Wood for Good: The Case for Sustainable Furniture


In this special edition episode, we are joined by Gene Wilson, Vice President of Merchandising and Vendor Management at Room & Board. Explore a groundbreaking initiative in sustainable design as we learn how Room & Board, a pioneering American furniture company, is transforming discarded wood into stunning heirloom furniture through their Urban Wood Project.

Discover how this line of products not only prevents waste but also creates jobs and supports local communities across the country. We’ll hear from Emily McGarvey, Director of Sustainability at Room & Board, who shares insights into their sustainability strategy and the positive impact of their urban wood products. Plus, listen to personal stories and experiences that highlight the importance of preserving our natural resources for future generations.

Tune in for an inspiring conversation about the future of sustainable design and the remarkable journey of turning urban wood into beautiful, meaningful furniture.

For more information check out these links:

Urban Wood Project: https://www.roomandboard.com/catalog/living/urban-wood-project

Meet our Craftspeople – Urban Wood Project: https://www.roomandboard.com/about-us/craftspeople/urban-wood-project

Sustainability: https://www.roomandboard.com/sustainability

Graft Table: https://www.roomandboard.com/catalog/living/coffee-tables/graft-coffee-tables/745198

Orlin Collection: https://www.roomandboard.com/search?query=orlin

Montego Collection: https://www.roomandboard.com/search?query=montego

McKean Console: https://www.roomandboard.com/catalog/storage-and-entryway/storage-cabinets/mckean-storage-cabinets/667213

aj: [00:00:00] Welcome to a special edition of once upon a project. I’m your host, AJ Parrone, design futurist at Sandow Design Group, bringing you the best design media brands, you know, and love interior design magazine, Metropolis. Design Milk and Think Lab. Today, we’re switching gears a bit and talking about a project that started as a simple request and evolved into a movement in circularity in design.

And for those of you that don’t really understand the term circularity, it’s a sustainable design concept. That basically means waste equals food. How can we turn something, at the end of its life, into something new that is needed? So let’s start today’s segment with something everyone knows about, neighborhoods.

What picture pops into your mind when I [00:01:00] say, think of the quintessential American neighborhood? For many of you, you may be imagining rows of houses with yards and mature trees. Your image might even include an avenue full of trees lined down both sides of the street. A nod to the landscape of trees with their large canopies shading the driveway of an old mansion in the south. Nature. is at the essence of a neighborhood and primarily made of trees.

When I think back to my childhood, I grew up in a historic home on the outskirts of Minneapolis. We had many mature trees in our yard as my house was built by my great grandfather when he left Italy in the early 1900s to come to Minnesota to start a new life. There was this particular old tree in our front yard that I especially loved as a child.

It had a funny shaped trunk that had a [00:02:00] nook, which made a great spot for hide and seek. It had a low enough branch for me to climb up, to see down the hill and watch cars coming and going, or neighbors out on walks. Back in those days, we had no internet or electronic toys, so playing outside was a given, rain or shine.

And when it was raining, my tree was my shelter to protect me from the elements. If you’ve ever read the children’s book, The Giving Tree, you know what a special relationship a child can have with an old friend from nature. And then one day, the unthinkable happened. When I woke up, my parents asked me if I had been up all night with all the sounds and commotion.

I was confused, as I had a good night’s sleep, and I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, apparently, there had been a terrific storm, and lightning had struck my favorite old tree, split it in half. And it laid [00:03:00] across the main road in front of my house, stopping all access and traffic in the way.

The fire department had to come out and through the night chainsaw the tree parts still in the street, so that people could have a thoroughfare for the morning commute. I ran out and saw that my old friend was still partially there, maybe three quarters, and my favorite nook intact. Thank God. And then my father gave me the bad news.

They would have to cut down the rest of the tree because it was unstable. I asked, but what would happen to my tree? He said that they would use some for firewood. Perhaps, but most of it would go in the chipper and made into mulch. Anything but the chipper! I started to cry and cry and begged my father to please leave my favorite old tree intact.

He eventually agreed, knowing he would still need to [00:04:00] cut it down in the future, but hopefully, when I was older, I would understand. But as you’ll hear in some of my stories later on, I don’t think I ever got over it.

In the business of our lives, we rarely think about what happens when our environment changes. After a storm, there is destruction and a mess, and we concentrate on cleaning up and getting things back to normal. But do we stop to think about how things are cleaned up? Let’s hear how an American made furniture company headquartered in Minnesota is doing something about the how in turning discarded wood, seen as waste, into beautiful heirloom objects and furniture.

gene: I’m Gene Wilson. I’m Vice President of Merchandising and Vendor Management at Room & Board, and I’ve been working in the industry for 26 years. 

For those of you who are not familiar with the brand, Room & Board [00:05:00]  is a home furnishings retailer based in Minnesota that was founded in 1980. John Gabbert, the founder, had, Some pretty crazy ideas back, in 1980, that time the market was dominated by brands that were centralized, a lot of them would have been based in North Carolina. And basically these brands controlled the furniture market. And you’d have regional furniture retailers who tied themselves to specific brands. And those retailers the value that they provided was really only as good as the brands that they were tied to.

