Creating Local Infrastructure for Building Material Reuse

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

A friend once said that our old growth forests still stand—just not in our forests. They stand in our buildings. Think about all that wood, every timber that makes up the bones of our homes, our schools and our workplaces. There’s a lot of it, and it’s reusable, along with doors, windows, tubs and sinks. The challenge is managing the removal of these materials in ways that allow us to reuse them. How do we get people to think about building waste as a critical material asset? How do we find new users of these material assets? How do we create a sustainable system with the scale and breadth necessary to make a market in reused building materials viable?

The ReBuilding Exchange is not just a place to find affordable, salvaged and quirky building materials. It’s also a model for the kind of comprehensive infrastructure that will allow Chicagoans to manage our building material assets responsibly. Before we can tap into a stream of salvaged building material that’s fit for reuse, we have to establish a system that accounts for the range of people involved in the different stages of a material’s life cycle. A sink has many incarnations—from its conception, design and manufacture, to its installation, use and removal. We must consider how this entire cycle impacts people, our economies, and our environments, both locally and more broadly. When policymakers, designers, fabricators, homeowners, contractors, and salvage retailers work in concert, building materials can be reused by neighbors throughout the city.

Our biggest challenge is pinpointing where in the system we should intervene to start building the capacity needed to trigger broad change. The ReBuilding Exchange invests a fair amount of our energy and resources in communications and outreach campaigns. It’s no small feat to shift the way people perceive their built environment, to help them see assets where they’ve always seen dilapidated ruins destined for the landfill. As these perspectives shift, people will begin to see opportunities to maximize value on materials, the quality of human experience, and the kind of jobs this sector brings to our neighborhoods.

In 2008, we collaborated with the University of Illinois at Chicago to survey the potential market impacts of this work and to identify successful policy initiatives from around the country. We have used information from this study to help policymakers understand the potential positive impacts of the building deconstruction and salvage industry on jobs, the local economy and our landfills. The ReBuilding Exchange is working actively with local government to direct resources and create incentives that will support this industry and realize the highest impacts in community and environmental benefits. Since 2007, the City of Chicago has had an ordinance requiring that 50% of construction and demolition materials be recycled, which covers construction on commercial and residential buildings over four units. In 2009, the language of the ordinance was expanded to include reuse in addition to recycling. We’d like to see the City extend this ordinance to residential buildings under four units and further prioritize reuse practices with direct policy initiatives that create incentives for reuse, such as fast-tracking the permitting process.

The deconstruction and salvage industry creates jobs in construction, inventory and logistics planning, warehousing and retail. The field opens onto a range of woodworking and furniture making job opportunities as well. In March 2010, we launched a job-training program that provides classroom and on-the-job skill building experience to people with criminal records. Many of the areas wealthiest in building material assets also reel from high rates of incarceration. The formerly incarcerated face significant barriers to finding jobs and entering into the trade unions, and because of this, we are preparing our program participants with a range of skills and learning opportunities. The deconstruction and reuse industry provides an entry point into the construction trades, while offering different paths and alternatives to traditional construction work.

In addition to working to influence policy and providing job training, we continue to work with other actors in the process of deconstruction and reuse. Contractors tend to take the path of least resistance and lowest cost when handling building materials at a job site, which makes reuse more difficult. We link contractors with technical resources and provide training to help them improve the deconstruction process and better manage materials for reuse. For retail customers, we provide hands-on, practical workshops that explain how individuals can incorporate unique materials in building projects and how to complete these projects themselves. We’re also educating waste haulers about the financial benefits of diverting material from landfills, and working with them to develop systems that make the diversion process more efficient.

We’ve learned that no single strategy will revamp the way Chicagoans think about building waste. We spread our resources around so that we can begin to transform many parts of a complex system at once. It will take a broad base of partners working at different points in the construction and deconstruction process to build a robust, sustainable reuse system. Now, as the deconstruction and reuse industry begins to take shape and grow, the ReBuilding Exchange is working to understand our future role in this system, so that we maximize the impact of our resources as we help to build Chicago’s reuse movement. ◊


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