Reclaimed barnboard in use on Toronto’s Danforth. Photo by Eric Nay.

The mountain pine beetle has arrived in western Canada in what Canadian Geographic has described as “a slow-moving tsunami,” and Canada’s boreal forest is at risk of potential obliteration if the destruction continues to spread. An unfortunate perfect storm of climate change and decades of improved fire suppression have given the little buggers a green light to feast on Canada’s western forests.

While this apocalyptic news is worthy of genuine panic, at least these particular little guys remain devoted west coasters and have not yet crossed the continental divide. However, not to be outdone, Ontario has its own pest infestation being led by the mountain pine beetle’s cousin, the emerald ash borer. The emerald ash borer dines on and consequently kills ash trees, and has been hard at work in Ontario’s provincial forests, commercial woodlots and residential neighborhoods. It’s estimated that Toronto will lose the majority of its ash trees over the next decade to the emerald ash borer is not held at bay.

I have wanted to write about Urban Tree Salvage in Toronto for a long time, and this plague of pests has given me a most unfortunate opportunity to do so. The desire for reclaimed hardwood is growing across Canada, and this new/old material is giving rise to numerous innovative material uses that are upping the design ante for those architects and designers who choose to work with vintage boards and old growth beams. From knotty reclaimed barnwood siding to massive heart pine beams, reclaimed wood is providing a treasure trove of nature’s finest material just aching to be used one more time.

Urban Tree Salvage (UTS) began by salvaging downed or discarded Toronto trees and has grown and evolved over the past decade with lots of public support. UTS reclaims and recycles many different types of discarded wood, and mills hundreds of thousands of board feet using salvaged logs and reclaimed timbers to transform what the city of Toronto used to consider waste into a valuable resource for all of us who love wood. Urban Tree Salvage also recycles demolition and construction waste, and now they’re making the most of the emerald ash borer infestation too.

The environmental policies designed to limit the spread of the emerald ash borer by restricting the use and transportation of infested wood have created heaps of waste that can’t be used for anything. But Urban Tree Salvage, the masters of reclaimed waste wood, recently attained certification by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to process and ship previously infested lumber. This certification is very important and will help lead the way to make use of the rich byproducts of an unfortunate situation. Urban Tree Salvage will use a heat treatment process to kill the pests so that the lumber can be used for construction or other applications without risk. Policies will shift as a result.

A related project, a Partners in Project Green pilot program, is also addressing this surplus of insect-damaged wood by working around the shipping and milling restrictions. In lieu of transporting the infested trees to a mill, this project proposes bringing the miller to the trees, converting them to usable lumber with onsite processing and milling. This past July, Partners in Project Green staged an ash tree processing and milling demo to show the public how easy it is to turn infested ash trees into useable lumber.

Both Urban Tree Salvage and Partners in Project Green are coming up with proactive methods to use this damaged wood while we wait for a solution to the infestation problems we see coming from both coasts. These efforts may appear to be merely a stop-gap that do not address the real issue – stopping the infestations – but it seems much more irresponsible to just wait and see, letting one of nature’s greatest resources be discarded.

The scientific community is hard at work across Canada, figuring out long-term solutions. There is active research underway and experimental methods are being tested to stop the infestations. Recent attempts have included releasing parasitic wasps to eat the larvae of the beetles and injecting systemic insecticide into the base of trees. Even changes in CFIA policy have shifted as deeper knowledge is accumulated and policies are adapted. The CFIA now advocates not cutting down infested ash trees as a tool for managing the emerald ash borer for example.

The entire calamity is creating a number of moving targets and morphing policies and I admire both Urban Tree Salvage and the Partners in Green Project for doing their part to intervene in this environmental and logistical disaster. Making use of these damaged trees is a victory in the midst of this very tragic story – and I love when design confronts and changes public policy. Good design is always about using limited resources wisely even when these resources are the unfortunate spoils of an environmental disaster.

Eric Nay is an architect, designer, artist and a professor at OCAD University. His blog, Made in Canada, profiles examples of Canadian design innovation, including sustainable buildings and design, craft practices and innovative businesses across the country.

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