And John was always frustrated, that he couldn’t bring more value to market. So everything in the market at that time was traditional furnishings and he always loved modern design. And he felt like that there was enough of a market for that. So he started out and said, I want to build modern product.

How am I going to do that? he was also frustrated by all the [00:06:00] different links in the supply chain that added costs to the customer. And he really wanted to provide the best value possible. so he said to himself. Literally, can I just find people who love to manufacture and aren’t spending money on marketing?

And can I work with those partners to develop my own product and bring my own designs to life and have my own brand? and that brand by the way I don’t want salespeople who are maybe sometimes more interested in their commission than really taking care of the customer Everything that he did was about modern design Control of the brand, his own identity, and really taking care of the customer.

So he set out in 1980 to make change when not many companies had their own brand That they were running their private label brand, so to speak, he had to get creative, finding manufacturers, people who would want to work with them. He worked with a lot of small shops.

He had, an interest in [00:07:00] steel furniture, felt like that would be key to the market. And nobody was really selling steel furniture at that time. certainly not in a big way. So he, met a, steel shop here in Minnesota, a job shop, called Bell Manufacturing. That was one of our critical partners at the beginning.

They made radiator covers and steel bars for windows. he had all these bed designs and they decided to give it a go together. so he brought something unique to the market, something that was totally. Fresh something that nobody else would have and he started having success and Really that focus on whatever he needed to do to bring that unique product to market that really reflected the ethos of his brand, and put him in a position to provide the best value to the customer was The only thing that guided him. And, it proved to be really successful, john’s still the owner. It’s a family business.

[00:08:00] Years ago, John Gabbard, the founder had all these ideas and really a strong focus on the customer. That’s what’s been most appealing to me. And what’s really amazing as I’ve been here for a long time now, 26 years, but really 44 years into the company.

I think you’re starting to get the picture. Here is this great American furniture company bringing good, carefully made design to the masses. It is. So you can see why they might have been the perfect target for someone looking for new partners for the circularity of wood waste called the Urban Wood Project.

gene: How we became aware and ultimately involved in the urban wood project is, somebody from the U S forest service now known as the USDA forest service, simply contacted a woman who works on our team, Megan Meyer, via LinkedIn The message was, pleased to meet you.

I hope you accept [00:09:00] this connection. And we’d love to talk to you about something that’s going on in the market. so Megan brought it to me and. I’m like the forest service, you know, we, we use a lot of wood. so right off the bat, I was like, Oh, I wonder what the forest service wants. we did respond back and, we set up a conference call. This was in March of 2017. And we had an opening conference call with. The Forest Service, and they explained this project that they had going on in Baltimore. They explained the fact that in Baltimore, you know, it’s a city that’s built for a million people, has housing literally for a million people, and they had about 600, 000 people living there.

And furthermore, they have all these row homes that were built at the turn of the century. 20th century, and a lot of them were vacant, in disrepair, a lot of negative things would be going on in the [00:10:00] neighborhood, a lot of, fires and, and different things that would, , be a risk to the residents who did live there.

And the city had set out on a plan to take out these homes and what they would do is they would, they would take out the homes that, at some level it was based on the condition of the homes, like a whole street block, and in other ways they’re also planning We need more green space. We need more parks.

So we’re going to pull these homes out and put parks in. So the forest service got involved, , with a nonprofit called, Humanum, the city was just demolishing these homes. So the, the city would take down the homes and they would literally. Put them in, in a hole, either the material would be taken to a landfill or the material would be, landfill right on site So there’s a few things that are happening there.

Number one, there’s [00:11:00] incredible brick, marble steps, incredible, old growth lumber that was used to make these homes back in the day, and all of that material would go to waste. The carbon would be released back into the atmosphere. and the other thing with Baltimore is, you know, it’s a pretty tough area.

It’s just, there’s a, there’s a lot of poverty. The, the drug laws of the 1980s and 1990s just have sent so many people to prison. So there’s a lot of people with barriers to employment. So Humanum, their whole, existence is workforce development and really, training people to have life skills where they can find work and support themselves and their family.

The Forest Service is looking at it from an environmental standpoint and they’re, they’re concerned about all of this wood that is being wasted and the carbon that’s being [00:12:00] released back into the atmosphere. So those two groups came together. To develop the urban wood project. And that project really is about instead of demolishing these homes with a two person crew, they created the situation where, okay, we’ll deconstruct these buildings.

We’ll have crews of seven to 10 people who deconstruct these buildings. And then we’ll recapture all of this material, we’ll recapture the brick, we’ll recapture the marble, we’ll recapture the wood, this beautiful southern yellow pine with, growth rings that you will not see on any tree , that is, cut down, , in our time now.

Because these were trees that were two or three hundred years old when they were, originally harvested to build these buildings. But they’ll take that material and then they’ll have another operation that they create. In this case, it’s an operation that’s still, , running today in Baltimore called Brick and Board.[00:13:00]

That will process that material and prepare it for sale. they’d sell it to the general public people who have projects they would sell that building contractors You know architects and designers , they were really trying to create a market for this and the trick is Can I create a situation where none of this wood goes to the waste stream?

