s Wood Products in Hillsdale County, Michigan.

Getting lumber from urban sources is a growing alternative in Michigan and nationwide.

Urban wood can mean wood from city trees, but the definition is broader, said Paul Hickman, the CEO of Urban Ashes, an Ann Arbor consultant who helps municipalities recycle wood.

“Urban wood can be defined as any wood that was not harvested for its timber value and was diverted from or removed from the waste stream and developed or redeveloped into a product,” Hickman said.

That includes wood from demolished buildings, fresh-cut urban trees and salvaged lumber, Hickman said. This wood can be found in urban forests, urbanized areas, highways, orchards and generally any area where people live and work.

Michigan is one of eight states that are part of the Urban Wood Network, a national coalition of urban wood industry professionals and stakeholders. Hickman is the representative for the Michigan chapter.

The idea has been around for over 20 years, but execution has taken off only over the last few years. A nationally unified approach to urban wood collection and the creation of universal standards for the definition have helped boost the practice, Hickman said.

“In the last five to seven years, it has picked up a tremendous amount of speed around the country,” Hickman said. “You are starting to see national manufacturers and national retailers using it.”

Live Edge Detroit is a company that supplies urban wood to people and businesses. The wood is used to make items as diverse as pencils, bowls and headboards, said John Kwiecien, who is in charge of Live Edge’s business development and operations.

“We have a variety of customers,” Kwiecien said. “Everyone from the weekend warrior that wants to come in and build their own coffee table up to custom home builders who are coming in to buy big pieces of wood to make mantels.”

Before his urban wood endeavors, Live Edge Detroit owner Mike Barger spent decades running a tree care company called Mike’s Tree Surgeon. His interest in conservation was the reason for beginning an urban wood company.

“We are trying to be as sustainable as possible,” Barger said. “It gives the trees a new life. It gives them a life to live on”

Live Edge Detroit tracks nearly every log that comes in. When it is turned into a new product, the customer knows where it came from, Kwiecien said.

“So when somebody buys a piece of wood from us, we can tell them exactly what city in the Detroit Metro area that it came from,” Kwiecien said.

There are many smaller mills around Michigan, including in Traverse City, Detroit and Hillsdale, that recycle wood that large mills won’t, Hickman said.

Large mills, which have automated systems and large, expensive machines, have criteria for the quality of wood that they use, Hickman said. Smaller mills, on the other hand, can work with wood that isn’t as “pure” because it is easier to change saws and work by hand.

“Urban wood has greater levels in variation of the character than you would see in traditional wood,” Hickman said. “Instead of it being a character flaw, it becomes a character that is embraced, highlighted and showcased.”

Tervol’s Wood Products in North Adams is “the biggest little saw mill” in Michigan, Tervol said.

The family business views the recycling of wood as important to the environment and to local communities.

Another benefit: Using the wood rather than burning it or letting it rot keeps it from releasing carbon that contributes to climate change.

“The tree is not going to release the carbon dioxide it has captured over its lifetime because it is going to be a finished product,” he said.

Urban wood producers say they are optimistic about the industry’s future.

“I believe that the last five years have laid down the groundwork for what the future holds,” Kwiecien said. “I do believe that this is not a fad and it is something that is real.”

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