Salvaged Wood Reborn

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Joshua David Crown thought he was going to be a pastor when he was growing up.

His father was a minister in Sacramento, Calif. Crown went to a bible college. where he met a girl from Harford County, Maryland. They married when he was 19, both thinking Crown would one day become a preacher.

They moved to Maryland to be closer to her family and Crown started working for his father-in-law, who was a master craftsman. Crown discovered he like making things with his hands. But as he grew older, his interest in a religious life waned. He discovered he enjoyed wood working, but not working with other construction workers. His marriage fell apart as he set aside his goal of being a pastor.

“I used to want to be like Jesus, but I ended up a carpenter instead,” Crown said.

His interests gravitated toward artists working in wood and metal.

“They didn’t do it because that’s the only thing they could do,” Crown said. “They did it because they enjoyed it.”

What he enjoyed the most, he discovered, was becoming a furniture designer. Crown now owns a shop in once-industrial Woodbury, next to the more residential neighborhood of Hampton, where he has lived for five years.

A fascination with the unique

Looking back, Crown said he can easily see how his career path was influenced by the intersection of his interests in vintage style and working with wood.

He said he remembers the first time he walked into an antique store, filled with things that were “precious and unique” – things that he couldn’t buy at a box store. He said that the stories behind vintage items fascinated him. So it was natural for him to appreciate – and then start working with – reclaimed wood.

About a year and half ago, Crown said he discovered Brick + Board, a local non-profit that sells construction materials salvaged from century-old vacant buildings, and keeps a running stock of wood. Brick + Board is the retail branch of Humanin, a non-profit that owns Details, a company that employs ex-felons to deconstruct buildings by hand.

Max Pollock is the manager of material sales and distribution at both Details and Brick + Board.

In “any demolition project, an excavator would come, crush the building and everything would basically get mixed up into a pile that would then get loaded into trucks and sent to the landfill,” Pollock said. “When we do it,” Pollock said, “we take each component of the building apart individually, so every component of the house escapes intact.”

Details deconstructs around 100 to 150 houses a year, a process that is much slower and more expensive than regular demolitions, Pollock said. The resale value of the salvaged material makes the business economically viable. For example, if Brick + Board deconstructs a block of six row houses, Pollock estimates the deconstruction process will take about a month and will cost Details and Brick + Board about $15,000 per house.

“The city pays us a certain amount (about $10,000 per house), but it costs us more. So the way we close that gap is selling the materials,” Pollock said. In standard demolition, all the rubble goes straight into a landfill or incinerator, which costs Baltimore contractors $100 a ton for disposal.

According to a report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Baltimore businesses and residences generate 286,647 tons of construction and demolition debris annually. If it all goes straight into the landfill, at a cost of $100 per ton, Baltimore contractors would have to pay more than 28 million dollars for rubbish disposal every year. Brick + Board is working to reduce that number.

“We’re taking stuff that would otherwise be thrown away and turning it into something new,” Pollock said. “The actual material itself, when you get down to it, is beautiful. So what we do here, is take that material, and essentially clean it up, get it ready for its next life.”

Old growth, high value

Pollock said that even though it comes from dilapidated buildings, the wood is actually quite valuable, because it comes from enormous trees harvested from old growth forests. The wood has tighter rings and was routinely cut into wider boards than are available today because the wood came from larger trees. He said that 99 percent of these old-growth trees were cut down a century ago and that this high quality wood can’t be found in modern lumber yards.

“Joshua is one of our clients. And he’s a friend,” Pollock said. “We’re both sort of components in this really nice ecosystem, where the material is harvested right here in Baltimore, brought to our warehouse, cleaned up and then given to Joshua, who further adds value by turning it into a table, and then that table goes into a restaurant a few blocks away.”

Pollock said he appreciates the fact that artists like Crown produce work that is sold in the same city where it is salvaged.

“This wood is really making all these different stops in Baltimore,” Pollock said. “It’s nice that a lot of it stays right here in town.”

After giving the old materials from Brick + Board a new life, Crown said he finds great satisfaction in building relationships with his customers. He said he has become good friends with almost everyone he has done work for. One of those customers is Dylan Salmon, the owner of Dylan’s Oyster Cellar in Hampton. Crown built the table tops and the bar inside Salmon’s restaurant. Salmon said he considers Crown to be like a brother.

Crown said he completed the restaurant work several years ago be he still frequents Dylan’s Oyster Cellar because “they have really good whiskey and oysters,” and because Salmon is his friend.

Crown said most of his work goes into private homes and that creating an installation for a restaurant brings him a different sense of accomplishment. “It’s a place that I can visit again and again, and I can bring friends and show them the work I’ve done,” Crown said. “And I can see people – people enjoying something I created.”

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(This story was reported in text and video by Shuyao Chen for the Baltimore Project, a multimedia workshop exploring the impact of urban development in Baltimore. This project is a collaboration between The Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University and The School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University.)

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