We’re removing this wood from the waste stream. And can I create a situation where I’m providing jobs and giving people the chance to develop, skills that can be transferable to other jobs in the future? So really get jobs with people who have barriers to employment, decrease recidivism, And ultimately build a better community or, help to provide the foundation to build a better community.

They presented this to us on the conference call we’re like, well, you kind of have to be involved in that, so two weeks later we were in [00:14:00] Baltimore with them, going through and looking at all the sites, actually work sites, brick and board, and, and the work that they were doing to, prepare lumber, for use by other parties.

And that day at the table, our vice president of brand experience went, several other people from our team, from my team went. And we just looked at it. we’re like, okay, we’re sold. We don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do something. ultimately the Forest Service reached out to us and they, invited us to be part of this because they looked at the situation they know that we make over 90 percent of our volumes made in America.

And virtually all of our wood product is made in America using North American hardwoods, and American manufacturing. And what Humanum and the Forest Service needed is, they needed somebody to help put them over the top. Because they had gone out and built this model, [00:15:00] sold this model to the city of Baltimore, sold it to the, The forest service sold it to other agencies.

They had gotten grants to make this happen. So that’s how the operation had started, but they weren’t doing enough volume to keep it going beyond the life of the grant. So they needed somebody to help put them over the top. And, they thought home furnishings is a great way to go. Now, who can we work with to do this?

first of all, they need to be making product in America. they need to have the right ethos. Luckily we had, some customers among, that group who knew of us and knew how we operated, and that’s why they reached out to us to invite us in, they, they weren’t sure who else could actually make something happen.

So this, ended up being, between March and April of 2017, we met, we saw the operation in action, before we went home, the recap at the end of the [00:16:00] day, the room and board team members just looked at each other across the table and we kind of all nodded to each other and, We said, okay, we’re, we’re in, we’re going to give this a run.

Let’s, let’s take this material and see what we can do with it. That was I think, late April of 2017. So we went home and by January of 2018, we had our first product lines coming to market.

aj: I love that this team’s reaction wasn’t, gee, do you think anyone would buy this stuff? But wow, look at the opportunity to do something good in the world. And if we make a little money while doing it, so be it. But that thinking does beg the question, who would buy products made from wood that is repurposed or disposed of? Is there really a market for these goods? We asked a notable designer working near Baltimore about the realities of designing projects for clients with a [00:17:00] circularity purpose. Let’s hear more about her work.

laura: My name is Laura Hodges. I’m an interior designer. We are located in the middle of Maryland, actually, between Baltimore and DC. We work on all types of projects from modern to classic to, traditional and everything in between.

We weave sustainability into our design projects and our conversations with our clients, actually, before we even start talking to them in the first place, because I’m very clear about our philosophy and our purpose on our website. Right? And so I do talks and panels, and I’m, really very, open about my interest and dedication to sustainability as much as what we can control from within the project.

So it’s on our website, it’s in our social media posts, and so when a client comes to us, we are lucky that our clients are coming to us for who we are. Typically, we don’t get clients who say, oh, I’m just looking for a designer who, they’re looking for us. Right. They, they are attracted to our design style [00:18:00] and more than likely they have read about us, , in our about us page.

And so they know what I do and they know that, you know, I’m a lead AP and green leaders and associated with Sustainable Furnishings Council and, , that all these things are important to us. So. But at the same time, I don’t really like to lead with it because I think that ultimately our clients are like anybody else, they’re looking to create a beautiful home for themselves and it can be a little bit overwhelming if you’re thinking about not only building a home and everything that goes into building the home, but also somehow trying to save the planet at the same time and not have too much of a carbon footprint and, you know, don’t do this and don’t do that.

So we don’t like to start the conversation with this sort of like, eat your vegetables type conversation of make sure that you do all the right things because we also want our clients to enjoy the process, right? We want them to have fun with it and be excited about it and they’re spending a lot of money and there’s a lot of anxiety that can go along with building a home or doing a Um, there’s just a lot that goes [00:19:00] into it, a lot of design choices, and a lot of the things that they’re making choices about are also expensive and hopefully like a one time purchase sort of thing.

You’re not going to replace your kitchen backsplash or your cabinetry, things like that in a couple of years. So, we don’t want to overwhelm them with, also, let’s think about how to be as sustainable as possible the whole time. So, we let them know that we think that good design And therefore, when we are sourcing, when we are designing, we’re thinking about it the whole time.

They don’t have to worry that what we’re going to present to them is going to be choice A, which is beautiful, but really terrible for the planet, or choice B, which is beautiful, but really good for them. We’re just going to show you the choice B, right? , like we don’t use vinyl, for instance, as much as we can possibly avoid plastics and that sort of thing.

So we’re not going to show you anything that we don’t think is good for the environment. But I don’t want our clients to think that we are compromising the design. So I don’t want to lead with You know, [00:20:00] everything’s going to be green and cork and, , reclaimed wood and all this kind of stuff, because, well, A, that’s a very one note kind of way of designing, and it kind of doesn’t necessarily always speak to their design aesthetic, right?

