Reclaimed lumber is a niche business. The average homeowner looking to tear up carpeting in place of floorboards or build a new deck isn’t searching their local listings for salvaged boards of rough-sawn red oak or heart pine. They’re going with a local contractor, who is shopping at Home Depot stores, which are typically nowhere near a native lumber supply. For those relatively few consumers who want that weathered character and deep patina for their floors, siding, and/or posts and beams, they pay handsomely for the privilege, especially if the wood in question is something exotic or an old growth species. (The labor and energy required to remove old lumber and process it, which can include the removal of paint, nails, and other metals, plus sanding, planing, jointing, and kilning, is what accounts for the added costs.)
In either case, most homeowners aren’t shopping at a lumber yard nor are they personally decommissioning old barns and warehouses piece by piece. Thus, premiums abound. And unfortunately, the market doesn’t offer a middle ground for consumers who want a high-quality, engineered product while satisfying their need to minimize their carbon footprint associated with the sourcing, manufacturing, and transport of virgin lumber. But it soon might.
Technology takes a step forward
Urban Machine is a startup robotics and lumber company based in Oakland, CA. Its business model and the proprietary technology that drives it are both deceptively simple. Led by Eric Law, a mechanical engineer with decades of experience working with construction firms and civil contractors, his two-year-old startup has developed an AI-powered machine that uses computer imaging to identify nails, screws, and other metal fasteners embedded in reclaimed lumber, then intuitively tasks a series of robotic arms to remove them.
The company’s first prototype, developed in 2021, which Law describes as “desktop sized” and “about three feet long,” could process up to 100 board feet per day. The latest iteration, its fifth in two years, is capable of processing up to 10,000 board feet per day. Now well past the proof-of-concept phase, if Urban Machine can prove viable and get its product into the right hands, and with buy-in from the construction and design community, then it has serious disruption potential. How much potential has yet to be determined.
Making reclaimed lumber feasible
“Concrete and steel both have recycle paths; wood doesn’t,” Law says. The reason for this is all that leftover metal, which keeps demolition contractors and waste facilities from taking the trouble of processing salvaged lumber for reuse. Consequently, very little is salvaged at all. A 2015 EPA report indicates that approximately 39 million tons of wood from construction and demolition (C&D) debris is generated each year, 27 million tons of which goes into landfill. “The waste industry is not connected to the lumber industry,” Law says. “We need to change that.”
The company’s goal is to compete with the virgin lumber industry, with one notable exception. Urban Machine seeks to be close to the source by taking waste materials in urban environments and turning it into raw building materials, on site. This will require customers. More specifically, it will require demolition contractors and waste processing companies to purchase their own Urban Machine(s) and put them to work at or near the job site. Once the salvaged lumber has been voided of metal, it goes to the wholesalers.
To date, there is at least one wholesaler that is excited by this tech and is chomping at the bit to re-engineer any reclaimed lumber that’s been processed by one of Urban Machine’s robots. All Bay Mill & Lumber is a full-service lumber yard and re-manufacturing facility in the city of American Canyon, in California’s Napa Valley. All Bay’s CEO, Frank Addiego, concedes that successful business models for any reclaimed C&D material are few and far between. Nonetheless, he’s all in on Urban Machine. “It’s solving a real-world problem,” he says, citing the money that demolition contractors save by diverting so many pounds of wood waste that would otherwise get hauled off to landfills.
Addiego notes the importance of working with smaller mills in rural areas that are equipped to work with “the small stuff” that comes off job sites. With more players (and usable lumber) in the supply chain, it creates more jobs on both the rural and urban ends of the spectrum, and consequently reduces waste streams by a large margin. “There’s a general reluctance to take any of this stuff in. If this machine works as well as I’ve seen it work, at scale, that concern goes way down,” Addiego says.
Law and Addiego seem to be natural business partners. Each is a pragmatist and optimist rolled into one. Reflecting on what motivated him to start Urban Machine, Law says that “lumber has no end-of-life story.” As if in response to Law’s lamentation, Addiego observes, “You don’t have to be a brilliant builder anymore to not waste wood.”
Interestingly, Urban Machine’s efficacy isn’t contingent on wood type or species. Both old growth hardwoods and younger softwoods are fair game. The former has enormous architectural appeal and high market value, especially since so many types were originally sourced from forests that are now protected. The latter, on the other hand, is something of a conundrum in the reclaimed market. That’s where mass timber enters the conversation.
Urban Machine and All Bay are partnering to build a “micro plant” to produce dowel laminated timber (DLT). “We like DLT because it can be completely taken apart at [a building’s] end of life and reused,” Law says. “There’s no glue involved, it’s less expensive, it has a smaller manufacturing footprint … Think of every metropolitan area with Urban Machine robots processing reclaimed lumber. Now you have raw material available to feed smaller facilities to create engineered lumber products for housing and low-rise residential projects. We’ve got to change a niche thing into a mass product.”
A decade from now, Law envisions “thousands of these machines all over the world,” but with the ability to remove surface contaminants like lead paint, which of course is a going concern for many older warehouses, military barracks, and other large buildings that are nearing end of life. “There’s some high-quality wood under all that hazardous waste,” Law says.
While Urban Machine’s AI continues through its learning cycles, and new iterations of the machine are in the works, the removal of metal fasteners remains the robot’s central preoccupation. Law sees the logistical advantages his company offers, not to mention the “green benefit” of knowing “the source of all our material.” All things considered, any industry disruption that Urban Machine potentially causes within the next decade and beyond will be a cog in the wheel, practically speaking. Symbolically, however, it has the potential to move mountains, or is this case, cities.
Justin R. Wolf is a Maine-based writer who covers green building trends and energy policy.
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