Rebuilding Exchange

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

How do you create an economically sustainable, community-based waste reuse program that engages a wide audience of users? And what about a project that both City bureaucrats and the broader community would formally support? This would maybe work in Portland, but Chicago?

That was the question I posed to myself more than 4 years ago, after visiting the The ReBuilding Center in Portland, Oregon. Members of Our United Villages, a non-profit, community-based organization dedicated to providing resources and opportunities for community residents to share ideas to inspire practices that strengthen community, decided that in lieu of traditional grant funding, they would try their hands at constructing an enterprise to support their work. So they began selling used building materials out of a staffer’s garage. With 40% of the U.S. solid waste stream being made up of building materials, they were able find a consistent supply of stuff to sell and found that neighborhood residents were eager to both donate and purchase materials for improving their homes and businesses. Ten years later, The Portland ReBuilding Center employs close to 50 people in their retail warehouse and deconstruction services program. They pay living wages and provide health benefits to all employees, many of whom were unemployed or underemployed before working with the ReBuilding Center. They’ve long since moved out of that first garage and now occupy a 60,000 ft warehouse on Mississippi Ave in Northeast Portland. Every year, staff and volunteers not only divert tons of waste from landfills, they also provide low-cost materials for residents to improve their homes, provide critical living wage jobs and hold out a model for a sustainable, community-based business. This work guarantees Our United Villages a steady stream of resources, without the restrictions that traditional grant funding often places on many organizations.

Portland’s model directly inspired the recently launched ReBuilding Exchange, a new non-profit organization dedicated to diverting waste, providing low-cost building materials to Chicago residents, creating living wage jobs for disadvantaged workers, particularly people with criminal records, and protecting natural resources. Opening the doors of our first retail location in the Brighton Parkneighborhood of Chicago in mid-February, the 15,000 square foot warehouse welcomes everyone to peruse and purchase from our collection of used building materials. People can find everything from sinks and tubs to lumber and lighting fixtures and even some materials from the Creative Reuse Warehouse for craftier building projects. Our materials arrive via donations from a variety of sites, including full-scale building deconstructions through another non-profit project partner, the ReUse People of America. In addition to selling these materials, we also use them as the basis of workshops, job training programs, and programs and events for our broad constituency, including Brighton Park residents, people with criminal records, low-income homeowners and housing developers, architects, artists, designers, and contractors. The ReBuilding Exchange is also working with local organizations such as the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council to identify programs that can use the resources of the ReBuilding Exchange in ways that would engage neighborhood residents in local rebuilding and reuse programs, including a program at Kelly High School to use reclaimed wood in their shop classes and an at-risk youth training program to renovate homes of local seniors.

I knew initiating a project like this would be challenging in Chicago, particularly one that dealt with very complicated issue of the redistribution of “waste” within city limits. Organizations like Ken Dunn’s Creative Reuse Warehouse had pioneered this kind of work years ago, and once had a location in the now redeveloped Maxwell Street area. Yet getting widespread support at that time for a building material reuse facility had its challenges.

More recently the issue of waste has taken an increasingly central role in the larger conversation about environmental and social justice issues. You can’t talk about climate change, land use, resource depletion, energy use and a struggling economy without talking about waste, particularly in the building and construction sector, a chief source for energy and resource usage. So, the issue found its way back on the table for City officials, and the timing for a reuse project like this in Chicago now was ripe.

I joined the Delta Institute at about the same time I was thinking about this project, and not long after, the decision was made to incubate the ReBuilding Exchange there. This small but mighty, Chicago based non-profit organization works on projects involving the development and protection of healthy and sustainable communities that help stimulate and drive, what we call, the green economy. Delta’s Founder and Executive Director Donna Ducharme encouraged me to mobilize Delta’s resources and partnerships to initiate and nurture the building waste project.

Delta’s resources proved to be a huge asset in the project’s growth and ultimate success. Through the strong partnerships Delta had established with other organizations, funders as well as its reputation with the City of Chicago, we were able to raise sufficient capital and identify necessary resources to open our doors. We also put out a call to volunteers, on whom we depend greatly for the activities of the ReBuilding Exchange, and received a huge outpouring of support. Even City of Chicago officials have come out to volunteer, moving and organizing building materials, painting, cleaning, among other things. Our volunteers keep the ReBuilding Exchange going and bring new ideas and energy to an ever-expanding range of programs and services. Ultimately, the goal is to make the ReBuilding Exchange an economically sustainable organization by year three of its operations, which is for us, a very exciting and seemingly attainable goal.

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