So I don’t think that sustainable design is a design aesthetic, but it can be. And in years. Previous to these and even still now people kind of think of it as like a design style almost, you know, and it’s not like it’s just making the right choices along the way and it’s being thoughtful and it’s being careful about the materials and thinking about things that are durable and are going to last long and the circularity of the use of those materials and the use of the product.

So we try to make sure that our clients understand that That we are going to be doing it anyway. And I equate it to going out to a beautiful restaurant. You have a fantastic meal. The restaurant’s amazing. It looks gorgeous. The service is fantastic. And oh, by the way, everything is also sourced from this local organic farm.

So you can feel good about [00:21:00] what you’re eating. It’s good for you. It tastes good. Your experience is good, but you don’t feel like any part of the process or the products or anything are compromised by the idea that it is also good for you and good for the environment.

aj: Laura seems like the perfect designer who is looking for products made from used wood or discarded trees. I asked her how she initiates that conversation with her clients, even the ones who might not be super excited to be paying for a sustainable project.

laura: I mean, I love, you know, there’s, felled trees. Is one of my favorite things we have furniture made from naturally felled trees is whenever we can, because those trees are going to be coming down whether a building is going up, it’s got some disease and it’s falling down anyway, or there’s some other reason why that tree’s coming down.

It’s such a fantastic story to be able to say, this is a tree that was coming down anyway. It was from, right down the street. We’ve done that before. We had a table made that was actually from a tree that was on the same street as our client’s home, [00:22:00] which was really cool because then it was just like, it’s just right here.

Obviously it goes to the, to the workroom first and they dry it out and that sort of thing. But it’s, it’s a great story to be able to know that you are having so that we can have as, as small of a carbon footprint as possible, but also that the work that we’re doing as designers, the purchases that you’re making as a client are benefiting other people as well.

So whether it’s artisans, makers, people who are fantastic at their craft or learning something new that we can all be a part of this great, industry together and be supporting each other is really great for us.

aj: Okay, so we have the request for room and board to take this wood for production, the team’s willingness to use it, and the need for the design community and the consumer to actually purchase it. Now, how does this operation really work? Let’s hear about the process from Gean.

gene: So urban wood, I would describe as. [00:23:00] Any wood is coming out of the waste stream, that we’re diverting from the waste stream, is sort of a loose definition of urban wood in its totality. So, that would include deconstructed building material that we started with in Baltimore.

It also includes trees that are coming down. Trees that are coming down due to storm damage. potentially disease, like the emerald ash borer, with ash trees that have come, down all across the country. those are the primary reasons that trees are coming down and then those logs need to be dealt with.

So the cities or the municipalities across the country. Or tree care companies who are just managing properties. They all have this material that’s coming out, that they have to take action with. And that material, you know, I’m talking a lot of material. I’m talking roughly across the [00:24:00] United States, 36 million trees that are coming down.

So how is it that a municipality can take a tree down from a park and actually turn that into lumber that can be used to make furniture that comes to Room & Board and is sold, across the country at room and board? Well, I would say it takes a lot of hard work, number one, none of those organizations are set up with, you know, milling operations, the ability to dry the wood.

They have to establish operations to be able to do something with this wood. So the, first thing is they have to recognize, hey, this wood’s coming out. It’s either going to the landfill, in some cases it might be chipped into low value applications like mulch, et cetera. It’s a headache in many ways for these municipalities because they have to do something with the material.

They of course want to do the right thing environmentally, [00:25:00] yet they have a limited budgets. So, it’s a real problem for them to solve. And, the first thing that I would, I’d probably need to use, why don’t we use the city of Minneapolis? Because we’re working significantly in Minneapolis with an organization called Wood from the Hood and, Wood from the Hood started this several years ago and what they did, and this was started when the Emerald Ash Borer really became a problem and the city of Minneapolis started proactively taking down ash trees.

Replacing them with other trees that were, more likely to have a longer life because all of the ash trees we’re eventually going to lose them, unfortunately. So, the group from wood, from the hood just felt like, man, We don’t want to see these go to waste. And you know, the city didn’t either, but the city also wanted to alleviate their costs.

aj: I have another [00:26:00] story here. So back in the 90s when my son was first born, we found this perfect starter home in Minneapolis. It was a Cape Cod with shutters, on the corner lot with a picketed fenced yard.

We chose that house because it was on a quiet street with many beautiful mature trees on the boulevards. One day I noticed a ribbon of red spray paint on the tree trunk. Was it vandals? No. The city had marked it to come down. I was incredulous as it looked like a huge, perfectly good, healthy tree to me.

But that’s the tricky thing about Emerald Ash Borer Disease. It can go easily unnoticed when a tree has been infected. In Minnesota alone, 60 percent of Of the city. Trees are ash trees, and this continues to be a huge financial burden for the city to handle with the removal of these trees and [00:27:00] stop more diseases from happening, not alone.

