Salvaged Wood: A High (and low) Road

Design course generates awareness about the value of old-growth trees and the stories they hold.

As sustainability becomes an important mode of design thinking for more and more designers worldwide, it is being reflected in the curriculum of design schools. For example, in a course led by Christian Blyt, an associate professor at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, third-year Industrial Design students were challenged to design a matching pair of tables using reclaimed 2×4 lumber originally cut from old-growth Douglas fir and sourced from Unbuilders, a Vancouver company that deconstructs old buildings and heritage houses to recover reusable lumber.

The project criteria required that the tables (one high, one low) must comfortably seat four people and fit into a standard residential elevator. Both tables needed to be versatile to support dining, working, and playing. Furthermore, they needed to work together both formally and functionally as a set and stand-alone pieces. Students were grouped into teams to develop their own design briefs and went from brainstorming concepts in divergent and convergent ideation sessions, to making physical and functional prototypes. Some groups pushed the limits of the material by using it in unconventional ways, while others created forms that worked well with the reclaimed wood’s natural state and learned to embrace imperfections such as nail marks and discolouration (thanks to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, heavily encouraged in the course).

To achieve a clean top surface, all groups “butterflied” their 2x4s — splitting the beams down the centre — to become s4s boards using a seven-head molding machine at the University of British Columbia. They then reprocessed it to be jointed, planed, and parqueted back together to relieve extreme warpage and other defects. Popular construction methods used were lamination, mortise and tenon, dado, domino, and biscuit joints.

Working with reclaimed wood allowed students in the INDD 310 Spring 2021: Wood Product Design class to participate in giving it a second life, and rather than see old-growth end up in the landfill they were able to see it repurposed and exhibited in the Michael O’Brian Exhibition Commons at Emily Carr University in a fall show titled High/Low.


Photos by Perrin Grauer / Emily Carr University