Busi­ness di­verts felled trees, re­cy­cles logs into cus­tom fur­ni­ture

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY BRUCE HEN­DER­SON


Have you ever won­dered what hap­pens to a downed tree in Char­lotte af­ter it’s been cut up and hauled away? Wood-in­dus­try vet­eran Da­mon Bar­ron has, and the an­swer haunted him.

Much of the wood ends up in pri­vate land­fills called stump dumps. Bar­ron, who pre­vi­ously sold wood and wood prod­ucts for 20 years, cal­cu­lates that 300,000 pounds of us­able wood is dis­posed of each day in the Char­lotte re­gion.

Now leftover logs are the cen­ter­piece of his four-year-old Pineville busi­ness, Carolina Ur­ban Lum­ber, which mills them for use as cus­tom-made ta­bles, bars, man­tles and other one-of-akind pieces. The firm says it has di­verted 2.6 mil­lion pounds of wood from dumps, lock­ing up car­bon that would oth­er­wise be re­leased as planet-warm­ing car­bon diox­ide when the wood de­cays.

But Bar­ron is also pitch­ing a larger vi­sion. Lo­cal trees would not only be turned into some­thing use­ful when they die but com­plete the prove­nance of Char­lotte’s most cher­ished fea­ture, its tree canopy. Trees felled for devel­op­ment or other rea­sons, he imag­ines, would be re­placed by saplings that are planted with their end use in mind.

Bar­ron, who’s 43, cred­its his ideas to a man he once en­coun­tered on a sales call to a sawmill. The man car­ried cedar boards milled from a tree he’d planted at age 6. He would use them, he ex­plained, to build his own cof­fin.

“I thought it was the best full­cy­cle use of a nat­u­ral re­source that I’d ever seen, es­pe­cially in a ca­reer of wood,” he said in a 2015 TEDx Char­lotte talk.

Bar­ron launched Treecy­cle Amer­ica as a non­profit net­work of ar­chi­tects, de­sign­ers, mill own­ers and wood­work­ers ded­i­cated to re­cy­cling trees. A track­ing sys­tem cat­a­logs trees by species, age and lo­ca­tion as they’re taken down and lists their fi­nal use.

An old sy­camore re­moved from the path of a drive­way in David­son last year be­came a bar at Olde Meck­len­burg Brew­ery. A 78-year-old sil­ver maple taken down in Char­lotte be­came a con­fer­ence room ta­ble for Char­lotte Cen­ter City Part­ners. An un­healthy wil­low oak in a city ceme­tery was re­cy­cled for in­te­rior use in city build­ings.

“They want to do the right thing,” Bar­ron said of lo­cal de­vel­op­ers who clear trees. “They want to plant the right trees. They want to use the re­source thought­fully. The eco­nom­ics just never worked be­fore.”

It’s il­le­gal in North Carolina to dump tree waste in mu­nic­i­pal land­fills. Much of the lo­cal waste wood goes to pulp mills that process them for use in mak­ing

pa­per, said Jef­frey Smith­berger, di­rec­tor of Meck­len­burg County’s Solid Waste Man­age­ment. The county ac­cepts only branches and leaves that can be ground into mulch or com­post.

The county is ex­cited by Bar­ron’s pro­posal to re­use some of the hard­woods it re­ceives, Smith­berger said. Bar­ron also en­vi­sions a sort­ing yard to save logs for other pur­poses, such as mak­ing char­coal for lo­cal grillers, as part of an in­cu­ba­tor that could in­clude re­cy­cling food waste.

“One of our prob­lems is that we never know what will come in for the day, or how much ma­te­rial we will get, so we will set the ma­te­ri­als aside for sev­eral hours un­til some­one can see if it can be used or not,” Smith­berger said by email. “We con­tin­u­ally process, so our hold­ing time is very lim­ited.”

A 2015 study of North Carolina’s ur­ban for­est waste, by Vir­ginia Tech re­searchers, found that pri­vately-em­ployed ar­borists re­ported mak­ing use of 70 per­cent of their logs by turn­ing them into fire­wood or other prod­ucts. Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, how­ever, re­ported find­ing such uses for only 26 per­cent of their logs.

“There’s more wood than there is cre­ativ­ity right now,” said Heart­wood Tree Ser­vice owner Patrick Ge­orge, who is also Bar­ron’s busi­ness part­ner.

Ge­orge said pri­vate land­fills are be­com­ing less com­mon and more ex­pen­sive places to dis­pose of logs. Lum­ber and hard­wood buy­ers nor­mally avoid large logs in par­tic­u­lar, he added, be­cause they’re harder to saw into us­able boards.

Re­claim­ing old trees that are cut down be­cause they’re un­healthy, stor­m­dam­aged or in the way of power lines or con­struc­tion makes busi­ness sense, he added. Char­lotte’s cen­tu­ry­old neigh­bor­hoods have some of the old­est trees on the East coast be­cause they were pro­tected from log­ging for so long. That his­tory, Ge­orge said, gives them added value.

Carolina Ur­ban Lum­ber has five em­ploy­ees, makes com­mis­sioned pieces and sells lum­ber to do-it-your­selfers and pro­fes­sional wood­work­ers. Bar­ron has a small fire­wood busi­ness on the side.

Lit­tle Diver­si­fied Ar­chi­tec­tural Con­sult­ing, a Char­lotte-based ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign firm, is work­ing with Bar­ron to craft the new up­town space the com­pany will oc­cupy in De­cem­ber. Clients who ad­mire Char­lotte’s tree canopy as they fly into town will view it in a new light when they en­ter Lit­tle’s of­fices.

They’ll see ta­bles made from a 94-year-old oak tree cut on Selwyn Av­enue; po­plar logs sus­pended un­der lights to form rough­hewn ceil­ings; and 500pound pieces of a maple’s trunk to dis­play awards and ar­ti­facts un­der a grand stair­case.

Lit­tle de­sign prin­ci­pal Jim Thomp­son calls it “the in­her­ent beauty in what might have been seen as waste.”

The abil­ity to trace the wood’s lin­eage “gives you a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what an (in­te­rior) en­vi­ron­ment can be, whether it’s a ta­ble in a restau­rant or a desk in a workspace,” Thomp­son said. “It be­gins to be a trea­sured story of all of us.”

Bruce Hen­der­son: 704-358-5051; @bhen­der

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­mons@char­lot­teob­server.com

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­mons@char­lot­teob­server.com

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