The cost to the community. I was at home with my very young son the day they came to bring this enormous tree down. I actually filmed it with my VHS camcorder. Watching as by limb, they cut down the branches, then took down the trunk with a very large chainsaw. And when the tree fell, the ground shook like an earthquake. I was so sad, probably still traumatized from my childhood tree experience. I had my own funeral for this tree that had been planted in the 1940s and watched a community grow and change.

 And I memorialized all that was lost of memories and the new experiences my little boy would never have under its shade. As the limbs continuously were mulched with a screeching sound and vibration to all that was left. There [00:28:00] had to be a better way, I thought. Luckily, now there is

gene: Wood from the Hood worked with the city of Minneapolis to have the city, when they do this tree removal. They bring those trees to Wood from the Hood, or they give Wood from the Hood the option to take those trees. And it benefits the city because the city no longer has to pay to dispose of that material.

And it benefits Wood from the Hood. Obviously, they have a desire to do something with the material. The city gets the material to them. Frankly, I don’t know any financial arrangement, but I, my guess is it’s a, it’s a minor one if there is a financial arrangement. Because the city is simply trying to act responsibly.

And they’re trying to be, fiscally responsible and environmentally responsible. wood from the hood then got that material, [00:29:00] which now they have to process. So wood from the hood will take the logs. They will mill the logs and then they have kilns on site.

That they dry the lumber and then they have a retail store with the lumber and sell it to the general public and then they also have contract manufacturing so they will use that lumber working with architects and designers to deck out buildings, etc so it’s a great model where they’re taking wood that would be  typically it might go to the landfill or, or low value applications, where it just decomposes and the carbon goes back into the atmosphere and they’re turning it into projects that are going to last for decades.

And provide nicer environments for people, whether that’s homeowners or, commercial buildings and the people who use those buildings. I used, Wood from the Hood as a model with [00:30:00] their business. Now how does room and board play into this when, , with somebody like Wood from the Hood? we will go to Wood from the Hood. We will look at the lumber that they have, the material that they have.

We will actually work with them looking at the logs that they have. And then we work together to figure out. What we can do with the material. How much material is there? Is this material good for our customer base, good for the environments that we’re trying to create, , is this material honestly available in enough quantity that, that we can build , products that do a fair amount of volume.

And that is one of our goals. One of our goals is to use, a significant volume of material because It’s abundant and there’s an environmental impact in every case. So we’ll go and kind of survey. It’s like going to the farmer’s market. You go to see what material is there. And, you know, [00:31:00] if I’m going to start making, some sort of a, hot dish being from Minnesota, that requires the same ingredients to be available all the time.

I’m going to pick those ingredients or try to build with those ingredients, and it would be the same thing that we do with wood. So we’re trying to find the species that are available, and useful. And in the case of wood from the hood, we tend to use Because we still have a lot of ash trees in this area and the ash trees are still coming down and they will be for At least another five years, there’s going to be ash trees coming out in abundance here.

So we want to put that material to good use. And then we’ll look at wood from the hoods manufacturing capabilities. It’s the situation where we might have wood from the hood make product for us like our prospect tables, which are, made using ash and then they use a, an ancient, Japanese technique, Shosugiban, where they [00:32:00] char the outside of it.

They have really amazing artisan capabilities that we also tie to this material, which makes it amazing for us. So we’ll create a program together. We’ll guesstimate what we think we might sell in that program, based on our presentation and marketing plans. And we will then start buying tables, into our inventory and we will resell them.

We’ll put together all the photography and the assets, to sell. And we will, we’ll make sure that these tables are in all of our stores across the country. And we will start selling and, then trying to figure out, okay, how can we We will have done a fair amount of work at the beginning to make sure that they would have enough material to support the program for many years.

Ideally, we create a program and it lasts for five, 10 plus years. That’s our goal when we create new product. so then it becomes your typical [00:33:00] situation where you’re working with partners, sharing what volume levels are going to be needed in the future. So they can plan their business. And in the case of a company like Wood from the Hood, they’re going to need to know.

How much manufacturing capacity they need, but they’re also going to need to know how many logs they’re going to need to support the business, which they’ll then go to the city of Minneapolis and plan out what they need. And then if they can’t get what they need from the city of Minneapolis, they might go to St.Paul or the city of Minnetonka, you know, other communities around the area and find who has a need and where can they get more material.

aj: A real business strategy. But working in the field of sustainability can be complex and confusing. Room & Board needed an expert to join them, spearhead this program to operate smoothly, and ensure it was creating the good they hoped for. Here comes one of my [00:34:00] sustainability superheroes, Emily McGarvey.

emily: Hi, I’m Emily McGarvey. I’m the Director of Sustainability at Room & Board. One of our main goals is to have a positive impact on people and planet. And what that looks like is working towards 100 percent renewable electricity, as well as working towards 100 percent sustainably sourced wood.

So our strategy for sustainability at Room & Board prioritizes three pillars of work, and it’s better products, better for people, and better for the planet. So, that’s really how we prioritize our time and our resources. And so better products, we’re looking at materials like wood and recycled plastic.

We’re also looking at packaging and chemicals. Within the people work, we are focused on American craftspeople with 90 percent of our products being made in the United States. We’re also focused on the local communities that we are a part of. , and then lastly, we are working on better for the planet.

