Wudeward Urban Forest Products
Repurposing Wisconsin’s Most Abundant Natural Resource
Ever since Alice Waters led the way for the eat-fresh-eat-local movement with the opening of her Berkley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971, several related grassroots movements have been spawned, including community gardens, Slow Cooking and Slow Money, all emphasizing the underlying importance of building strong local economies. The most recent aspect to emerge is the urban wood movement—the transformation of a community’s fallen or condemned trees into functional, beautiful products that return to local neighborhoods for a second life.
Every year, due to storms, construction or insect infestation, thousands of trees come down along sidewalks and from backyards, parks and municipal green spaces. Urban wood was previously considered a liability, due to the expense of its disposal and conversion into mulch and firewood. Today in Milwaukee, local urban wood steward Dwayne Sperber, founder of Wudeward Urban Forest Products, is working vigorously to garner respect for urban wood as a valuable resource that can contribute a sense of place to local building and restoration projects in the form of furniture and lumber.
Wudeward intercepts a significant number of fallen and removed trees that would have otherwise ended up in municipal waste streams. Instead, this urban wood is used to make quality hardwood products that return to the community. Sperber credits his parents and grandparents for teaching him the skill of repurposing. “My grandparents lived through the depression and utilized whatever they had and whatever nature yielded. My parents inherited their philosophy, ‘Waste not, want not,’ which still has value, especially where it concerns urban wood being converted into lumber,” he explains.
Sperber sees great waste in the use of wood shipped from out-of-state or overseas for building or renovating, the common practice among general contractors. “A local product of equal quality purchased through a local business helps to build a stronger local economy. Also, since annual urban tree plantings outpace removals, urban wood is a very sustainablecradle-to-cradleresource,” advises Sperber, who transitioned out of corporate life to turn urban wood into furniture for friends. “I was never happier in my life, because each piece that I constructed from was my poster child for urban wood,” he enthuses. “My furniture is my message.” Sperber is able to exhibit his work through Town and Country Resource Conservation and Development, a nonprofit conservation program based in Jefferson, Wisconsin, that works to enhance the quality of life in 13 southeastern Wisconsin counties by promoting healthy communities, a healthy environment and sustainable economic growth.
In 2009, when Sperber began to reach out to encourage architects and wood-using industries to utilize urban wood, he realized that no consistent and reliable source for it existed in the region. “I saw my role as an advocate whose job it is to increase awareness and acceptance of the products among the businesses that can specify urban wood in their building projects. Although I previously saw only baby steps in my interactions with architects and interior designers that embraced the concept, now I see that the city of Milwaukee has taken to heart my encouragement, as well as the support of Town and Country, by directing condemned trees to a local sawmill to be processed into lumber; that is a giant leap forward.”
Sperber’s latest focus is to collaborate with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Urban Forestry Council to create a friendly urban wood competition that will involve interior designers, architects and furniture makers working together to design furniture, as well as flooring, stair treads, baseboard, and trim—what the building industry calls finish materials. The outcome will be on display at a high-profile Milwaukee location. “This could be an opportunity to let the concept of urban wood, which makes smart use of local resources, speak for itself on a multitude of different levels. People will see the beauty of a resource that might have come from their backyard,” affirms Sperber.
Dwayne Sperber’s third annual Urban(wood)Encounter, an exhibi tion showcasing original furniture made from reclaimed urban trees, is scheduled for July 26 and 27 at Design Within Reach, 167 N. Broadway St., in Milwaukee The exhibit moves to the Delafield Arts Center, 803 Genesee St., in Delafield, from Aug. 3 through Sept. 30. Connect with him at 262-442-4654 or Wudeward.com.