A Second Life for Trees

Through 2018, Duke will add 1,000 trees across East and West campuses

Andy O'Shea built a table from a campus tree. The table was placed in Duke's Smart Home. Photo by Sarah Burdick

In recent years, Duke has needed to take down trees and limbs on East and West campuses for reasons such as age, construction or storm damage as part of Duke’s tree management program, which focuses on risk management, tree health and campus appearance.

But after leaving Duke, trees are finding a second purpose – often back on campus.

This summer, Andy O’Shea, a carpenter at Duke for 21 years, made a 24-square-foot table with two 6-foot-long benches with wood harvested from an oak tree that once stood by the Allen Building on West Campus. That tree, which lived to be a century old, is now in the kitchen in Giles Residence Hall, offering a space where students study and share meals.

“It’s certainly not your run-of-the-mill, mass produced piece of material,” O’Shea said. “Each piece has character and requires more work that gives you a little artistic license to bring it to life.”

With each slab of wood, O’Shea likes to leave imperfections like saw marks, bumps and knots. A natural oil finish leaves his tables a dark brown. “It’s about showing off the rustic aesthetics,” he said. “I like to keep the wood’s character.”

Duke tries to repurpose fallen trees as part of Facilities Management’s wood policy, which provides guidelines for what happens to trees and brush that must be removed. From building furniture to mulching wood for aesthetics, the effort has helped Duke earn a Tree Campus USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation for eight straight years. 

When a new Student Health and Wellness Center opens in 2017 at the corner of Towerview and Union drives, oak paneling in the lobby, pharmacy and some desks will come from trees taken down at the center’s construction site. At the West Campus Reclamation Pond, removed trees were returned as lumber for the pond’s pavilion and decking, among other aspects. Additionally, when wood from Duke trees has been ground to pulp and sold, proceeds are donated to the Duke Forest.

“Our goal is to find a second use for all our wood,” said Steve Carrow, a project manager with Duke’s Facilities Management Department. “If we’re able to save it to be used on campus or elsewhere, we’re going to do it.”

Duke has spent the past decade replanting new trees across East and West campuses. Through 2018, Facilities expects to oversee the planting of about 1,000 additional trees. By that time, a campus inventory tracking the number of trees is expected to stand at about 15,200.

“Duke is known as the ‘University in the Forest,’ and we intend to keep it that way,” Carrow said.