And that work is really our work within our operations. So it’s climate and renewable energy, it’s circularity and waste. It’s [00:35:00] also, clean transportation. Cause we move a lot of heavy furniture around the country. So how can we do that better and work towards electric vehicles.

When I started as the director of sustainability at room and board about two and a half years ago, that was when I heard about the urban wood project and I love circularity, like anything circularity. And so this was a really, really cool project that. Is very strategic for the company and continues to grow at room and board.

And I was really excited to be able to be part of it because what started in Baltimore has now grown to many different cities across the country. And we’re just continuing to work more and more with diverting wood from landfill. So within my sustainability work, it’s been exciting to see circularity really start to take off within the world of products, we hear a lot about, you know, food and different food waste turning into new food and apparel is just starting to be a part of how can we do more circularity with textiles, but I hadn’t heard of anything within the furniture industry [00:36:00] around product circularity. And so really being able to use more and more recycled materials within products. So there’s a little bit happening in the textiles world with upholstered, textiles, but to be able to divert trees from cities and urban areas and turn that into heirloom quality furniture, that was just a really, exciting project and exciting, work that was happening.

The three or four key points that I had talked about was one, we’ve diverted 300 trees and 2023. And I think the point of that is that we as Room & Board we have proved that urban wood is viable. The second piece is in order to really get to scale, we’re going to have to really figure out dimensional lumber.

 There will always be things we can do. With, wood coming out of buildings and the cookies coming from trees, but really getting to dimensional lumber, which is what all manufacturers use, is really key to scale, which leads into the third point we want other people to join us.

So we’re really building a circular highway, and we want other [00:37:00] people to drive on it with us. And then the fourth piece is, , maybe a PS statement. , but we’re partnering with the Arbor Day Foundation and they have an alliance for community trees program.

And that focuses on urban forestry and tree planting and communities where there’s the greatest need. And so in 2023, we started supporting two projects in Baltimore. And Detroit, and that’s just a nice full circle compliment because we know we have wood coming out of Baltimore and Detroit, and then we can also be helping to reforest, where it’s needed most within those same communities in 2022, we diverted 200 trees and in 2023, we diverted 300 trees, so we’re steadily growing the amount that we are diverting from landfill and the amount of products that we’re selling in our stores and online, but we really need to start to get to scale. So there’s a couple different things that are going to help the first thing is really dimensional lumber. So dimensional lumber is what? Most of our manufacturers use day in and [00:38:00] day out to make furniture products. And so being able to have. Regular dimensional mainstream lumber, which means like an eight foot board. So they can take an eight foot board and turn it into pretty much anything.

So today we’re making a lot of bowls, a lot of end tables, smaller products that have smaller retails and are diverting and using less urban wood. What we want to be able to get to to scale is to really use dimensional lumber. So then we’re making bigger products. We’re making outdoor furniture, we’re making dining room tables, we’re making coffee tables, and that not only allows us to have a higher retail and to sell more, but it’s also using more dimensional lumber and diverting more from landfill.

So dimensional lumber is going to be really key for us to be able to make bigger products and to be able to sell more urban wood.

We started our urban wood project in Baltimore, and we’ve been steadily growing a list of cities that have been joining us. So now we are in New York City, [00:39:00] Anaheim, Detroit, Minneapolis, Sacramento. And as we go into more cities, it’s an urban wood is like It’s not like climate change, which is very global.

It’s like water, which is very local. So there are local partners that really need to be set up and new businesses that need to be created and city governments that need to be engaged. And so as we go into each city, we are helping and we’re just one partner really setting up the infrastructure. The circular supply chain, but we’re the end user that’s able to, to say, we’re, we’re going to use this wood.

There is a business model for some, for an entrepreneur to set up a business, , and be part of this new circular supply chain, but room and board is only one business. So right now room and board and Taylor guitars are probably the two main users of urban wood within the United States. As I said earlier, we diverted 300 trees last year.

We have a goal to divert a thousand trees every year starting in 2025, but there’s still 36 million trees coming down every year. So there is plenty of room for other [00:40:00] people to join us. And we want other people to join us. We want other companies to find ways to use urban wood so that eventually we can be diverting as much wood as possible from landfill and then even displacing the need to be cutting down some of the virgin trees that we have coming down. So if we can utilize all the wood that we have in our urban areas, then we can go to our forests and take, you know, the rest of what we need, but we really want other people to join us. And that’s one of the other reasons we’re working so hard to scale dimensional lumber, because it not only helps us, it will help other people.

Other partners and other retailers and manufacturers be able to more easily use urban wood if it is in that dimensional lumber state, we want as many people as possible to be using urban wood, even if that’s the people that we compete with in the marketplace.

aj: Room & Board is the independent privately held retailer of modern furniture with over 22 stores across the United States and [00:41:00] nationwide delivery. It has over 1, 100 employees across its retail distribution centers and its headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Emily is a native of Minnesota. So I asked her how living in a place so close to nature affected her love of the environment

emily: So being in Minneapolis, it’s a green state. You know, Minnesota is the land of 10, 000 lakes and we have a lot of forests. We have the boundary waters up near the Canadian border. We’re known for being very active and being outside. I grew up in a rural area within Minnesota and now I live in an urban area within Minnesota and across both areas.

