This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Reclaiming wood from the urban forest

Bruce Horigan and his wife, Erika, have been expanding their family-owned tree-recycling business by supplying the growing demand of eco-minded people looking to furnish their homes and businesses — and even hospitals — with reclaimed wood.

The North Shore couple are trained arborists and lifelong tree lovers who have been working for close to two decades on a long-term business plan: They take trees that have to come down in the city and use their sawmill to transform them into artfully crafted furniture or flooring and doors for local construction.

They started Horigan Urban Forest Products Inc. in 2003 by investing $500,000 of their own capital derived from the sale of their previous tree-care business. The Horigans now own a sawmill and kiln in North Chicago and store the milled wood in a 4,000-square-foot temperature-controlled warehouse behind their Skokie office.

A white oak countertop by Green Sawn Design, made from wood reclaimed by Horigan Urban Forest Products.

Demand for their products has grown steadily, and business has recently taken off despite the sluggish economy. Revenues have risen 47% so far this year compared with 2009. And the company may soon add more workers to its staff of four, which includes the Horigans’ son, Justin, another co-owner, who oversees production.

Crain’s recently talked to Mr. Horigan about how he hooked up with the green-building crowd. He also described some high-profile local projects that include wood from special trees that passed through their sawmill.

Crain’s: How is your tree-recycling company different from a standard lumber business that sells wood to make some of the same products?

Mr. Horigan: We recycle the urban forest, which are trees that grow in populous areas like backyards or public parks. We take trees that are coming down anyway and not being chopped down just for lumber. They get taken down because of disease, storm damage, or they’re in the way of new construction. Normally, those trees get hauled off for firewood and mulch, which is recycling, but for a low-end use. When we get a tree, we mill it out to make flooring or furniture and take the log to its highest possible use. We’re making a bad situation better.

Several salvaged trees await milling in Lincolnshire. 

Crain’s: Where does wood used for construction and furniture building around Chicago come from? Are there enough trees taken down in the city to supply builders and craftsmen who might want more locally sourced product?

Mr. Horigan: If you’re building a house in Chicago, a builder might call a logger in the Wisconsin woods and tell them to cut down a perfectly good tree and ship it here. Then we take a tree from right here and throw it away because it had to come down. What’s the logic of that? We’ve got really cool stuff right here, so why not use it?

Fifty years ago, we used what was right around us to build houses, and we’ve gotten away from that. Now people ship things from all over the world to build their houses here. We’re only scratching the surface of the number of trees that are coming down every day in the Chicago area. We’re only able to preserve a small portion of them.

Crain’s: You say about a third of your business comes from carpenters and designers looking for sustainable materials for their clients. How did you get involved in the green crowd?

Mr. Horigan: People looking for sustainable wood didn’t know about us when we first started out. Initially, our first clients were people who were losing trees. They were emotional and wanted to keep the trees that fell down on their property, so they turned them into furniture for their house.

A few years ago, we began going to Green Drinks gatherings (sponsored by the Foresight Sustainable Business Alliance), and that got us connected to the green space. At those networking events we met architects, builders and interior designers who were interested in working with green products.

One guy in particular, Rocky Levy, works with lots of companies that are looking for green, sustainable office furniture made from reclaimed wood. We got together a couple years ago, and he is pitching what we have to lots of his clients. We also do a lot of business now with Icon Modern (well-known for sustainable furniture). Word-of-mouth is the best advertising there is.

Crain’s: Tell us about some of the more visible projects in Chicago that incorporate wood from city trees that passed through your sawmill.

Mr. Horigan: Some trees have a history to them. The white oak tree in the Smart Home (at the Museum of Science and Industry), which we helped make into furniture, most likely was planted in that same area by Frederick Law Olmsted for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Part of that tree is in the coffee table in the living room, the dining table and bench in the dining room, and the headboard in the bedroom. The sitting room has a few rounds of the tree there, too.

Inside the Smart Home

The new Children’s Memorial Hospital is under construction and we’re working with Mikyoung Kim Design (based in Boston), which is building an enclosed sky garden for children who probably aren’t going to go home from the hospital. They picked a bunch of wood from us that will end up as live edge flooring and then will go up a wall so it looks like a tree that is there indoors. The kids connection is that we got those logs from mulberry and silver maple trees that the Chicago Park District gave us last summer when they were renovating the South Pond at the Lincoln Park Zoo. That was a really special match.

Crain’s: Do you anticipate that much more of your future business will come from the green sector?

Mr. Horigan: It’s hard to predict, but the trees we source are among the greenest, most sustainable materials out there. We’re hoping that down the road people will reclaim flooring and doors and panels from houses made of trees that we supplied that didn’t come down originally for lumber. It may take a generation to get to that point, but that would be the second greening of what we’re doing now.

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