The Redwood tree is an icon of nature. But American soil has seen many other remarkable structures take root and rise; a little known one being the rammed earth building.  Thomas Jefferson was a supporter of the architectural technique, dating back to 5000 BC in China. In1806, Rural Economy, by S.W. Johnson was the first book published in the U.S. on the subject. Interest eroded after WWII, when the cost of building materials dropped, and it was not considered suitable for modern construction. But rammed earth is making a modest comeback.

The NYC Dept. of Buildings is unlikely to ok plans for a rammed earth skyscraper any time soon, but Rammed Earth buildings are found on every continent, with thirty percent of the planet using earth in construction. The walls, which can include earth, chalk, lime and gravel, are easy to build, durable (with upkeep and protection from water) and have great thermal mass, making them extremely sustainable.  

Brooklyn furniture designer, Aaron Mason Hauser, has studied and worked on these structures in Tennessee and Pondicherry (India). But with scare soil and space in the city, he’s turned to smaller scaled furniture and interior spaces; still drawn to the woods sustainability, and the “materials beauty and a desire to create spaces that make people feel good”. In the center piece above, Hauser creates a table to divide this small urban kitchen and living space, that functions for both a kitchen and office. The striking furniture work is made from old growth Redwood, reclaimed from dismantled mid-century pickle barrels.(photos above: Life Magazine, Aaron Hauser).

One thing a wine-bar can share with the traditional corner bar (beside wine), is the ever-present use of wood, and more often these days it’s reclaimed. That’s the choice at Terroir’s most recent Manhattan location. Terroir, NYC’s new ‘Elitist Wine Bar For Everyone’ was recently uncorked in the Murray Hill neighborhood. With the help of Richard Lewis Architect, the space installed a bold grid of 2” x 12” antique Heart Pine as a back drop to the bar space, along with using the woods for additional counter applications. The antique wood was milled from  salvaged timbers (approx. 12×12) of a 19th c. Connecticut elementary school. The clean lines of the re-sawn lumber still retained the character marks of nail holes, surface checks and the aged woods rich grain, which appears to be just the right vintage for the intimate wine bar environment.

Recycling in the U.S. may have peaked during WWII. Even the nations cigarette wrappers (made of lead) were neatly pressed into piles for re-melting into bullets. Other scrap, especially steel, was in high demand for the war , which resulted in an exchange of steel for timber in some construction. That was the case at Port Newark, NJ, where Sawkill Lumber recently salvaged huge Doug Fir timbers (12 x 12 x 40’ and 12 x 16 x 36’), which framed a c.1942 storage warehouse (stretching three football fields!). Doug Fir has a remarkable strength to weight ratio (the highest ratings of any western softwood – in bending, tension and compression), a warm reddish-brown figure, and is easily milled. And reclaimed, there’s added reason to salute this WWII era veteran, re-enlisted in the fight for sustainability. (photos: WWII poster, Port Newark, NJ, Boulder, CO).

People uprooted from far away and extreme places on earth often find a home in New York City.  The same is also true for the materials that surround them. Take an old growth Cypress ceiling recently installed in a lower Manhattan interior. The wood (Bald Cypress:Toxodium distichum) originated in the dense swamps of the South, slow growing (among the slowest aging trees on earth) over seven hundred years. The soaring trees were then cut down for lumber in the early 20th c, and then milled, in this instance, for storage tanks – wine, brandy and whiskey.

The architect, Tonos Design Studio, appeals to our nostalgia with these vintage woods, while reversing our expectations, designing a modern arch that also suggests the woods prior use as barrel staves. The warmth of the woods amber grain, subtle signs of age (occasional nail holes, subtle stress cracks and variety of color) and the intimacy of this vaulted form, come together in uniting two spaces, setting the tone for an intoxicating architectural experience. The architect had the material milled to the exact spec, with clear calculations and instructions provided to the contractor, limiting site waste and labor.

But the initial material choice came from the clients, seeking out the sublime beauty of reclaimed swamp Cypress, along with it’s sustainability. Sam Tonos, a Mississippi native (of some years back), may have equally been drawn to the woods Southern roots.