This is a place where people love the outdoors. I know Minnesota is, is known for our winters and our snow, and we’re probably equally active in the winter as we are in the summer. Being on the beautiful lakes is amazing. So the Urban Wood Project is especially near and dear to my heart because it is about these beautiful trees that we have in our [00:42:00] urban areas.

And in Minnesota, like many areas across the country, we’re in the process of dealing with the emerald ash borer. So one out of six trees in Minneapolis, St. Paul is an ash tree and will be coming down. So over the next five ish years, we have all of our ash trees coming down. And unless we have a way to divert them from landfill and turn them into something beautiful, , they will be mulched and they they will be just going to landfill.

So the urban wood project it’s not only just, taking care of the beautiful landscape in which I’ve grown up and in which I still live, it’s also taking care of a really big environmental problem that we have in, in my hometown.

I love Minnesota. When I moved into our second home in Minnesota, after selling the cute Cape Cod in Minneapolis, this new home was in a historic town close to the St. Croix River. The house was built in [00:43:00] 1878, and one of the reasons I loved it, and put an offer on the house immediately, without telling my husband, mind you, was there was a ginormous old maple tree in the middle of the yard.

aj: It was enormous. The trunk had to be at least four or five feet wide, and it was here long before the house had been built. I imagined Native Americans living around this tree, supporting their well being, and I knew this tree had an old soul. Of course, everyone said that tree must go. It’s got to be hollow inside.

It’s gonna fall and take out your house. Well, it didn’t fall on the house, but a large branch did come down in a storm and totaled my SUV that was parked underneath it. My neighbors were convinced. Now, she will get that tree taken care of. It was starting to look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and leaning right towards my house.

[00:44:00] But no, I was adamant. I told everyone, I can replace a car. I can even replace the house. What I can’t replace is this old tree that has been here for so many years. As long as I’m here, it’s staying. Well, we did end up moving again, and the new family kept the tree for a few years, but eventually decided to cut it down.

I happened to be in the neighborhood and drove by my old house when they did, only to see a chunk of the old tree trunk that had been cut was on its side. And yes, it was so hollow in the middle, you could actually crawl through the hole. So eventually, all trees must come down. But I wondered, is Room and Board doing anything to replenish the trees that we’re once there?

Here’s Emily.

emily: Now, while the Urban Wood Project is focusing on utilizing the [00:45:00] reclaimed, wood coming out of cities, we also recognize that there’s a need for tree planting in communities. And so therefore we started a partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation and they have a program called the Alliance for Community Trees.

And this program focuses on urban forestry and tree planting in communities that have the greatest need. And so in 2023, we supported tree planting in both Baltimore and Detroit. And so we really love the connection between we’re taking urban wood out of Baltimore and Detroit, and then we’re also helping to reforest and plant trees where there is the greatest need.

So I’d invite anyone listening to really check out Urban Wood and be able to help support the cause. And that could be, , giving to the Arbor Day Foundation. It could be coming to a room and board showroom and looking at some of the beautiful products. We have our Montego collection, that’s outdoor thermally modified ash.

We have our beautiful Orland table, that’s a dining table made out of ash wood as well. And then we have the [00:46:00] graft coffee table, which is made out of reclaimed walnut trees. So there’s a lot of. Beautiful products that are out there. And I think the more people are able to support urban wood, the more people will join and the more people will start manufacturing and working with urban wood

aj: Hearing about all these products, it makes the designer in me run to the website to look at the Urban Wood products. And I must say, the design of them is astounding. It’s not like when my father cut down one of the small trees in our backyard that had come all the way from Italy. When it died, he made different designs.

Decor pieces for members of the family. Think of a very handmade item that is shellacked. Something you would never want to be on display. That’s what my father crafted out of that tree. We were given a ribbon holder for my son’s track ribbons. It’s hanging up in the back of his closet. Sure, [00:47:00] it’s an heirloom, so you can’t throw it away, but it’s way too ugly to be prominently shown.

What Room & Board is doing with their urban wood is the total opposite of my father’s project. The woods show the inherent beauty that is in their natural state, and they are gorgeous. I want them all. I asked Emily what some of her favorite pieces were

emily: We have all sorts of urban wood products, whether it’s bowls or end tables or coffee tables or dining tables, and they’re all beautiful. But I think My favorite urban wood product right now is the graft coffee table.

It’s grafted walnut that comes from trees in northern California. It’s a northern California orchard, , and the orchard was at the end of their lifespan. And so the trees are a result of grafting English and American walnut, and it produces this really dramatic color variation, and each piece is just gorgeous

aj: And they are beautiful. The graft pieces [00:48:00] are a modern design, very angular and simple. But that only highlights the innate beauty of the wood. The dark streaks and the blonde highlights. You don’t see variation like this in new wood. You can tell it’s real. And it’s very old.

