Design contest aims to encourage more climate-friendly urban redevelopment

Federal and city officials chose 1500 block N. Bethel St. in Oliver neighborhood as setting to announce design contest for new, more climate-friendly row homes incorporating more wood. (Amy Davis, 2012 / January 15, 2013)

Formstone may be out, but what about putting more wood into 21st century versions of Baltimore's classic urban dwelling, the row home?

Hoping to encourage more use of climate-friendly wood in housing, the U.S. Forest Service is teaming up with City Hall to offer $10,000 in prizes to local architects and builders who come up with the most innovative row home designs that incorporate recycled and sustainably harvested wood and wood fiber.

The "Carbon Challenge," as the design contest is called, is to be announced Tuesday morning at a press conference in the city's Oliver neighborhood.

The goal, federal officials say, is to get builders, architects and engineers to rethink the kinds of materials they use in constructing housing.

"It's a way for us to have sustainable design strategies that address climate change," Harris Sherman, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explained in an interview before the announcement.

Baltimore's row homes are traditionally clad in brick or Formstone.  But lumber is eight times more "fossil-fuel efficient" than cement and 20 times more than steel, agriculture officials say, when evaluated using a life-cycle assessment that factors in all the energy used to make a product and all the climate-warming greenhouse gases emitted.

Sherman said he hopes this contest and others his agency has sponsored around the country will lead to "more experimentation and hopefully revitalization of many communities."  Federal officials are launching a parallel contest in Providence, R.I., though that one's being done in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and is more focused on promoting affordable home designs.  Baltimore was chosen as a contest site to encourage new home design thinking in high-density communities, he said.

Promoting more use of wood in construction not only reduces greenhouse gases, it helps maintain and restore the national forests, Sherman said, by providing an economic incentive for sustainable harvesting of timber.  The forest service is part of the USDA.

Another goal of the Baltimore contest is to encourage creative re-use of salvageable wood and other materials taken from abandoned and dilapidated buildings.  The city has been trying to encourage "deconstruction" of crumbling dwellings rather than outright demolition to cut down on waste and help the city achieve its one of the goals of its sustainability plan, of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The contest, staged in cooperation with the local chapter of the American Institute for Architects and the American Plywood Association, is open to all comers.  First prize is $5,000, with $2,500 for second, $1,000 for third, and lesser amounts for special recognitions. Designs will be judged on their carbon footprint, curb appeal, cost to build and ability to stand up to storms. Deadline for entries is March 4.

For more on the contest, go here.