The Eastern White Pine is the tallest Pine in North America, with a crucial historical role in the American Revolution. Growing straight to heights of 150 to 240 feet, and yielding lumber that was light, strong, machinable, and resistant to rot. It was popular for a range of uses, from residential to commercial and countless day-to-day items. Eastern White Pine truly shaped early America…and it’s Revolution.
Eastern White Pine became the choice material for ship masts and other critical shipbuilding components. To maintain its Empire, Great Britain needed the strongest and fastest ships and Eastern White Pine made these vessels a battle force.
As a result, King George I wanted to ensure that the very best of these trees were kept for the British Navy. The tallest White Pines were emblazoned with a mark that became known as the King’s Broad Arrow, a move that rankled colonists.
The Revolutionary War was provoked by many factors, but some historians believe that denial of use of the Eastern White Pine was at least as instrumental as taxation of tea in bringing about the American Revolution. In fact, the Eastern White Pine was the emblem emblazoned on the first colonial flag. Adapted from The King’s Broad Arrow and the Eastern White Pine at

The restoration of a Victorian style Brooklyn Brownstone utilized the original antique wood structural joists, which were re-sawn into new building products. The stunning two year project selectively retained existing detail, while incorporating modern design – with the re-milled woods helping to bridge the eras. Recovered antique Heart Pine beams were brought to the mill and sawn into 4” tongue and groove flooring with a Tung oil finish, and installed in the hallways and master bedroom. Antique Spruce joists were re-sawn and white washed into complementing wainscoting. The glory of it all was brought together by Bluebird Construction, for the home of a prominent Brooklyn writer and editor.

Today – Earth Day- marks the anniversary of what many consider the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.

The height of hippie and flower-child culture in the United States, 1970 marked the death of Jimi Hendrix, the last Beatles album, and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Protest still ruled the day. At the time, Americans were burning leaded gas through massive V8 engines. And industry released smoke and sludge into the air and waters with little fear of legal consequence or bad press.

Although mainstream America had little response to environmental concerns, the stage was set for change by the publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962, which raised public awareness and concern for the environment and public health.

The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin,Inspired by the teach-ins formed to protest the Vietnam War, after witnessing the massive 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Senator Nelson, an environmental activist, took a leading role in organizing the celebration, starting at universities, and hoping to demonstrate popular political support for an environmental agenda. American Heritage Magazine called the first Earth Day “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.”

As a result, on the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in coast-to-coast rallies. Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, gaining support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city people and farmers. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

Green building can seem an oxymoron – any construction takes material and embodied energy. But we need homes, for protection and much more. So the greenest choice may be material that’s “in stock” – the adaptive re-use of an old building and salvaged items. Nationally, the Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA) forwards the growth of this ideal. And on the local scene, Build It Green (BIG) turns around tons of building items every day. A re-used cabinetry set, for instance, may not look perfect – color’s off, a dent, it’s last years (or last decades) model – but in the end, it works – and by a truly green standard, it doesn’t get more perfect.


One block north of Wall Street in lower Manhattan is Pine Street. Why Pine – and in this ancient part of the city? Consider this. The Pine tree was a symbol on the earliest American flag. White Pine (Pinus Strobus) was the largest and tallest tree in the East. And it contributed to the American Revolution (coveted for ship masts). But its greatest value was as a framing lumber for building New York in the 1800’s. By the turn of the 20th c., the vast stands of majestic White Pine in the Northeast were gone – only to resurface a hundred and fifty years later through the demolition process.

New York Magazine profiles generation twenty something in a recent issue – crediting a can do response to the economic downturn. As the story goes, well nurtured kids can beat a bleak economy. The furniture maker here, Devi Rawls, may have it as tough as many –  expanded overhead, squeezed profits and no benefits. But despite it all, American woodworking, about the most long standing trades across the land, is growing.

“We work to become, not to acquire.”Elbert Bubbard (1856-1915) American Philosopher and Writer

The largest permanent installation at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) isn’t art. Museum goers on the upper floors walk across a sprawling canvas of wood flooring – or more exactly, 4” tongue and groove engineered (veneer over plywood we’d expect) White Oak. It’s the expected choice, given factors of durability (hard wearing), cost (moderate) and aesthetics (a clear even grain that won’t divert from the art). Oak is like the gallery white wall, underfoot. But was it the best or only choice? Flooring specialists across different materials may call for a range of choices. But the natural warmth of wood, it’s ability to be both traditional and modern, and it’s abundance (at least with Oak, a relatively sustainable species), is part of why the wood product was specified. Would reclaimed wood be appropriate? Flooring grades with any degree of character marks – nail holes, knots, stress cracks, not to mention the currently popular “Dirty Top” (retaining the weathered surface of the wood), may raise some objections within the museum board and others. But a clear vertical grain heart Pine, a select grade of reclaimed Oak, or Ipe from the city boardwalks (another major American museum is considering the salvaged woods from the Coney Island boardwalk) may have been acceptable, potentially bringing a slightly richer hue and just enough character to connect with the art without diverting museum goers. The boards debate could then turn to getting the new installation under budget. Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Left to Right: 1) Jackson Martin 2) Ilan Auherbuch 3) Richard Bottwin


“…Wretched refuse yearning to be free…” Emma Lazarus’ words on the base of the Statue of Liberty, in her poetic anthem to our ancestors and an American ideal of freedom. In the material world, and the wood one specifically, the refuse takes the form of discarded stair treads, broken bureaus, miles of bead board and wood shop off-cuts which rarely have a chance of freedom from the landfill. This is the stuff you see leaning on garbage cans or sticking up  over the top of dumpsters. But for pure quality of wood, these woods are hard to match, and surprisingly hard to acquire, harvested as they are in noctural rounds that require their pursuers to stay one step ahead of the trash truck.