So we have a beautiful outcome in a beautiful design, but I wondered if Room Board felt this was a successful venture for them.

gene: I’m often asked, how this has impacted room and boards business. because we’ve spent a fair amount of time on it. I would say, room and board is unique and that we’ll take on this opportunity because It’s hard to develop the network of different communities that are in need and develop the infrastructure to actually mill the lumber and drive the lumber and have that be done at a reasonable cost to benefit all the parties involved and to make the value reasonable for the customer.

[00:49:00] So I would say the results have been modest, but we have, grown our business by four times, over the last five years. and we get tremendous feedback from our customers. Like if you go, if you were to go through, like, I often will go through our social media and read, the comments.

And, the comments around this have been amazing. So we know people appreciate it. The trick for us is to find the right material to, create a value that, competes with our core offer. because right now I would say most of what we’re doing is, is more or less what I would call, the niche portion of our offer.

So we do sell a fair amount, but has it changed our business model? No, not as of yet. And the way that we look at it is, we started with deconstructed lumber, from buildings, which we know we can create some great product, but we know that it’ll always be a small part of our offer. It will [00:50:00] not hit mainstream and be able to take on our core offer.

We moved then to what we tend to call live edge pieces. So, that would be logs that are sold as slabs or cookies, the round version or the, sort of rectangular longer version where you have bark, you have the actual live edge of the tree on it. that’s good. It’s great. it’s really beautiful, natural.

It has been a trend over the years, but that’s also just going to be a small part of the offer. The key for us is to find. sources where we can, build the infrastructure in partnership to create dimensional lumber that we can make furniture the way that we make all of our core product lines, like our linear product line is a great example.

Someday we will make the linear product line out of urban lumber. that has not been possible today. So it’s a long road. We know that it’s a long [00:51:00] road. So we’re looking for incremental gains, incremental change that leads to a. Bigger future where we’re using more of this material because we know it has a major impact on the world.

So we’re not very concerned about the results. I will say the results are important and they have, and the product has grown and the product does well enough. We will be keeping the product. That’s one of the main hurdles right out of the gate. I’m honestly, I’m really proud that we would take on an initiative like this and have the long term view to play it out and to invest our time and energy today, because we know tomorrow it will have a significant payback

aj: And Gene should be proud. No other national furniture company has done something like this. It’s hard to be a pioneer in an effort you feel is right, and one that has [00:52:00] not yet been proven to be successful. It takes innovation and grit to tackle a supply chain design problem like this. I wanted to know from Emily’s perspective, as a sustainability steward, how she felt about this work.

emily: Room & Board recently became B Corp certified and that B stands for benefit for all. And it’s a certification that really validates our social and environmental impact that we have on the world. And Our aspiration for sustainability at Room Board is to have a positive impact on society and the world.

And for the Urban Wood Project, this is a great opportunity for us to have a positive impact on people in the world, but we really want other people to join us. impact will be so much greater if other companies join us and start making urban wood a mainstream material. as a mom and having some teen and preteen kids, I believe that the urban wood [00:53:00] project, as it grows over time, as my kids get into adulthood, it really is signaling our ability to. Utilize waste and value waste in a way that we need for our future. So we need to be able to be looking at our resources and managing our resources in a better way as we’re dealing with climate change and everything else that we’re facing and being able to start this project small and have it grow and scale over time means that my kids are going to have a better future and we’re setting us up for success to have the system in place to utilize our resources in a way that Is going to be imperative in the future

aj: This truly is the way forward. In the design world, many people champion circularity, but few actually do it. Especially at a national level

So you’re probably wondering what number house I am on now. Well, it’s house number three. [00:54:00] Yes. I sold the 1873 year old house and went modern. By a hundred years to a home built in the same community, but in 1973. Again, my draw was its amazing view of mature trees, the St. Croix River, and the quiet community. Two years after buying the house, we were notified that our city would replace all the drainage pipes under the streets, add new infrastructure, redo all the roads, and add curbs.

This, of course, would mean that the 20 large mature trees lining our street would need to be cut down. My neighbors and I were outraged. We couldn’t imagine what our neighborhood would look like with all those trees gone. Not to mention the wildlife surrounding us, including bald eagles. How would they be impacted?

I led the charge to save our trees, and the city finally agreed to [00:55:00] try to keep them. However, if any of them died after the project was complete, we were responsible for their removal. The trees stayed, and eight years later, they are still thriving. So, on to other projects for my home. Like replacing some of the furniture I still have from the Cape Cod house, my first house.

But don’t worry, I’m very good at selling used furniture online and I’m quite excited to explore all the urban wood furniture choices I now have from Room Board.

You can learn more about this project by visiting roomandboard. com or check out this episode’s show notes for more info about the urban wood project. Once Upon a Project was produced by Surround, a podcast network by Sandow. Special thanks to our producer, Hannah Viti. Thanks for joining us today on Once Upon a Project, and I can’t wait for you to hear [00:56:00] our next story.

AJ Paron headshot

AJ Paron

AJ Paron is EVP and Design Futurist at SANDOW Design Group and host of the podcast Once Upon a Project

Read More »