Secondhand Homes

By: Matt Baker

In 2006 alone, demolition permits were issued for 4,500 single-family homes and duplexes in Chicago. If deconstructed instead, most of these materials could be reused and diverted from the landfill.

Habitat for Humanity's ReStoreBut where does that material go in the meantime? Most construction sites have only so much real estate in back yards and garages that can be devoted to material storage. Currently, there are several options.

Over fifteen years ago, the Winnipeg affiliate of Habitat for Humanity opened a ReStore, a place where contractors, suppliers and weekend warriors could donate their used or excess construction materials.

The business model is simple: ReStore sells the materials at a steep discount, serving as a perpetual fundraiser for the local affiliate. Habitat workers even occasionally use the materials in new or refurbished homes.

Today, there are hundreds of ReStores across North America, including three in the Chicago area: Chicago Heights, Elgin and Gurnee each have a ReStore and the Aurora affiliate is looking at opening one as well.
Jeremy Keen, the Elgin ReStore Manager, said that in the three years his store has been in operation, they’ve raised enough money to erect twelve more homes. According to Habitat for Humanity, some ReStores have sold enough material to erect ten extra houses a year.

The Rebuilding Exchange exteriorThey take in everything from lumber, doors and windows with or without their frames, cabinets, sheetrock and even carpet in good condition. They also take excellent condition tubs, sinks and toilets, though they’ll look past the blemishes on vintage models such as clawfoot tubs.

Keen says people occasionally leave stuff in the night, such as organs, portable toilets and even a sailboat. While these aren’t their normal stock in trade, ReStore put price tags on them anyway to see if they could keep them out of the landfill. “All these items sold,” he said.

A similar startup and the first of its kind in Chicago is The ReBuilding Exchange, a 15,000 ft2 warehouse which recently opened in the Brighton Park neighborhood. The ReBuilding Exchange is also a nonprofit venture, the work of local green economy consultants The Delta Institute.

“In just our first few days of being open for business, we’ve seen a steady stream of customers looking for everything from lumber to appliances,” said Elise Zelechowski, LEED AP, Associate Director of The Delta Institute. “We’ve heard a lot people say that they can’t believe it’s taken this long for something like the ReBuilding Exchange to come along.”

While the ReBuilding Exchange also operates on the mission of taking in used or excess building materials for resale, they go one step further. Recognizing the need to populate forthcoming green collar jobs, the ReBuilding Exchange also provides deconstruction job training and placement.

ReStore and the ReBuilding Exchange both aim to put old but useful material to work, but there are attempts to keep especially egregious materials out of landfills as well. The city of Chicago’s Household Chemical and Computer Recycling Facility recently passed the million-pound collection mark.

The facility collects many hazardous materials such as consumer electronics and pharmaceuticals, but also items commonly tossed from a job site such as fluorescent light bulbs, old paint, cleaners and solvents. “There are residents who may be unaware that leftover household products such as paints, cleaning products, batteries, and oils–when disposed of improperly–can pollute the environment and pose a threat to people’s health,” said Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Finally, the digital age that has allowed us to shop for books, cars and anything else on the web now makes green shopping even easier. Unlike its bricks-and-mortar brethren, is an online clearinghouse for used or excess construction material, where users can barter and sell their salvaged or surplus materials to other builders.

The site launched in July 2008 by three friends who met at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: two civil engineers and one computer science major. Scott Gose, the computer scientist, left his job last summer to work on CMDepot full-time. “Many general contractors have a boneyard where they throw their excess cuts, stuff that’s valuable enough to keep that they don’t want to throw away,” said Gose. “We provide the free ability to put people in touch with rehab excess.”

CMDepot also offers “material use efficiency” options to companies for a nominal charge. Using the upgraded service, companies can gain visibility into their own excess, so they can salvage first from what would otherwise be their own waste. Larger construction companies could have dozens of jobs going on across the region, with no real way to know what materials one site has that another needs.

This service precludes situations where site A buys new material that site B just threw away. If their own company doesn’t have the desired material, someone else on the service very well may have it. CMDepot’s invoice generation also allows companies to keep a paper trail of diverted waste, giving them access to several LEED MR credits.

These operations not only keep materials out of the landfill, they reduce the amount of new material produced. “In these touch economic times,” said Keen, “nobody is moving.” ReStores, The ReBuilding Exchange and CMDepot allow builders and do-it-yourselfers to add or maintain at low cost.


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