The scraps may seem useless, unless you’re intending to piece together strictly functional furniture – an everyday practice in the developing world; or a modern furniture piece- a real rarity in the industrialized world. In New York City, Nadia Yaron and Nadia Scruggs, the design team at Nightwood,  collect and transform this prime material scrap into stunningly beautiful objects that even reflect the city’s diversity and hard knock charm.

Some of their sustainable works have included off-cuts from Sawkil Lumber Co., including reclaimed tank woods from a local brandy distillery and a Broadway theatre watertank. The design team was featured in New York magazine.

Through the 20th Century, we did more harm to the environment than we knew. Now, as Heather Rodgers exposes in ‘Green Gone Wrong’, we’re doing far less good than we imagine. Whether it’s U.S. car companies stalling fuel efficient cars, impotent carbon offset programs, the downside of biofuels, or toxic compromises in organic labeling, we are ‘undermining the environmental revolution.’ Market forces alone don’t work is a main argument, and Rodgers travels the ends of the earth to make the point. But what does work? She spotlights super energy efficient green buildings in Germany’s Black Forest, mass production green cars in China and organic farming in New York’s Hudson Valley (though this last at the cost of farmers living like starving artists). She’s chosen to highlight these areas rather than document the wrongs more comprehensively. There’s is no mention of the LEED green building standard or recycling programs, and limited discussion of the forces of human nature that may hold up progress. But there’s enough suggested in the delusion that buying earth friendly products can save the planet. The question are too large for any one country to answer  , but the seeds of change are out there. If not, then the June 2, 2011 headline may offer the best hope, “Planet Earth Doesn’t Know How to Make It Any Clearer it Wants Everyone to Leave.”

Next: Is reclaiming lumber good for the environment?

Reclaimed antique woods speak to qualities that don’t meet the eye; ones that are intangible, yet highly perceived. What are some of the immaterial qualities of these woods? How do we better understand their physiological and psychological impact? Is the affect changed and determined by the historical layers carried in the old woods? And how does our understanding of these qualities inform how we create, design and educate? Scientist Edward O. Wilson and Psychologist Erich Fromm each pointed to an idea of Biophilia, which may be a way to explore these questions.

The term “Biophilia” means “love of life or living systems”, coined by Fromm to describe the attraction to all that’s alive. Edward O. Wilson later widened the idea in his book Biophilia. They both shared the theory that a deep connection between humans and nature is based in our biology and part of our evolution. The hypothesis would help explain why people care for and try to save animals (and of course their own children),  plants and flowers. The natural love for life sustains life.
And included in this may be the pleasure in using wood, derived from living trees, even after the logs have been refined by the mill shop. But what about reclaimed wood? An aged and rough sawn surface may readily conjure similar rustic qualities in nature, and a more immediate experience of Biophilia. But the woods also carry history and qualities that don’t meet the eye. So is there an innate biological attraction to the nostalgia of past history, Histophilia? And what paradoxical (antique wood is still alive in a sense, yet conjures the past) and valuable role of opposition does it have within a modern environment?

Budding young architects probably can’t start building too early or thinking too big – that’s what the people at Lego seem to believe, releasing their iconic building series that features the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the Seattle Space Needle. Little timber framers may prefer Lincoln Logs.

A building series with recycled materials, solar energy and a LEED-TC (Toy Construction) rating may not be long away.


Columbia U. along with the architectural firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) are constructing a multi-block science center in West Harlem. The project is pursuing LEED certification, a sustainable building standard developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. But the multi-block construction may not just earn Green credit for what is going up, but on what is going down.

LEED awards credits for the amount of Construction and Demolition (C & D) waste that is diverted from the landfill; 1pt for 50% recycling, 2pts for 75%, and 3pts for ‘Exemplary Performance’ (EP) of 95%. Columbia appears on target to exceed the 95% rate, especially with certain waste items, and in at least one category – reclaimed lumber – it appears to be the first large scale LEED project in New York City to recycle this material in achieving the point.

New York City generates 13,500 tons of C & D waste every day. A significant percentage is wood – from plywood and 2 x 4’s to fine woodwork and century old timber. The last has the most ready re-use market, and the bulk of the wood at the Columbia U. project falls into this category.

The Columbia U. project is achieving a high recovery rate through a three pronged strategy, separating salvaged lumber for 1) High end millwork (flooring, moldings, furniture etc.) 2) Heavy construction (lagging and sheeting of excavated sites and utility lines) and 3) Processed wood products (mulch, stable bedding, etc.).

The Mayor’s office is concerned enough about wood waste that they are considering a recommendation from the Urban Green Council (, which would require demolition projects to salvage large dimensional lumber.


American made shoes are kicking their heals in the air these days, according to a recent NYTimes feature “At Their Feet, Crafted by Hand” (Eric Wilson, 4/20/11). The story follows a recent upswing in buyers of American footwear (sales are up 50%), where only a handful of manufacturers still exist.

‘Trend’ is uneasy word for an industry that relies on a steady customer base. But at $360 for a pair of Allen Edmonds or Alden’s, the price shouldn’t create mass market stampedes. And in the current economy, the market rise can look like an anomaly.

But the news piece doesn’t wear out much shoe leather tracking down the reasons for the rise in high end shoe sales. Though cultural studies professors at FIT weren’t tapped for explanations, they spot some of the appeal, in value. A well cared for pair of top line shoes can last for fifteen years, and Allen Edmonds has a reconstruction program ($90 from heel to toe) that may well keep their shoes going a lifetime.

‘At Their Feet, Crafted by Hand’ could have also been pointing to the reclaimed antique floors (from American made trees) under the foot of these shoes – much of the same quality, process, and pricing fit.

Photo by Darren Hauck for the New York Times


“Jugaad Urbanism: Resourceful Strategies for Indian Cities” in NYC!

The intense environment of 1.1 billion people living in India has generated a range of strategies for the efficient use of space and energy. Many of the responses come from citizens ‘making-do’, and these ideas then developed into sustainainble projects by architects, urban planners and government. Juggaad Urbanism (a Hindi term used to describe an innovative and resourceful solution), currently on exhibition at the Center for Architecture, highlights some of the ingenious work that includes spinning wheels, skywalks, new recycled materials and reclaiming every scrap of wood (A subject of a future blog entry).

But the remarkable resourcefulness of everyday life in India, where little is wasted; and recycling, fixing and minimalism is an everyday necessity, can seem a model with as much value as the mountains of overseas containers that enter the U.S. market.

Time – February 10- May 21, 2011

Location – AIA Center for Architecture, 536 La Guardia Pl (between Bleecker and W 3rd St), New York City
Find out more at: .php?section=upcoming&expid=136



Howard occupied a spot in Union Sq. after the authorities confiscated his makeshift cart, attached to the back of his bike, and used for delivery of driftwood to florists in the city. The exquisite collection, which he harvests from rock crevices that line the upper Hudson, is called “Art by God”. He can be reached at

The NY Times Home section (March 24, 2011) featured a story on the appeal of 20th Century American objects – simple, durable and useful (at least at one time). A handful of stores around the city curate a revolving selection, with outposts in Williamsburg, Soho and the East Village. Why a feature piece now? The classic aesthetic may be an antidote to our mass produced and increasingly high-tech (as this web blog) objects and lifestyles. Or a reaffirmation that America was and still is, or can be, a place that reflects the values of the aesthetic, as the country works through economic and social crisis that tend to force questions about core values. Looking back is a ever present resource for a culture going forward. But the piece does not focus on these objects in modern spaces. It celebrates the carefully designed rustic setting, where modern life is reflected as an undercurrent in the subtle juxtapositions of different decades and interesting objects (a separate trend in itself) that have lost functions. Some may question whether nostalgia has it’s hazards beyond a certain point. But there’s no denying it’s place.

There’s also a strong nod to Ralph Lauren for cultivating this branch of fashion in the late 1960’s. The piece is written by Emily Weinstein and includes a beautiful gallery of photos, many with a vintage wood backdrop – the lumber version of American Rustic.



SMC Furnishings, now in its tenth year, is a small New York-based company producing high-quality, handcrafted furniture with eco-friendly methods. Most pieces feature wood from reclaimed building timbers or locally sourced trees that were downed by storms, disease or nuisance issues. The collection features more than 30 original designs that range from elegant to minimal, rough to textured — each inspired by the natural beauty of the wood. An environmental philosophy drives everything at SMC, from making furniture to renovating their facility, to heating the workspace.


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